Frontline World

Mexico - The Ballad of Juan Quezada, May 2005

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Ballad of Juan Quezada"

A Reporter Returns to Her Roots

The Man Who Discovered the Pots


Background, Population, Government, Economy, Trade and Labor

Background, Pottery, NAFTA


Streaming video

How should society support communities like Mata Ortiz?


Interview with Spencer MacCallum: The Man Who Discovered the Pots
Spencer MacCallum

Anthropologist Spencer MacCallum.
FRONTLINE/World reporter Macarena Hernández talks to Spencer MacCallum about the legend of Juan Quezada and how his discovery of Quezada's work sent him on a journey into the dusty plains of northern Mexico to find the artist. Their first meeting nearly 30 years ago set off a chain of events that has become the fairy tale of Mata Ortiz.

You go to this store in New Mexico, and you see this work not made by Native American potters. What first caught your eye?

Those pots seemed to have a life of their own. It's as if they stood up and shouted, "Look at us, we were made by someone who knows who he is." At first, I thought they were prehistoric, but they had been dirtied up by the people who brought them in to make them look prehistoric. The owner of Bob's Swap Shop in Deming, New Mexico, told me they were not old. I thought, "Could she be mistaken?" And then I began walking around the shop, all churning inside and on the outside trying to be cool. And the realization came to me so strongly; it didn't make a bit of difference if these were new or old, because they were what they were. They had their own integrity about them. So I bought them for $18 apiece. It seemed like a lot, but the woman in the shop thought they were better quality than most. And they were.

How did the pots get to Bob's Swap Shop?

The owner told me they had been traded in for used clothing by some poor people several months earlier. I like an adventure, but I also like to complete my adventures, and I thought, somewhere there's an anonymous potter out there -- See! They were unsigned -- who is making this fine work, and I wonder who she is. I assumed it was a woman, because women do the pottery work in the southwest Indian pueblos. I thought [that], to complete this adventure, I'd like to see if I can find this anonymous potter. The shop owner told me she didn't know where the people who had brought them had come from but to try Mexico first. So I crossed over into Mexico.

How hard was it to trace these pots once you were in Mexico?

There was only one paved road at the time going north to south, so there was no question of which way to go. I took pictures with me, because I didn't want to risk taking the pots, in case customs confiscated them. So, each new town I came to, I showed the pictures to every likely and unlikely person on the street -- including, one time, a police officer who thought I'd been driving too fast. After we had negotiated a $20 atonement for my sins, out came the pictures ... and the next morning I was in Nuevo Casa Grandes.

Several times, there was mention of a village called Mata Ortiz.... There was no certainty, but someone there might know. And that's how it came to be. I went out to Mata Ortiz, which was then an hour from the nearest graded road, and I got lost in the plains up there.... But luckily a logging truck came down from the opposite side of the mountains and pointed that it was [in] those mountains over there. I came into the village, and here was this little kid of about 12 years old riding on a burro [donkey] ... and out came the pictures, and he said "follow me." So I'm in a little Datsun truck, trying to follow a kid on a burro, driving that slowly through the village, and he indicated a house to me and carried on. I knocked on the door of the house, and Guillermina, Juan's wife, came to the door. At about the same time, he [Juan] came in from around the house, and I showed him the pictures. He couldn't believe anyone would take pictures of his pots, much less come down here looking for him.

What was it like to finally meet your anonymous potter?

We were at a bit of a stalemate at first, because I had thought I would find a woman potter and here was this guy. But then he took down a couple of pots from a high shelf and showed this same fine painting, and there was no question I had found my potter. What I thought would be the completion of my adventure was just the beginning of who-knows-what, even now. It was just the beginning of six years, full-time then, working with Juan in developing a market in the United States that would support the quality that he wanted to do and aspired to do.

MacCallum with Hernandez

FRONTLINE/World reporter Macarena Hernández with Spencer MacCallum.
When you first arrived in Mata Ortiz, and this would have been almost 30 years ago, what was the village like?

Mata Ortiz was very rough. The adobe had been melted down so much it looked like a ruin. People were very poor. On my first visits, the whole psychology of the people was different. When Juan and I returned from our first trip to the United States, everyone in the village came round and made a barbecue to celebrate our safe return. His family, his elderly aunts, had taken me aside before we left and told me, "You know it's dangerous out there; take care of Juan." And I said I would. We came back and told the village about all the things we had done. We'd visited the homes of collectors in Phoenix. We'd had an exhibition opening at a museum. Musicians had played for us ... beautiful things had happened. And an older man, who was listening to all of this, said to Juan, "When you ate, did you sit at the same table with the Americans?" And Juan replied, "Yes!" The old man was very impressed. Since then, the people of Mata Ortiz have become more comfortable as peers and that's nice.

Some people might think that the story of Mata Ortiz is a fairy tale -- how a small town in the middle of the desert was revived by pottery.

I often say it's a fairy tale ... pointing out how many fairy tales start with a desperately poor young woodcutter; and that's just the way it was with Juan. He would cut and gather firewood in the hills above the village. He loaded it on the family donkey -- called Minuto, because he was so small -- and carried the firewood down from the mountain. Then, he'd con his brothers and sisters into selling it door-to-door because he was so painfully shy. It's interesting that he was so shy, because Juan was the undefeated boxer of the village. So, here is the tale of Juan, who is essentially illiterate today but who has brought enormous change to his village, who has made the world a more beautiful place and who has been recognized by the government in Mexico. Several years ago, he was awarded the Premio Nacional de los Artes, which is the highest honor Mexico can give a living artist. It's the same award given to Diego Rivera. So, yes, it is a fairy tale.

The potters we spoke to all agreed that their pottery had not only helped the people of Mata Ortiz but those from surrounding communities as well.

Oh, very much. The pottery of Mata Ortiz, I'm sure, influenced the government's decision to build a museum here in Casas Grandes. The pottery has been changing the economy of the area very much. The village, even by Mexican government standards, was economically depressed, and now it has to be one of the more affluent villages in Mexico. There's something else that interests me: a silver jewelry industry has started in the village that will create economic diversification. The idea was to have a cottage industry just as with the pottery -- developing silver and, eventually, gold -- jewelry and precious stones that have their own special flavors and style, different from [those of] our American Southwest and Tasco in Mexico -- but distinctively made in Mata Ortiz.

What do you think the future holds for Mata Ortiz?

I always thought that it had the potential to become an art center -- that the distinctive styles of Macame and Mata Ortiz could become the hallmark of northern Mexico. The traditions of the North and the South are different. The pre-Columbian traditions that you see in central and southern Mexico don't really ring a response here. But this style of Paquime, of coming out of the earth of Chihuahua ... there's a tremendous opportunity for this area to become the artistic center of northern Mexico, and it's definitely doing that now.

back to top