The Invention of the Puuc “Tradition” of Wood Sculpture

Puuc traditional carving.

The Legacy of Antonio Salazar.

Due to the Puuc region’s relative isolation from other tourist areas in Yucatán, its handicraft production in the area has developed fairly independently. Whereas the stylistic trends originating from the handicraft producers at Pisté and Chichén Itzá have spread throughout Yucatán, the Puuc artisans focus on carving in a réplica “style” has remained more or less contained in this area, with related examples of similar woodcarving styles now appearing elsewhere in the state.  In some cases, these similar carving styles can be linked to individuals who are somehow connected to Muna or the Puuc region.

The seen in the exhibition do not represent a direct continuation of a long-lived local practice of figural wood sculptures, but can be considered an “invented tradition.” The origins of the Puuc carving tradition are embedded in larger world economic trends and the growth of travel to Mexico. Tourism increased dramatically during the period from 1970 to 2000, so that today it is the second largest source of employment in Mexico, and regularly ranks as one of the top three sources of foreign exchange. According to Alfonso Escobedo, Director of Ecoturismo, a travel agency in Mérida, annual tourism in Mexico has steadily increased from 1968, when the XIX Olympic Games were held in Mexico City. Despite the darker side of the 1968 Olympics, associated with the massacre of student protesters at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, they can be considered one of several important catalysts in the development of many service and commercial sectors linked with Mexico’s tourism industry, including the booming market for handicrafts.

The woodcarving “tradition” of the Puuc region seems to have originated from the artistic practices of Antonio Salazar, who lived in the area and who subsequently taught his process and technique to others. According to Escobedo, , Salazar began carving as a young man in the 1960s without any formal instruction. Salazar enjoyed carving figures from ancient Maya monuments, especially faces and glyphs, and their popularity among tourist buyers enabled him to open a shop close to the main road into Muna. Later, as his corpus of works and his reputation as an artisan grew, Salazar began delivering carvings to Uxmal to be sold in an on-site gift shop.

In time, Salazar was hired at the local technical school in Muna, the Escuela Secundaria #16 Doctor Jaime Torres Bodet, where he taught students woodcarving techniques. Shortly after obtaining the teaching position in the Secundaria, Salazar closed his shop and dedicated himself solely to teaching his craft to others. Miguel Uc Delgado, Wilbert Vázquez, and Jesús Marcos Delgado Kú, as well as numerous others in Muna studied with Salazar in the Secundaria before going on to work independently. Escobedo noted that they, in turn, “taught others, so it became a trade in the Muna-Puuc region.”

Jesús Delgado Kú recounts that the Secundaria “was really a woodcarving workshop,” where individuals came together to learn how to draw, basic woodcarving techniques, and the proportions of the body. He points out that while Antonio Salazar is generally considered to be self-taught in that he had no formal artistic training at a school like the one where he taught, he may have had some kind of training with the famous Colombian-Italian artist, Rómulo Rosso, best known in Yucatán for his 1956 Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Fatherland) in Mérida. Rosso bought an old hacienda in Muna as a vacation home, and he employed Antonio’s father and grandfather to do work around the property, and the young Antonio may have accompanied them. Jesús speculates that Salazar may have even received informal art lessons from Rosso himself, fanning his creative spark and helping him to develop his natural talent, which would later influence an entire generation of artisans in the Muna-Puuc region, including those whose works are featured in this exhibition, as well as various others whose work reflects the same standards of skilled workmanship and aesthetic elaboration of form.

The symposium is free and open to the public.

We encourage attendees to contact Connie Rhoton (crhoton@niu.edu, or 815-753-1474) to give us an idea of the audience size. Those who would like to purchase an on-site lunch, which will cost  $8.00, must pre-register by contacting Connie Rhoton.

Please report any site problems here.