In Mexico, gold, silver, and copper have been formed into art since pre-Spanish Mesoamerica. In the Colonial period, Mexican craftsmen began working with iron and tin to make the tools, decorative art, and toys that would eventually become famous all over the world. Today, artists and craftsmen descended from that same stock and trade use their cultural inheritance and their skill to transform raw metal into something different and unique - something Mexican.
My home, San Miguel de Allende is no different than most Spanish Colonial cities in Mexico - there are simply hundreds of small artisan gift shops in plain sight or hidden away in a nook or even the odd cranny - I’m kind of a cranny man myself. In the days before coronavirus, I was on my usual “no particular place to go” patrol, when I walked into a gift shop that was part of an older home on Salida A Celaya, a major street near the center of the city (Centro). The shop was called Herriria Rosas. On the surface, it appeared similar to other Mexican gift shops, with a lot of metal art, tables, mirrors, chandeliers, and sculptures, but there was a workshop in the back of the central courtyard, where a lot of the artwork was manufactured. I have blind faith in stumbling around, and a serious need to see what’s around the next hairpin corner, so I wandered into the shop to take a look and stepped straight into another place, another time.
I took one look, turned around, put my hands on my hips, and laughed out loud. I’ve been a commercial photographer for over 50 years, and I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of great factories, but here, I felt I was walking into a desolate and medieval science fiction movie set. My eyes frantically took notes as they moved around the darkened room. You couldn’t pay to have a place like this made, because nobody could imagine it to begin with. The deeply shadowed interior was filled with a chaos of metalwork history. I could feel the presence of someone filled with serious intent and hard at work. Large hammers, saws, grinders, welding masks, torches, and other tools were everywhere. On the floor, in one open area was a heavy cast steel anvil, maybe 30 inches long, hammered to the top of an old tree stump using railroad spikes as braces. The anvil looked physically beaten to death, like an old fighter - a boxer - gasping for breath and hunched over, collapsed in the ring, taking eight counts out of ten, in this, one of his last fights. In the same corner of the room, the furnace forge burned and sparked a yellow-red shade of hell against the aged and dirt gray metal of the workshop interior. The forge looked like a small contained pool of flaming lava bubbled up from the center of the earth and spitting fire in the air. I could hear all the fierce but now silent sounds of metal being burned, bent and beaten into place. Dusty, half-finished pieces, rusted suits of armor, sculptures, tables, picture frames, intricate candelabras, ironwork gates, inventoried iron steel and tin, and large metallic pieces of trash appeared to be thrown around the room and stuck to the walls as though they were randomly shot out of a twelve-gauge shotgun. As is often the case in this country, the Mexican flag flew proudly from the ceiling, while the Virgin Of Guadaloupe provided the oddly ever-present and necessary mercy of God. In this space, I had flat out died and gone to heaven. In a country I hardly knew, I knew this space well, and I had never been here. In this space, I felt myself in a warm embrace. I closed my eyes and shook my head. It was so good to be home.
In the middle of all this gorgeous chaos stood an older Mexican man in a blue work shirt, an aged brown leather welder’s vest, and a burnt straw cowboy hat. He looked as though he had been painted into this place by Mexico’s own Diego Rivera, in one of his iconic murals from the late '20s. Alfredo Aguado Campos was his name. He was 63. In Spanish, they call him “Herrero” a blacksmith. His dark complexion seemed burned into him. Slight in height, he looked stronger than twice his weight in iron. But a gentle man with a quick laugh and an honest smile. He described himself as a metal artist. Experience and knowledge is obvious in some people simply by how they stand in place, and he stood like a piece of iron. Alfredo has been working with metal for 45 years. He learned his trade in this exact same shop at the side of Mr. Luis Rosas, the original owner, and a master metal worker. When Mr. Rosas died in 88, Alfredo took over the shop.
Alfredo was generous and invited me into the shop to watch him work. A couple of days later I brought a camera and a notebook and spent the morning with him. He moved through his tasks with a continuous and fluid sense of purpose. To do his work, he said he needs more creativity than accuracy: “what I like about this kind of work is the chance to take a piece of metal further - into something…….. more.”
Many years ago, the original owner, Mr. Rosas married Lupita, the mother of their eight. They opened the business together in 53 when San Miguel was truly a post-war “sleepy Mexican village”. Kerouac and Cassidy had just come to town, and Mr. Stirling Dickinson was helping grow the young art scene into a world cultural center. We could argue Herriria Rosas is the oldest metal shop of its kind in San Miguel. Lupita is the matriarch. When asked, she said she is “somewhere around 88….or something like that.” The unregulated and nonstop growth of San Miguel distresses her, but she continues to work, and she remains a lovely gentle Mexican woman who, with a humble smile, walks through the shop a little slower now, trailing the elegance and grace of life behind her like the long white bridal train of a newlywed. She said she will stop working “when they carry me out of here in a casket,” revealing the flecks of hard metal still beating in her heart and flowing through her veins.
I love the images from that morning. Sometimes, the processes of photography can be difficult, but getting to these photographs was not complicated at all. I didn’t do a thing. I simply greeted the images as they came out of the fire. They introduced themselves. To paraphrase the great National Geographic photographer Winfield Parks, all you need to do to create a great photograph is to “be there.” The remainder is nothing more than academics. When it’s like this with Alfredo and Lupita, the images just land in your lap like they were there all along - just waiting for you to say hello.
When we get a vaccination for COVID-19, and the virus leaves us all to live our lives in peace, consider a trip to San Miguel. And while you’re here do wander by the corner of San Antonio and Salida A Celaya. If you're here now, wear and mask and take a look at Herriria Rosas. In case you want to have a quick digital look now, consider this - they don’t have a web site - they don’t have a Twitter account - they don’t do Instagram and they don’t answer the phone all the time. They don’t care that much. They care about other, more important stuff. And that’s the truth. But you and I should care a lot. Herriria Rosas is a San Miguel original. Of that, we can be certain.