Temalacatzingo, a large village in the municipality of Olinalá, sits high in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico. The community is nearly 95% indigenous, and the majority of its inhabitants speak Nahuatl as their first language. Olinalá is a region known for producing specialized lacquers made from chia oil and powdered stones, as well as lacquered crafts like the acclaimed decorative boxes, cajitas de Olinalá. In Temalacatzingo, craftspeople have specialized their work to the production of colorful wooden toys made from native zompantle wood and adorned with the region’s stunning varnishes. Toy making is the main source of income for the village which allows them to stay in their community.
Juan Zeferino Rivera was born in Temalacatzingo, and for him, toy making is a family affair. He began learning the process from his parents when he was just six years old, eventually mastering the artform. Today, his whole family contributes to making the toys he designs, including his grandchildren, to whom he is teaching the craft. The men do the carving and painting, and the women prepare the varnishes and paints, and polish the final works.
Juan’s toys are made entirely by hand with simple, non-mechanized tools: knives, saws, machetes, sandpaper, and cat-hair paint brushes. As he describes: “The whole process of making our pieces is part of our culture. People have been making these toys here for generations. We grow chia for the oil, walk to the river to find the tecostle stones (iron oxide or siltstone) and find our wood in the hills. […] The designs we paint on our pieces are what we learned from our parents. They are very traditional. […] But the process that is most important to my work, that makes it stand out, is the creativity I put into my pieces.”