Visiting a copper Utopia in Mexico
Story and images by Bob Schulman
If you like things made of copper, you'll go absolutely bonkers over the little town of Santa Clara del Cobre out in the western Mexican state of Michoacan. Here, the cobbled streets are lined with hundreds of shops selling everything from copper jewelry, vases, candlesticks, sinks, pots and frying pans to huge copper bathtubs – all at stunningly low prices.
Where does all the copper come from? At one time there were copper mines around these parts, but they petered out some 50 years ago. After that, the town got the word out that it would buy all the scrap copper it could get its hands on. Like old copper wiring, cables, pipes and tubes, rain gutters, roofs and even bird-splattered copper domes and spires.
Today, truckloads of the shiny metal pour into Santa Clara, much of it sent by electric companies around the country. Pieces of the scrapped stuff are first melted down in foundries into pure copper ingots, typically the size of a loaf of bread. Particular articles are then pounded into shape by teams of sweating guys taking turns whacking the red-hot ingots with sledge hammers. A single item, perhaps a plate, might be fired, hammered, flattened and dunked in tubs of water a dozen or more times before it's finished.
A spokesman at Casa Felicitas, one of the town's largest craft shops, said the shaping process “can take as little as a day to as long as a month.” He said a copper sink, for example, takes three days to make.
Just about everyone in this town of 10,000 people makes his or her living from the copper business in one way or another.
“Coppersmithing at Santa Clara has been going on for centuries,” says historian Jaime Capulli. “In pre-Hispanic times (up to 1519) the native Purepechas were the tough kids on the block because this area was one of the few spots blessed with the ore needed to make metal weapons.”
But axes and spears were no match for the cannons, swords and war horses of the Spanish conquistadors. So when troops under the barbarous command of Nuno de Guzman invaded their villages around Michoacan in the 1520s, many of the Purepechas fled to the nearby mountains.
Enter Vasco de Quiroga
When the Spanish ruling council in Mexico City finally pulled the plug on Guzman – he was sent back to Spain in chains – they sent a spiritual leader to Michoacan who'd earned a rep as a champion of Indian rights. That was Vasco de Quiroga, a Spanish lawyer-turned-cleric who was to go down in the history books as a sort of Johnny Appleseed of the Purepechas.
Quiroga took his new post with dreams of setting up an earthly paradise along the lines of Thomas More's best seller of the day, “Utopia.” In the cleric's version, paradise was to come through his “planting” of craft villages in which everyone would pitch in to make a town specialty, such as pottery, woven goods, baskets or carved wooden figures (while at the same time converting to Christianity).
A la Thomas More, family units in Quiroga's Eden cranked out the pottery, baskets and the like under the supervision of Purepecha bosses, who in turn reported to a prince-like super-boss appointed by the top brass in Mexico City.
At Santa Clara, Quiroga sparked the resurrection of coppersmithing – this time, for peaceful goods – by granting the villagers the exclusive right to produce the country's widely popular copper casos (doubled-handled cooking bowls).
You can see Quiroga's legacy today during tours of the region. Heading south from the state capital at Morelia, the tours typically stop at Santa Clara and other craft villages such as Uruapan (known for its lacquerware), Tzintzuntzan (pottery), Cuanajo (furniture), Paracho (guitars) and Patzcuaro (the region's main marketplace and home of the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga).
A welcoming caso
Visitors to Santa Clara are greeted by a 25-foot-high obelisk topped by an oversize copper caso. In the city, tourists get a delicious taste of old-time Mexico as they wander around rows of homes painted white with red tile roofs, many with colorful, high-arched entryways and Andalusian-style carved doors. Buildings are typically decorated with flowerpots, bells, elaborate doorknockers and the like – all made of copper, of course.
In the center of the main shopping area is a plaza in which a kiosk with a copper roof is surrounded by copper-painted benches. Even the garbage cans look like they're made of copper.
Getting there: Copper shoppers can fly to Morelia from U.S. hubs such as Dallas/Ft. Worth and Houston, then rent a car for an hour's drive to Santa Clara. Purchased goods can be hauled back to the airport at Morelia to be flown home, or shipped directly from Santa Clara.
Staying there: Serious shoppers can opt to spend the night at a handful of tourist-class hotels around Santa Clara including the Camino Real and the Cabanas Mi Betania. Another solution is to stay over in Morelia, where visitors have a choice of a dozen or so upscale boutique hotels in the city's colonial district or at the award-winning Villa Montana (www.villamontana.com.mx) on a hillside overlooking the town.
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