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an abandoned railroad line, FRONTLINE/World correspondent
Macarena Hernández travels on a gasoline-fueled trolley
into the Mexican state of Chihuahua and the rugged region where
Pancho Villa and his men once roamed. She notes that the villages
are now deserted because the timber industry died.
But one town, Mata Ortiz, has survived in this desert landscape and even prospered, and all because of one man: Juan Quezada. Locals call it "the miracle."
More than 40 years ago, as a poor boy gathering firewood, Quezada stumbled across a cave where he found ceramic pots painted by his ancestors, the Paquime Indians, a culture that died hundreds of years ago.
Quezada tells Hernández that he decided to try and make pots like the ones he found, using local materials.
"It took him years of trial and error, but finally Juan Quezada taught himself to make a good copy of the ancient Indian designs," Hernández says.
Quezada continued making pots and sold them to passing visitors. Eventually, some of the pots ended up in a secondhand store in New Mexico, where anthropologist and art collector Spencer MacCallum found them. "Those pots seemed to have a life of their own," MacCallum tells Hernández. "It's as if they stood up on their hind legs and they shouted at me, 'Look at us, we're made by someone who knows who he is.'"
MacCallum went on a search to find Quezada and, once he did, formed a partnership with the artist and introduced his pottery to a U.S. market. Quezada became famous, and his pots are now collected all over the world.
But Quezada wasn't content to achieve fame and fortune only for himself. He wanted to help others in his village become successful potters as well. "I remembered a proverb my mother used to say: 'You don't give a fish to the needy; you teach them how to fish.'" Quezada taught others his techniques, and today there are hundreds of artisan potters in Mata Ortiz, their work still inspired by the intricate Paquime designs from centuries ago. "No two artists' work is the same," Hernandez notes. "The painting alone can take days."
Another Mata Ortiz potter, Jorge Quintana, explains that all of the materials -- the different-colored clays and the paints -- can be found locally. Quintana adds that, thanks to his achievements as a potter, he's been able to travel in the United States and enjoy the satisfaction of being known as an artist.
Now, tourists and art dealers make the trek to Mata Ortiz to buy the celebrated pots. "People in the U.S. are saying this stuff is incredible," a purchaser for art galleries tells Hernández. "It has got a reputation now as being some of the best in the world."
Spencer MacCallum adds that Quezada, once a poor woodcutter, has received the Premio Nacional de los Artes, the highest honor Mexico gives to living artists. He says Quezada's life is like a fairy tale. "And it doesn't hurt a fairy tale to be true, does it?"
"We owe it to Juan; he's the teacher," says Quintana. Without Juan, Mata Ortiz would have perished like all the other desert towns.
Which is why people in the area sing ballads, corridos, in honor of
Quezada. "All of Chihuahua wants to give you thanks," one song
says. "To our great teacher, our friend, Juan Quezada."
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