Edible Art in Mexico's Cradle of Gum
Sculptors in Tourist Town Craft Intricate Creations for Contest
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
TALPA DE ALLENDE, Mexico -- Maria de la Luz Lopez, 80, bolted her front door, then led a guest to a workshop at the back of her house. It was only a few days until the big competition -- a highlight in this mountain town -- and she didn't want her rivals to get wind of her creations.
She lifted her artwork gently from a stack of shoe boxes: a five-piece mariachi band and a cobbler making shoes, figurines so finely crafted that you could almost feel the trumpeter's strain and the shoemaker's concentration. And they were chewable. Lopez's creations were made of gum, and this week, she competed against other gum artisans in Talpa, known locally as the Cradle of Gum.
"This is our identity," said Lopez, a three-time champion in this town of 14,000 people, high in the mountains between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta. "They don't do this anywhere else in the world."
Talpa, like many lesser-known towns in Mexico, is on a mission to boost development by attracting tourists with its centuries-old traditions. The country's tourism industry is expected to establish two records this year -- 20 million visitors and $10 billion in revenue -- and the government is trying to steer more tourists to small towns like this one through a new program called "magic towns."
The trip from Puerto Vallarta takes nearly four hours on poor mountain roads, which doesn't stop thousands of visitors each year from climbing into the Sierra Madre to visit Talpa's bright central market. The state of Jalisco is building a new highway that will cut that trip in half.
A 17th-century statue of the Blessed Virgin said to have healing powers draws religious pilgrims, but Mayor Roberto Palmera said he hoped more aggressive promotion of Talpa's gum art could lure a more general crowd. A museum showcasing the town's gum craft opened Tuesday.
Palmera said about 80 percent of the town's residents earn their living from the tourist trade, including several hundred families in the gum business. For more than a century and a half, workers from the town have trekked out to the nearby hills and extracted milky resin from the Arbol de Chilte, a rubbery tree.
The raw resin is then trucked into Talpa, where it is scrubbed clean in cold water, formed into masses of gummy dough and dried into disks that look like tortillas. Those are the raw materials for gum, which many people here chew and even more fashion into art.
In the market, where stands sell fresh goat barbecue and thick fruit rolls made from guava, artisans sell thousands of brightly colored miniature hats, baskets, flowers, fruits and sandals, all made from gum. More accomplished artists, like Lopez, sell their more intricate works from little shops in the front rooms of their homes, which line Talpa's cobblestone streets.
Lopez has been sculpting gum, known here as chicle or chilte, for 73 years. Her only tools are a pair of scissors and tweezers. She bathes the gum disks in hot water to soften them, colors them with a rainbow of vegetable dyes, then cuts and rolls them into long strings.
Sitting at a marble-top table in her home, with soft music playing in the background and cathedral bells tolling just outside the house, she snipped and picked and molded the strings into shape. A rose might take a few hours; a more complicated scene with several characters might take a couple of weeks.
She sells her creations in the front room of her house: A model of the town's cathedral with its big clock set to 8 o'clock is about $25, and finely detailed models of the town's famous Our Lady of the Rosary of Talpa sell for $10.
Lopez is known around town as maestra, or teacher, but she said she finds fewer and fewer students these days. She said the town's young women seem mostly uninterested in learning the art of their mothers.
"They come for a day or two, but then they leave," she said. "They're more interested in what's going on in the streets. But I tell them, there's nothing good in the streets."
The annual gum competition still drew several dozen of the town's best artists, who kept their creations secret until the day of the competition. At stake was the first prize of $425 and bragging rights.
Salvador Perez Barreto, 39, was one of the few men in the competition. On Sunday, he approached a city official on the street and asked, almost in a whisper, where he was supposed to drop off his entry. He, like others, had been hiding it from friends and rival artists for weeks.
A visitor asked to see his creation, and he looked around, then opened the door of his Dodge pickup. On the driver's seat, carefully hidden under a piece of white lace, was a horn of plenty, filled with perfect little fruits and vegetables -- and a roasted turkey. Last year, his entry was a gum replica of Michelangelo's "Expulsion from Paradise."
"People do this for money," Perez said. "But it's more for pride."
On Tuesday, the pride belonged to Luis Haro Torres, who won for the fourth consecutive year, with a sculpture of a man harvesting corn, which the judges said was so detailed they could see the cracks in his hands.