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 Macarena Hernandez: A Reporter Returns to Her Roots
Macarena Hernandez

FRONTLINE/World reporter Macarena Hernández
FRONTLINE/World reporter Macarena Del Rocio Hernández traveled far into the dusty Chihuahuan desert to bring back the story of the reborn village of Mata Ortiz. The child of immigrants herself, Hernández talked with FRONTLINE/World Web site editor Sara Miles about meeting the families who stayed on.

You grew up on the border yourself, a child of immigrants. Can you talk a bit about the experiences that led you to this story?

The death of rural Mexico is a very personal story for me. My father's Mexican birthplace died a long time ago, and now my mother's ranching community is dying, too. Hundreds of other families in those villages had no choice but to come to the United States. My grandfather, my mother's father, is the only one left in La Ceja in the northern state of Nuevo Leon; he refuses to abandon his rancho. Last year, I wrote a five-part series for the San Antonio Express-News about my family's migration to the United States.

An artist making a pot

One of hundreds of artisans in Mata Ortiz.
I have always been fascinated by the migration of Mexicanos. I'm a child of immigrants, a child of the border. This story was so compelling to me: all the villages around Mata Ortiz are deserted, yet this dusty pueblito was flourishing in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert. It was truly an amazing experience.

You reported on a lot of changes in Mata Ortiz due to the explosion of tourism. Has there been any negative impact from the growth of the pottery business and the tourism it brings?

The good definitely seems to outweigh the bad. This town has managed to prosper without losing its residents to jobs in nearby cities or the United States. They built a road into town last year and residents were reassured to know they could get to a doctor in 15 minutes, instead of the 45 minutes it took when the roads weren't paved. But some potters, like Benito Meraz, really worry about the consequences of opening up this pueblito to the world. He was especially concerned about the younger generation, who now make a good living through pottery, which means they have more access to things such as drugs and alcohol. But I think he's aware there's little residents can do to stop the outside world from coming in if they want to survive. Meanwhile, Mata Ortiz continues to be a really safe place, with the challenges of any community.

Of course, some of the tourists I spoke to were not happy with the paved road. They'd say things like, "Oh, Mata Ortiz is going to lose its charm, its magic, without the dirt road."

Hernandez holds a pot

Pottery is the major source of income for families in Mata Ortiz.
Do you see any differences between the generations in the way people approach this work?

We hung out at the town's plaza one night and talked to some teenagers. We chatted with three girls, 15- and 16-year-olds, who said the last thing they wanted to do was to make pottery. But in Mata Ortiz pottery is one of the few ways to make money. And women have even fewer options for work -- mostly cleaning other people's homes. One of the girls I talked to that night actually worked at Juan Quezada's house, helping his wife with chores.

You got close to many of the potters in Mata Ortiz -- and filmed some great characters.

I've got to say, having traveled all over Mexico, the people of Chihuahua are some of the friendliest people I've ever met. They were so hospitable and generous. Josiah Hooper, who shot the piece, and I worked long hours and got to meet so many folks with interesting stories.

Artist handling a pot

Pots can sell for thousands of dollars.
It really was amazing to meet Juan Quezada. He's like a character out of a Mexican fable and deeply connected to the land. Juan speaks in proverbs and anecdotes; he has so much knowledge of the land and its resources. Aside from being a good potter, he's a good businessman and is eager to get his town's name out there. His family is very prosperous. One of his sons now sells his pieces for as much as Juan Quezada creations -- up to $10,000 each, with the average one selling for about $3,500.

Before I left, I asked Juan if anyone had written a corrido about him and he pulled out two cassettes with two different ballads, each praising him for his contributions and calling him El Maestro. His wife was so proud of the corridos -- the ultimate Mexican tribute -- that she made sure he played them for me. They were sung by musicians from Chihuahua. (Listen)

We hung out with Juan Quezada in the mountains, at his ranch house on a hilltop overlooking the town and at a family pachanga where they celebrated the birthdays of two of his grandchildren. It was a huge party, with live music, steaks and many guests -- a testament to his financial success.

Hernandez looks out the window at a deserted town

Many villages in the Chihuahuan desert are now deserted.
Benito Meraz is a different kind of character, more representative of the average potter in Mata Ortiz. He's a commercial potter who fills large orders for vendors on both sides of the border. He makes very little compared to the well-known potters in town. But he's deeply generous, honest and thoughtful. Aside from supporting his extended family through his pottery, Benito and his wife also took in an elderly woman who used to wander the streets of Mata Ortiz, and two teenagers whose parents [had] died.

How did people in Mata Ortiz deal with having you and a camera crew there? What were the reactions?

Folks in Mata Ortiz are very PR savvy -- not what you would expect to find in a Mexican pueblito in the middle of the desert. But this town has been making pottery for about three decades, and people come here from all over the world. So they're used to it.

Do you think Mata Ortiz offers a viable model for other villagers trying to stay on the land?

An artist paints a detail on to a pot

Mata Ortiz artisans use brushes made of children's hair to paint pots.
There are many villages throughout Mexico that have survived by using natural resources or specializing in leather goods, silver jewelry, guitars, rebozos or pottery. Many Mexicans I've interviewed say they wouldn't have left Mexico if there were jobs, or a way to make a living, in their hometowns. My own parents always thought their move to the United States was temporary and fantasized about going back to Mexico. But with no jobs and a shrinking agriculture business, they've really had no choice. So yes, I think the Mata Ortiz model could definitely work for other villages if the materials -- in this case clay for pots and minerals for paints -- are accessible and affordable, if not free.

What are you currently working on?

I cover northern Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley -- about a 200-mile stretch in the southernmost tip of Texas -- for the San Antonio Express-News. After being gone for more than a decade, I came back to the border, to the region my family moved to a year before I was born. It's been great to return to the place that first inspired me to tell stories.

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