Friday, May 11, 2007

Digging Up the Past with Pedro Morales

Pedro stands in front of his great-grandfather's kiln.
Note the giant crack left behind by the earthquake of '76.

My name is Pedro Morales, and I am twenty-six years old. I started when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, but even when I was little, I would play in the mud and clay, making little toys, or little tiny tejas*. It was a way for me to learn the skill that was already in my blood. Every person has their art form, va? For me, making bricks and tejas is an art, and it takes a long time to learn how to do it well.

*Teja is the Spanish name for the curved clay shingles used in traditional colonial architecture. A tejar is the yard where these shingles are formed and fired. Thus the name of the town is El Tejar.

My grandfather's father built the brick kiln we use today. It has been in use for more than one hundred years, which makes it the oldest kiln in El Tejar. It was built in an older style, with arches at the base and a brick platform to support the wet clay during firing. The design of our oven is the same as the design brought by the Spaniards when they arrived in El Tejar. We call it an arch kiln, to distinguish it from the new style that we all call American kilns. In an American kiln the chamber where the wood is burned is constructed out of the unfired bricks. We have seen that our kiln is more fuel-efficient, it fires more quickly, and its design allows us a longer working season. When most other brickyards can't make bricks due to the rain, we can still make other products and we don't need bricks to run our kiln.

A photo of the oldest kiln in El Tejar. It has been built into the ground
in order to buttress the arches that support the weight of the wet bricks.

One day my grandfather's father died, while working. My grandfather was only five years old when this happened, and my great-grandmother was the only person in the family who could work. In those days, women worked just like men. My great grandmother ran the kiln, and she could make everything out of clay--bricks, floor tiles, tejas, all of it. She would carry her work all of the way to Antigua, in the days when when everyone travelled in wagons, with oxen. My great-grandmother's name was Francisca. In her time, Antigua was already filled with churches and ruins, but they were also beginning to build a lot more houses for the growing population. The demand for materials was high enough that people from El Tejar kept going back with more bricks and tejas to sell.

When I was little, my grandmother told me about the trip her father and mother took to get to Antigua. They would leave El Tejar at two o'clock in the morning, travelling by wagon to San Miguel Morazán, then San Lorenzo, then Jocotenango and finally arriving in Antigua. It took a lot to make it through the journey, because in those days there were more divisions between different villages. The people who lived in San Lorenzo were a different race, and so there was no friendship between the two villages. When tejareños would pass by San Lorenzo, they carried clubs and machetes to protect themselves from those who would try to rob their products or the money they were carrying home. It was a long journey. Of course,in even older times the tejareños had to drive all the way to Ciudad Vieja, where the Spanish built their first capital. More or less, you could say that people here in El Tejar have been helping to build the houses of those who live in Antigua for more than three centuries.

We are still working this way, still making tejas and selling them in Antigua. Lots of people here are ashamed of this art form, but I am proud to be making tejas in the kiln my great-grandfather built. Tejas have a long history, and there are still many things we don't know. For me this craft is beautiful, and it is unique in all of Guatemala. There are other places where they work with clay, but it isn't the same as our work here. Sometimes people from elsewhere come here and say "That looks easy. I could make tejas." I always say, "Go ahead!" They realize that this work is a lot harder than it looks. I can do it, because I am from El Tejar , and ever since I was little I have been taught how to make a teja.

Two sizes of tejas, after firing.

Making a teja is similar to making bread, because you need to be able to see the point when everything is just right. You need to use a really sticky clay, the kind that feels almost like chocolate. Making bricks is really easy, because you can throw the clay in a mold and then let it lie out. So long as there is no rain the brick will dry perfectly. Tejas are different, because of their shape. You work at a tablero, putting the clay into a mold we call la gradilla. From there we move the clay to a piece of wood called el galapago, which is carved into the curved form of the teja. As we work, we press grooves into the wet clay to keep its curve from collapsing. With your own hands, you must build the teja so it stand up on the earth. Your hand knows where it must pass to preserve the final form, and how to make the clay shine.

Cuadradas drying in the yard before firing.

The tejas we make are everything from two centimeters up to forty-eight centimeters, and we have even made some as long as sixty centimeters. We usually sell our materials in very large quantities, at 1.25 Q apiece or 1,250 Q (165 USD)per thousand. The price is usually higher for those in Antigua, because the contractors add their own commission and transport costs to what we charge. We pay a five percent tax to SAT (Servicio de Administración Tributaria), and we pay an annual fee to the city to have a license for our oven. Every brickyard in town has its own price, and its own set of clients in Antigua. Here, we have also worked with some other builders in the capital, on the road to El Salvador, where there are other colonial-style neighborhoods.

Pedro took me into the mountains to see the pila where his grand-
mother bathed as a child. It is still used in the rainy season, more
than two hundred years after it was built.

Regarding History

I've heard some stories about the history of El Tejar, and sometimes it's hard for me to believe all of the things that have happened right here, in this little place. I always imagine that my grandparents and great-grandparents would have known more of these stories. In their time they were almost living close to the years when the Spanish were here. Still, in El Tejar we can remember some of the history.

It might sound crazy, but I think that this whole region was once covered by a lake. All around here you see mountains, and I believe they held the water. But something happened, and the lake flooded out to one side or the other. The land underneath El Tejar has more clay that anywhere else in Guatemala. I think the clay we have here was left behind when the lake flooded, just like the mud you see in the bottom of a well that's gone dry. Well, it might have been formed by the lake, or it might have been formed by God, in the Creation. The clay begins at the base of the mountains north of town, and it goes all the way to the edge of the canyon near Chuito. If you walk up towards Durazno you can find places where the clay is fifteen meters thick. To the south, past Parramos, the land turns to stones and pumice, because it is the base of a volcano called Acatenango.

The Mayas in this area knew how to work with clay long before the Spanish arrived. They were making pottery and figurines, and they knew how to fire the clay. I know, because sometimes when we are digging we will find places in the earth where there are lots of pieces of pottery and small figurines. There are lots of people who still make similar things out of clay. I know some kids who make all kinds of little animals, and sometimes when I have free time I like to make dinosaurs out of clay. Craftsmen come from Antigua to get our clay, and they make pots and butterflies and things to sell to tourists. The clay is just something you carry in your blood.

Some of the items Pedro has found in the clay, including figurines,
a stone ball, and a small pottery flute that still plays perfectly.

There are places in the woods where you find old things, and other places where there is nothing. I think that people would go into the woods and bury all of their possessions in a place where they hoped no one would ever find them. If we uncover one piece of pottery, we usually uncover a lot of other stuff at the same time. Near my aunt's house, I know people who have found coffins with little children inside, buried really deep. Once, on my uncle's property, we found a stack of six dishes with painted images on them, all buried beneath a layer of clay that is seven meters thick. Everything is in layers, and sometimes there will be a space of five meters between places where we find things. I have found objects that are buried even deeper than the clay, in a layer of sand. When we find things that deep, they must be from a race that existed before the people who buried things in the clay.

Once when we were digging for clay, we found a pot with a lid. When we looked inside we saw a knife made of stone. There was a handle, and it had a perfect shape, but when my brother touched the knife everything but the blade fell apart, like dust. It must have been so old! How many centuries had it survived? The owner of the land was from Chimaltenango, and he liked to sell the old things people found in his clay. When he saw us with the dish he took it, but we managed to hide the knife from him. When I look at it, I think the knife must have been a special weapon for the people who buried it. No one else in El Tejar has ever found anything like it at all. They haven't even found anything made from the same kind of stone. I believe this knife was used to kill someone who the Mayas believed was invincible. For them, it was a powerful weapon, like a bomb, so they stored it very carefully.

Above, the sacred knife in question.

I imagine there are a lot more things buried in the ground. Little by little they are discovered as we take away the clay. I think the Mayas lived in the mountains as well as on the plain where we live now. There might have been classes of Mayas, just like how in these days there are rich people, middle class people, and poor people. I think the wealthy Mayas lived up on the tops of the mountains, and the other people were living down below, on farms. I think there are tombs in the mountains, but a lot of them will stay buried, because now people are selling off their land so others have somewhere to build their houses. Many things will remain buried forever, but from what I have seen, there might be even kings buried around here.

When the Spanish came they took power over every one who lived here. They made the Mayas into slaves. They realized the region was a good place for working with clay, because they could see the pottery and art being made by the people who lived here. They taught the arts of brick making, and began the first brick-making operation up in the mountains north of town. Sometimes when we are digging we find Spanish nails left behind by their carts. You know they are old because they are a very strange, triangular shape.

Here many of us are still making money with the craft that was taught to us by the Spaniards. Neither tejas or the style of houses in Antigua existed before the Spanish came. They used people as slaves, but they taught them all how to produce tejas, and when the Spanish left the traditional craft remained.

Above, dry clay is mixed with water before being pressed into a mold.

Regarding Industry

Right now we are taking clay from a piece of land owned by another Chimalteco. Even though Chimaltenango is very close, our cultures are very different. They are farmers, and they have more weaving, and they raise cattle. They don't work like we do, in the art of clay. So, this Chimalteco realized he had clay on his land, and some of his neighbors told him he could sell it to brick-makers in El Tejar. He's sold off about six cuerdas* of his clay, and there are still another four cuerdas to take away. People here pay for clay by the truck-load, usually around 75 Q per trip. Some brick makers get clay from their own land, so they don't have to pay. Our family has a place like this in the woods below town, and there is some really good clay there. We don't take clay there, though, because we are planning for a time when people no longer want to sell the clay on their land.

*One cuerda is approximately equivalent to thirty square meters.

I've heard people in town say there isn't any clay left in El Tejar, but in truth there is so much clay here that it will be here long after all of the people are gone from this place. The reality is just that there are many landlords who aren't interested in selling the clay they have on their property. They plant vegetables on their land, or else they rent the land for someone else to use. Someday soon we will still see clay all around town, but the landlords won't sell or else they will charge really high prices.

I know a man named Daniel Carillo who owns some land north of town, with a really thick layer of good clay. He doesn't want to sell it off in truckloads; instead he wants to sell the entire piece of land in one unit. For people here, the price of the whole unit is a lot of money. He's talking about millions of quetzales. We might be able to buy a piece of his land, at we could never buy all of it at once.

We have talked about forming a cooperative here, to acquire lands and to sell our materials. Unfortunately, some people didn't support it, because they weren't thinking about the future, or the benefits a cooperative could bring to all of us. There are always great ideas, and if people don't agree with the ideas they can destroy them. Ten years ago, we were all working together to form a cooperative. We were planning a warehouse where we could sell all of our materials from a single source. We were also working out how we could start moving our products to places that are farther away. It was going to be really great, because then our art could have gone far away to places where people wanted it. In the end, the people who have power in El Tejar decided they weren't interested in the cooperative. They are wealthy, and they have lots of properties, and they didn't see how much the cooperative is needed by the smaller brickyards.

We're still working on distributing our products further abroad than Antigua. There is a demand for our products in other countries, because we have made a name for ourselves, here. If you go to Antigua, you'll notice that a house with a teja roof is cool, and it feels wonderful to be inside, even when the sun is at its highest, va? At night, the house doesn't feel cold, either. If you build a terrace house with a flat concrete roof, it will feel cold in the morning, and at night it will be so hot you don't want to stay inside. As a result, tejas are becoming more popular again, especially down closer to the coast where heat is more of a concern. And even with terrace houses, the builders use tejas for decoration.

Now, there are all kinds of new materials to be made out of our clay. We don't just make the bricks and tejas, we can make anything an architect from Antigua asks us to make. We make something called a Quetzal's Breast, to be used for windowsills and eaves on new houses. If someone comes with a new design, we test the mold and if it works in the oven we will go into production.

My grandfather spent twenty-five years making tiles for the salt ponds down in Sipacete, on the coast. There were businesses there making enormous shallow pools out of clay tiles from El Tejar. They would fill the pools with sea water, and the clay tiles would help absorb the water, along with the sun. When pool was dry, workers would sweep up all of the salt with palm-frond brooms. They needed clay from El Tejar for this, because it holds up against the salt. The problem was that it was really expensive to transport the tiles all the way from El Tejar, around the side of Acatenango, and down to the coast. They tried to lower costs by using clay from near Sipacete, but the bricks they made had so much salt in them they would erode really quickly in the salt ponds. They even tried bringing some Tejareños down to the coast, giving them a house and whatever they needed, but even with our craftsmen they couldn't get their clay to work as well as the stuff we have here. The bricks came out of the kiln looking the same, but after a little while they looked like they had been made out of sugar.

Now they are using nylon, which is more expensive, but it is shaped so it gather the salt as the water evaporates. Even so, they say that the old tile ponds produce three times as much salt as the new ones. If it weren't for the cost of transport, they would still be using our tiles in Sipacete.

There are new factories near here, like IMACO, where they are producing designs that are similar to the products we make here in El Tejar. But architects from Antigua say the mass-produced tejas aren't the same as ours. In factories everything is made with presses, and no one uses their hands. Our products are the original, and there is a demand in Antigua for the craft that was left to us by the Spanish. People want our tejas so their houses will be better made, and more beautiful.

One of the many areas outside of town where brick-makers come to
collect clay.

According to law, all houses in Antigua must be constructed in a colonial style. A while back people tried to remove this law, and if they had succeeded it really would have been too much of a change in our business. We could have continued, because we could sell our tejas in Xela, San Marcos, the capital, and to people building houses down by the coast. Still, Antigua is where we see the most demand for our products. If they changed the law, houses there would begin to look really different. The age of the houses, and the heritage they enjoy there would all be completely lost. Antigua would no longer be Antigua. It seems really stupid to want to change the law, because so many people benefit from the way Antigua is built. Tourists come to spend their money in places like that, and their money eventually comes to help all of us. People here often think only of their own benefit, rather than the benefit of their entire community. There were many supporting the change, and many against it, and in the end initiative failed and the law remained in place. Even if the house is new, it needs to be built in an old style. And now Antigua is a World Heritage Site, so it is illegal to destroy an existing structure. You can only make restorations.

Imagine, if I were to destroy my great-granfather's kiln, I could never build it the same way again. Everything about it is unique, as if it were an important ruin. The adobe and bricks, and the earth around it, all have found their form. If I decided to rebuild it I would be throwing away too many years, and too much history. This kiln is the source of all of our work, and our income. It is like the pot where our family cooks all of our food. Puchica, it's a grand history our kiln has.

Since I was born I have looked at these stones, here. My granfather told me they were put there by his mother, Francisca, before he was born. Now, my grandfather lived to ninety-four years old, so when I think about how long those stones have been here, I begin to admire them.

Bricks and tejas in front of a kiln.

Pedro Relates to the Vastness of History and Earth

Some people here aren't very concerned with our history. If they dig someting up, they just throw it aside. Once my uncle found a huge jar buried in the dirt, and he just tossed it so it broke into a thousand pieces. Sometimes people here follow religions that don't allow them to value the older beliefs of the Maya. I believe in God and all that, but I also believe in the past and the people who lived before me. Imagine, if we were all drowned in a flood, and someone many years later were to find all of our belongings, for them it would be a wonderful thing, va? For me, it is the same when I see things buried in the clay.

When I find something in the mud I look at it and wonder, "What hand made this?" Usually I clean it off and keep it, because every piece is wonderful to me. So many people don't value these things. It's such a loss, and I think we are losing so much history this way. For example, the coffins they've found over near my aunt's house, I bet you could really learn a lot from studying those bones. People aren't really interested in them and they toss such things aside. Sometimes I think about going to dig, and I've even made up some plans to show where I think things lie, more or less. But most of the land is owned by landlords, so it isn't like I can just go up into the hills and start digging wherever I want.

There have been many different races in El Tejar. First, there were the Mayas. When the Spanish came, the two races mixed together and produced a new race. Many Spanish families remained here, and in town there are families named Diaz, Torres, Morales, Carillo. My grandfather told me that in his time there were only about one hundred and forty people living in El Tejar. Before that, I imagine the whole place must have been one big plantation, with Mayas living all around it. Now we have Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, and other religions. I imagine when there were Mayas here, they also had many different beliefs. I also believe the Mayas from Tecpan* were a different race from those who lived here.

I have seen the ruins at Tecpan, and I have been to the museum, but they don't have anything similar to the pieces I have at home, and like others in El Tejar have found. I imagine Tecpan was like a base, with soldiers living there. They had a leader there, and they protected their leader, because he was like the president of everyone nearby. People there were more dedicated to protecting their leader, and people here were more interested in developing their art. Some of the designs and figures we find are really incredible!

*Tecpan is a modern city sixty kilometers east of El Tejar. Pedro mentions it because it is near the ruins of Iximche, which was the sacred capital of the Kaqchikel Maya.

Pottery fragments and bottle caps lie in the dirt outside of El Tejar.