Rancho Pint - The Mexico Page
The Basalt Sculptors
of San Lucas

Text and Photos ©2016 by J. Pint

Photo Gallery

frog-shaped mortar

 Señora Cocula holds a mortar shaped like a frog.

Basalt water filter

“See? It works!” Sculptor Victor Cocula shows off a basalt water filter.

Giant molcajete in Zacateca

Giant molcajete at Burritos de Moyahua in Zacatecas, made by Cocula family in San Lucas.

Victor Cocula at work

“I see a molcajete in here,” says Victor Cocula as he begins to shape a piece of virgin basalt at a quarry in the hills above San Lucas.

Cocula family dreaming of even bigger mortar

Members of the Cocula family of San Lucas, dreaming of turning this huge basalt rock into the world's biggest molcajete.

Paula Duran design for a molcajete

Molcajete design by Paula Duran featuring wooden base.

Adrian Rodriguez

Adrian Rodríguez with lathes and drills, which permit faster work.

Paul Duran, designer

Paula Duran at the San Lucas quarry, dreaming of new designs.






Hard work, hard rock, and mind the flying chips!

By John Pint

Victor Cocula, basalt sculptor, in San Lucas EvangelistaSan Lucas Evangelista is one of those sleepy little communities lying along the shore of Lake Cajititlán, just 20 kilometers south of Guadalajara, and 20 northwest of Lake Chapala. Well, sleepy it may appear if you walk around the plaza and fail to spot even a stray dog, but don’t be deceived by appearances. There’s plenty of activity going on behind the scenes in almost every backyard, for this little town has been home to makers of metates and molcajetes for at least 600 years and probably a lot more. Metates, of course, are flat slabs of volcanic rock for grinding lime-softened corn, while molcajetes are round mortars traditionally with three legs, used for pulverizing chili peppers, tomatoes and other ingredients used in salsas. Today, as in the past, each of these kitchen tools is hand-made from appropriate native rock which, as you might suspect, can be found in great abundance only minutes from the village.

When we first wandered into San Lucas Evangelista, we had no idea where to find the basalt sculptors, but after knocking on a few doors, we were welcomed into the home of Victor Cocula, who told us he was one of some 300 local people who follow the long standing tradition of transforming the hard local rock into practical appliances as well as works of art.

Such items, in fact, can be found in every corner of Cocula’s living room and included busts, commemorative plaques and clever water filters along with the traditional mortars. “My ancestors have been making things like these for a very long time,” Cocula told me. “In fact, only recently a neighbor dug up a metate in the local cemetery which amazed all the craftsmen of the village. It appears to be some 600 years old, decorated with the head of a dog. The quality of workmanship is extraordinary. There are no tell-tale chisel marks on it anywhere—in fact, it’s so smooth it appears to have been machined. We can’t explain how it was done, but it’s proof positive that sculptors have been at work here for a long, long time.”

By now, of course, I was dying to observe the process by which these items had been made and I immediately accepted Victor Cocula’s offer to take me to the nearby basalt mines where the rock is extracted.

It turned out the mines—quarries really—were only a half hour’s walk from the village, just up the hill on the way to El Cerro Viejo, which looms on the horizon.

We climbed down into a long, deep man-made gully which seemed to go on forever. The steep walls on either side consist of basalt boulders undermined by decades of digging, and are anything but stable. “Over the years,” said Victor’s father, “we’ve lost five people to rock falls in these mines. Two of them died quite recently.”

We arrived at the family’s favorite spot along the trench and—while his father deftly turned out a dozen “manos” (pestles), Victor walked me through the process of converting a rock into a sculpture.
“We are fortunate people here,” he told me as he tapped several rocks with a short hand pick. “If we need 100 pesos for something, we just walk up the hill to the mine and look for a rock that could be turned into a molcajete.”

He went over to a bowling-ball sized rock embedded in the wall of the trench, knocked the dirt off one spot and tapped the rock with the pointy end of his pick, producing small pits in the surface. “This rock is fine-grained but not too hard. See? All the holes are very tiny. Besides that, it has no sand embedded in it. The last thing people want is to find grains of sand in their salsa.”

He lifted the rock and, like a true Mexican Michelangelo, said: “I see a molcajete inside. I could turn this into a five-inch-diameter round one or a heart-shaped one. Now, the round one would bring me 70 pesos while the heart-shape will be worth 150 pesos, so I’ll go for the latter. OK, it looks like there’s enough rock here to put three legs on this mortar, but first I have to check if there are any natural faults.”
A few swift blows revealed just such a fault and the craftsman removed a one-inch layer, leaving the rock flat on the bottom. “Oops, not enough room for legs anymore, but it’ll still make a fine piece. Now I have to see if this rock has “hilo.”

This, he explained, means that the rock will fracture in the direction the sculptor intends, rather than “doing its own thing.”

“Qué bueno,” said Victor. “It has hilo,” and he deftly used the flat end of his pick to quickly give the rock the external shape he wanted. Then he turned the pick around and used the pointed end to begin hollowing it out. “These blows must be neither too heavy nor too light,” he commented as tiny chips flew everywhere.

“Don’t you ever get a piece in your eye? I asked, noting that neither he nor his father was wearing goggles. “Ha! All the time,” he said laughing.

“Sí sí,” chimed in his father: chips in the eye siempre!”

The rock now looked like a heart-shaped mortar and would be carried back down to Victor’s back yard for some two to three hours of fine tuning and smoothing. But before we left the mine, my companions walked me over to an enormous boulder.

“My family, the Coculas, have a project. We want to create the world’s largest molcajete. A year ago, we made one 1.7 meters in diameter and 64 centimeters high, decorated with chiles and tomatoes. It weighs between 800 and 850 kilos and is on permanent display at the original Burritos de Moyahua restaurant in Zacatecas. Someday we hope to break our record and make one over two meters long. I'm hoping this big rock might have all the right characteristics.”

It may be a while before the Coculas turn out the world's largest molcajete, but, meanwhile, if you would  like to see some of the "ordinary" creations produced by the sculptors of San Lucas, you can chat with Victor Cocula almost any Sunday at the plaza in Ajijic, where you’ll find him selling  mortars and sculptures made of basalt...or you can let Google Earth lead you to the plaza of San Lucas

Colima talent-hunters learn from Jalisco basalt sculptors

By John Pint

Adrian Rodriguez filmed by Aprecio por MéxicoWith the Colima volcano filling the air with fireworks almost daily, it is no wonder that visitors to the state of Colima are asking for souvenirs related to El Volcán.

Molcajetes  shaped like little volcanoes seemed like a good idea to Mara Íñiguez, founder of Aprecio por México, a Colima-based organization dedicated to supporting Mexican artisans.  Íñiguez then discovered the elegant and innovative molcajete designs of Guadalajara artist Paula Durán, which combine an interior of volcanic rock with a pinewood base, making the mortar much lighter, more attractive and more practical for serving hot dishes. Durán's design seemed the perfect item to offer tourists in Colima.

There was only one problem: local artisans knew very little about working basalt, the hard rock from which molcajetes are made.

Perhaps inspired by the fact that most of the so-called Volcán de Colima is in Jalisco,  Íñiguez decided to draw upon the skills of the basalt sculptors of San Lucas Evangelista on the edge of Lake Cajititlán, located about 20 kilometers south of Guadalajara.

Well, I had learned a lot about molcajete making during my previous visit to the basalt sculptors of San Lucas (see above), but had missed the part about using explosives to get at that basalt, all of which explains why I now found myself watching rocks being blown to pieces on the hillside above San Lucas.

“First I use a sledge hammer and chisel to drill a hole about three hands deep,” says artisan Adrián Rodríguez, “and then I put a packet of fine-grain gunpowder at the bottom of it.”


 For a fuse, Rodríguez used a sort of plastic drinking straw, again carefully filled with gunpowder. Techniques like this provide local sculptors with the chunks of rock they need for making—you guessed it—molcajetes, which, these days are most often crafted with the help of stone-cutting machinery and lathes. “It used to take us all day to make one molcajete,” Rodríguez told me, “but with machines we can turn them out fast. I just filled an order for one thousand.”

As he spoke, Rodríguez' techniques were being filmed by audiovisual specialist Cecilia Guerrero for a documentary which she and Íñiguez will present to Colima officials for the benefit of local sculptors who want to catch up with their Jalisco cousins.

“Aprecio por México,” says Íñiguez, “has been working on projects like this one for four years. We have helped artisans teach people how to make charming Catrinas (elegantly dressed skeletons for the Day of the Dead) out of cardboard and we got herbalists to teach the public about medicinal plants. We've rescued traditional textile-making techniques and nearly forgotten recipes. Maybe the most memorable of them was the complicated process for baking an Ante Colimate, a kind of cake containing pine nuts, coconuts, pineapple, lemon and liquor, which is served inside of a wicker birdcage. It takes three days to make it and there's a very ancient ritual for presenting it.”

Mara Íñiguez (right) with Ante Colimate cake

I asked Íñiguez how she got started assisting artisans.

“It all began with pinwheels,” she told me. “I was traveling in Puebla and on the roadside  I saw the most amazing pinwheels. They were large and made of wood, carved into the shapes of birds and flowers. They were gorgeous and I offered to present the craftsman's work in other places so he would become known. That was where it all began. I became a sort of cazatalentos, a talent hunter.”

Aprecio por México can be reached by phone at CELL 312 554 4000 and on Facebook . For the time being, you won't find the cool basalt-and-pine molcajetes there, but you soon will. I bet there are already a few Colima sculptors trying to figure out where to obtain gunpowder at this very moment.

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