On most Sundays, the sound of hammers and other tools hitting stone can be heard in the burial area of ancient Xochiaca. It is a village in the Chimalhuacan area, on Mexico City’s east side.
The sounds come from stone carvers who still work on a craft that has been passed down for generations - even after the local source of stone was used up.
The village burial area, or cemetery, is filled with meter-high statues of religious figures and other beautiful stone objects.
Generations of stone carvers in Chimalhuacan also created much of the stonework found on buildings and parks in the capital’s downtown.
While carvers in other areas long ago turned to mechanical devices, the workers here use only hammers and other special hand tools.
Many are self-taught, but some, like Tomás Ugarte, age 86, learned in the traditional way. This method of rock cutting has been passed down between family members, dating back about five generations.
The rock cutters are generally older. There were about 600 official stone carvers about 10 years ago. Now, there are probably only around 300, said Carolina Montesinos Mendoza of the state office that supports traditional skills. The carvers are dying and their children generally do not want to take up the trade.
Still, the stone carvers keep the old traditions alive. Many people in the area use stone mortars and pestles made by the stone carvers. Known as “molcajetes” in Spanish, these bowl-like objects are the basic tool for making salsas.
Rev. Alberto Sandoval, who has known the stone workers since 1990, described them as “the backbone of the community."
Most of the carvers have individual work areas at home, which provide them with some money. They sell carvings for prices ranging from $500 to $2,000. But the stone carvers often do not sell much.
Unlike many craftspeople who want to see their works shown in museums, the carvers here work free of charge to create and maintain carvings for the local cemetery.
They also work for free at decorating and repairing the stonework at the 250-year-old local church, Santa María de Guadalupe.
One of the earliest signs of the stone carvers’ work is a carved stone on the ground reading “Xochiaca, home of the stone carvers.” It does not have a date.
The writing talks about a time when the lake that once covered much of the valley still touched Xochiaca. Builders would come looking for carvings and ship them to Mexico City on ships over the lake.
Juan Alfaro Bastidas, 75, is a carver, just as his father and grandfather were. He remembers going into the rock mines, or quarries, by candlelight to get blocks of stone.
But the quarries are just a memory now.
The land where the quarries stood was sold for housing developments.
Now, the carvers truck in stone from other states to the north and to the west, but sometimes from as far away as the southern state of Yucatan.
They get some help from the local government and local people.
“The neighbors have helped us out with donations of 100 or 200 pesos ($6 to $12). The people of the town buy the stone,” said Bastidas.
Asked if the trade will survive, carver Mario Olivares read a poem written on the church wall: “Your art, your tradition, your culture and the nobility of the people keep the soul of this town alive.”
I’m John Russell.
Fabiola Sanchez and Gerardo Carrillo reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
carve – v. to make a sculpture or design by cutting off pieces of the material it is made of
craft -- n. : an activity that involves making something in a skillful way by using your hands
mortar– n. a heavy, deep bowl in which seeds, spices, etc., are pounded or crushed with a heavy tool (called a pestle)
pestle – n. the heavy tool that goes with a mortar
museum – n. a building in which interesting and valuable things are collected and shown to the public
decorate – v. to make (something) more attractive usually by putting something on it
nobility – n. the quality or state of being noble in character or quality