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Immaterial: Clay Transcript

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[Sound of clay being mixed. Music]

Eleanor Kagan: Thank you. That makes a lot of sense. I am curious: what goes through your mind when you’re working on a piece of yours?

Fernando Jimón Melchor: Bueno, en principio de cuentas es pensar a dónde, a dónde va a parar ese pedazo de Tonalá que se va.

Fernando Hernandez (Translator): Oh, this is really cool. Well, for starters, it’s just thinking about: where does this piece of Tonalá will go? That’s… that’s the first thing that comes to my mind. 

Camille Dungy: Fernando Jimón Melchor is a ceramics artist from Tonalá, Mexico, a small city outside of Guadalajara. The outside walls of his studio, Ceramica Jimón, are the same burnished orange color as many of the ceramics that sit on dusty work tables and display shelves inside. In a simple room with concrete floors, Fernando has hung decorative plates and crosses, his grandmothers miniature pots, sharp potter’s tools that look more like razors than knives, and eight huge animal masks.

Hernandez: …clay ones. He’s going to show us one.

Kagan: Oh, that’s so cool!

Dungy: That’s my producer Eleanor. And next to Mr. Jimón on a folding chair is our translator, also named Fernando. So throughout this episode, when you hear Spanish, it’ll be from Fernando the artist. And when that’s followed by English, it’ll be Fernando the translator. And when you hear something like this: [clay sounds], that will be clay.

Fernando has been making ceramics since childhood, and the legacy of Tonalá and its ceramics predates him by as much as a millennium. So when he says he thinks about where a piece of Tonalá will go, he’s talking about the literal distance, sure… but also where the idea of his home might travel.

Fernando Jimón Melchor holding a book with a photo of his great-grandfather, Zacarias Jimón, who was also a ceramicist. Photo courtesy of Fernando Hernandez

Jimón Melchor: Que guste, que guste a las personas, lo que lo que hacemos?

Hernandez: Is this going to be liked by people?

Jimón Melchor: Que lo admiren?

Hernandez: That… is this going to be admired?

Jimón Melchor: Que se enamoren del barro de Tonalá?

Hernandez: Is this going to make people fall in love with Tonalá clay?

Jimón Melchor: Que vengan y nos visiten?

Hernandez: Is this going to make people come and visit?

Jimón Melchor: Y que siempre tengan en un rinconcito en su casa algo Tonalá?

Hernandez: Is this going to be in some corner of people’s houses? Are they going to be holding a piece of Tonalá?

Dungy: When you buy a ceramic mug or a plate or a sculpture, you are buying a piece of the earth itself. 

Fernando’s pieces come in various shapes and sizes, filling up his studio. Some are fist-sized boxes or small jars covered with intricate designs. There’s a large water jug made of multicolored clay: reddish, orange, and white. It’s decorated with an eagle and a couple of nagual, which are shape-shifters with a cat’s body and grinning, human-like faces.

Interior studio of Ceramica Jimón. Photo courtesy of Fernando Hernandez

[Ambient dialogue:]

Hernandez: …I thought it was a cat

Jimón Melchor: No. Es un nagual…

Dungy: Fernando says he finds the decorating phase of his work the most peaceful. He does these detailed paintings spontaneously, painting whatever pops into his head.

The surfaces of his pieces are incredibly shiny and smooth. They engage sight, of course, and touch, but other senses too.

Hernandez: Oh, and the moment that you put water on it, it smells. It… it kind of like brings back the clay smell.

Jimón Melchor: Hueles a pura tierra mojada.

Hernandez: So he, so he’s… he’s saying like this super classic saying in Guadalajara, that we say that the land in Guadalajara smells like wet dirt, or wet clay. So “hueles a pura tierra mojada.” And that’s exactly what this smells after you pour water on it.

Kagan: What does it make you feel when you smell that?

Jimón Melchor: El olor, es como cuando… cuando en Nueva York empieza a llover.

Hernandez: It’s, it’s like as if when in New York starts raining.

Jimón Melchor: Y los ladrillos de las casas se mojan.

Hernandez: And the bricks in the houses get wet or get soaked.

Jimón Melchor: Los ladrillos de barro.

Hernandez: The clay bricks.

Jimón Melchor: Ajá, eso es lo que lo que olería. No, pues contentísimo, es, es un… es un gusto, es un orgullo, el, el, el oler, el sentir.

Hernandez: He says that when he smells this, he feels really happy and really proud.

Dungy: Did you know there’s a name for the smell of rain? Or rather, it’s a name for the phenomenon of what it smells like when dry soil gets wet. Federico Carò, a geologist and scientist at The Met, tells us it’s called “petrichor.”

Federico Carò: It’s caused by little organic molecules that diffuse in air once water gets into the material and brings up those molecules, and gets vaporized in the atmosphere around your wet soil. So clay is soil with specific properties, right?

Dungy: I don’t know Federico, you tell me! What actually is clay?

Carò: You can think about it as a living material. Even rocks: you can think about them as a living material. But clay is a natural sediment; it’s not just clay minerals. There’s a lot of other fine grain minerals as well as organic matter mixed in it. So you have clay minerals, but you have also quartz and feldspars, iron oxides, and fragments of either decayed or preserved vegetals… as well as organic, even living matter, like bacterias.

Dungy: On a molecular level, these minerals are organized in sheets and those sheets are arranged in layers. Then? Just add water.

Carò: So it gives the material this property which is called plasticity. So, first you add water to make the material plastic, so you can deform it and give it a shape, which is what allows, you know, artists and artisans to give shapes to those lumps of clay.

Dungy: Thousands of years ago, early civilizations across almost every continent found ways to make pottery from lumps of clay. A search for the material clay in The Met's online catalog brings up about 40,000 objects, but there might be even more, since clay has many names like porcelain, ceramic, and stoneware.

There are terracotta figurines and vessels from Ancient Greece; hundreds of eighteenth century British teapots.

There are works by the mid century Japanese avant-garde group Sōdeisha, where young artists wanted to make wild clay sculptures that served no specific purpose, unlike the rice bowls and teapots they were trained to create.

Carò: There’s a beautiful ceramic shell in the Greek and Roman galleries. It’s a copy of a little conch shell. It’s so beautiful in its simplicity.

Dungy: And then… there’s the búcaros. A búcaro is a type of clay vessel and The Met has two of them in its collection. They’re believed to have been made in Tonalá, Mexico in the late 1600s… still intact. Picture two red bulbous lidded vases, with spindly handles wound like vines. Made of impossibly thin clay, they’re so smooth they almost look lacquered. And tall… like, a little more than two feet tall. Totally extravagant.

Covered jars, ca. 1675–1700. Made in Tonalá, Mexico. Earthenware, burnished, with white paint and silver leaf, 27 3/4 in. (70.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Sansbury-Mills Fund, 2015 (2015.45.2a, b)

And these jars have had a remarkable journey. I want to tell the story of the búcaros, starting with the clay in the ground of Tonalá. We’ll see where it goes once it travels across the ocean, what it comes to symbolize in the homes of wealthy European women, And what those women did with these clay pieces... which I’m going to tell you now: they ate them.

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I’m Camille Dungy, and this is Immaterial.

I don’t know about you, but this podcast makes me want to touch all the art. It’s one reason we wanted to make this show feel as sensory as possible. You can’t touch the art, and neither can we… most of the time. We describe what it looks like so you can create an image of it in your mind. We talk about its texture, and its smell, and sometimes, its sound.


Jimón Melchor: El barro bruñido se hizo para sentirlo, para tocarlo.

Dungy: Fernando says that Tonalá pottery is meant to be touched. You’re supposed to breathe in that smell of wet clay—the petrichor—the smell of a land he calls home. And you’re supposed to feel that silky smooth texture and let it calm you.


Hernandez: Sorry: I, I need to make a side note. Touching this is like—how do you call it?—like super smooth. Like touching marble.

Dungy: Smoothing these pieces is an art practice called bruñido, or burnishing, which is the act of polishing the clay with a stone until it shines, no glaze or lacquer necessary. Fernando comes from over six generations of potters who have made ceramics in this tradition. His great grandfather, Zacarías Jimón Basulto, born in 1888, inherited these techniques from his ancestors. And Fernando says they can trace their family lineage to the 1700s.

Jimón Melchor: En Tonalá, todo… todo gira en la tradición.

Hernandez: Everything in Tonalá revolves around tradition.

Dungy: Tonalá was a city of craftspeople under the rule of Queen Cihualpilli until one fateful day, March 25, 1530. That day marked what Fernando calls the “spiritual conquest” of Mexico by Nuño de Guzman and other Spanish conquistadors. As Fernando tells it, the Queen knew she didn’t have a chance against Guzman’s army, so instead she opted to welcome the Spanish with open arms. There was a faction of people in Tonalá who disagreed with the Queen’s approach and mounted a resistance, attacking Guzman’s troops from atop a hill. But Guzman’s men outnumbered them. Queen Cihualpilli converted to Catholicism, renounced idolatry, and was given the name Juana Bautista Danza. She remained a ruler of Tonalá. Fernando says she felt these steps were necessary to protect her people. And because of that, much of Tonalá’s history has survived.

Jimón Melchor: Y gracias a esa historia se ha... se ha convertido en un pueblo lleno de cultura, de técnicas. Y ahora en estos tiempos ha sido como un centro de comercio a nivel nacional.

Dungy: Fernando says that the surviving people of Tonalá went on to turn the town into a commercial center where traditions like those practiced by Fernando’s family, the Jimón family, still continue to this day.

It’s interesting to think about búcaros in the context of this story of the Spanish colonizing Mexico. Because ceramics are literally made of the earth. The entire process of creating ceramics is quite elemental. You dig earth out of some place in the ground, you mix it with water, shape it, throw it in the fire, and you have just created something new. On a practical level, the clay from Tonalá—thanks to its composition and porousness—is special, which makes it possible to get it as smooth as marble. And holding these pieces is a big part of their appeal because, on a spiritual level, touching this clay is an emotional experience.

Jimón Melchor: Bien, tocar el barro se siente fresco, se siente noble, es un material muy noble. Es un material que nos permite, es hasta una terapia antiestrés.

Hernandez: Ok, so touching clay, it feels like a really fresh sensation, it’s a really noble material. And it’s almost therapeutic to be touching that.

Dungy: Fernando says that clay allows us to express our feelings, because if we’re sad, we make a piece that is sad, but…

Jimón Melchor: Si estamos contentos es cuando mejor salen las piezas.

Hernandez: If we are happy, is when the pieces come out the best.

Jimón Melchor: Y hablo de nobleza en el barro porque se deja moldear, se deja trabajar. Y aparte nos da de comer.

Hernandez: So I speak of nobility about clay or generosity of clay, because it’s a material that let us work on it. It allows to be molded.

Jimón Melchor: Se deja moldear y aparte nos da de comer

Hernandez: And above all, it brings food to the table.

Dungy: So back to the history. After 1530, there was an influx of people to the “New World” (though, of course, it was only new to them). Some were European craftsmen who brought technology, including the kiln and the pottery wheel.

The craftspeople of Tonalá began to combine existing ceramics techniques with these new technologies and produced búcaros meant specifically to be exported to Spain and Italy.

Margaret Connors McQuade, who’s the Deputy Director and Head of Collections at the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, tells us about the long journey of Tonalá clay.

Connors McQuade: You know, it has to be collected. It has to be brought to the workshop, and it has to be purified. They often do that with their feet; the clay is massaged with their feet. Then it has to be formed. It has to be fired. Then it has to be put in a crate transported by land, through the mountains, laid on a ship and even from the ship, it has to be then distributed within Europe.

Dungy: Because Tonalá is near the west coast of Mexico and this was before the Panama Canal made sailing from the western North America to Europe more direct, they had to carry the clay pieces 500 miles east across Mexico, to Veracruz. There, they’d load the crated búcaros onto ships that set sail for Spain.

Connors McQuade: It’s quite a journey for these vessels. And, and they broke. That’s the other thing, I mean, it’s ceramic. And so it’s one of the great tragedies with pottery, is that it’s not uncommon even with everyone’s best efforts that they may arrive after this long journey… they may arrive broken.

Dungy: But the búcaros that survived the journey were used as seventeenth century versions of the contemporary humidifiers that infuse rooms with the pleasant aromas of essential oils. You’d fill the tall clay vessels with water. Over the course of the day, evaporating water would cool the room and suffuse it with the calming, wholesome smell of clay.

Ronda Kasl: These jars were made—literally made—of the earth of the New World and one could actually smell the New World.

Dungy: Ronda Kasl, a curator in The Met’s American Wing, studies búcaros, both in terms of how they were made and the huge phenomenon they became for Europeans.

Hearing her talk makes me imagine people lying on mats during a scorching Spanish afternoon siesta…

Kasl: …Waiting for the air to be permeated with the damp odor of these búcaros.

Dungy: They would also sip the cool, fragrant water that had come from these jars. Búcaros were immortalized in paintings by at least four prominent Spanish artists of the era, including Diego Velázquez. The jars were also mentioned in travelogs, referred to in works by the Spanish Golden Age playwright Lope de Vega, and written about in the letters of the Florentine scholar Lorenzo Magalotti.

Kasl: I’m very interested in looking at early so-called first hand eye-witness accounts of things. Not because I think they’re necessarily objective, but because I think they manifest the values of the person making the observations. I mean, I think it was Magalotti who said that these smell like America.

Dungy: It’s hard to know where trends begin, or what causes a particular health claim to emerge, but at some point, búcaros go from room-cooling, aroma wafting, New World humidifiers, to a seventeenth century European version of the master cleanse.

Connors McQuade: People are, are eating the clay, which is sort of… it’s sort of a crazy idea.

Dungy: This is Margaret again. She says that the búcaros they ate were the ones that didn’t survive the journey and broke. Those shards were either eaten whole or, more often, ground down into a powder and mixed with water.  She also says that, despite collecting jars from other regions that produced them—like Chile, and Portugal—people believed the jars from Tonalá were special.

Connors McQuade: One aspect that I found quite interesting from an eighteenth-century description of the pottery is that they were actually adding in Tonalá some nectar of a local plum to the interior of the vessels from Tonalá. And I think that that clearly must’ve been done intentionally so that it gave off, or certainly aided in this sort of wonderful smell that everyone was talking about of the pieces from Tonalá. And of course the taste… I’m not sure that particular flavor would be retained for a long period of time. But going back to the thought of marketing that clearly helped them aid in the sale of these pieces.

Dungy: Federico the geologist says that clay smells and tastes differently depending on where it’s from. So clay from Tonalá is definitely not going to smell or taste like the clay from New York City. It’s not only because of the clay minerals, but also based on whatever bacteria and other organic materials are in there.

Carò: When you train as a geologist at school, one way of recognizing rocks and soils is actually to smell them and kind of lick them. And based on the feelings you get—you know, acidity versus basic feeling on your tongue, or smells—then you can decide how much of a certain mineral is in that sample that you are smelling or licking. So there is a connection between the smells and flavors and composition of clay.

Dungy: But the fascination with Tonalá búcaros goes deeper than the taste of its clay or any plum nectar that was added.

Connors McQuade: To me, it’s almost like people were consuming a piece of the Americas, this world that was such a mystery to so many people who were unable to travel. It’s important to keep that in mind. I mean, they talked about how the búcaros des Guadalajara, the pieces made in Tonalá, were the most delicious. And so I think it’s important to really ask ourselves, why did they think that?

Dungy: Why did they think that? Why did they desire to literally consume the land they colonized? It’s impossible to know if anyone actually thought of it this way, but I wonder if, in some ways, eating the búcaros provided a way to get closer to what felt unknown.

Whatever the more philosophical reason, according to writings from the time, the people then wanted the same things that some people today want.

Connors McQuade: They felt that it was good for their skin. They would not only consume little pieces of it, but they would also rub it on their skin. They felt that it was good for their complexion. If you add clay, which was a low-fired clay and a little water, and you put it on your face, you know… we put masks on our face all the time. It’s not that much different. I think just like any fashion, it was a fad.

Dungy: Some writings from that time suggest that fashion demanded a particular shade of skin. Here’s Ronda again.

Kasl: Well, pale skinned for, for one thing. There are places where they talk about the appearance of women. And they’ll, they’ll talk about the effects of eating búcaros, not just clay, but fired clay, on typically pale lovesick women.

You know, one of the things I love about these objects is that it tells us so much about attitudes toward women and toward female beauty. And it is reflected in the broader culture, I mean in literary culture. For example, you’ll find references to it in Spanish golden age poetry and drama.

Dungy: In one example from Lope de Vega, he wonders whether one woman is pale because she’s in love or because she’s been eating clay.

Historians also wonder whether these women actually weren’t trying to achieve pale skin but instead sought the brighter, golden shade some people today get in tanning salons.

Connors McQuade: We just don’t know. We just don’t know. In the seventeenth century, what were women trying to achieve? I mean, in terms of what it may have done to our stomachs, it clearly probably caused some liver damage. And we know that today, if you have liver damage, your skin will turn more yellow.

Dungy: Both Ronda and Margaret shared an account from a French Countess, Maria Catherine d’Aulnoy, who traveled to Madrid in 1679 to visit the Princess Monteleone. When she got there, she was shocked and—dare I say—quite judgmental about what she witnessed. Here is her writing:


Marie Clapot (reading as Maria Catherine d’Aulnoy): I have already told you that they have even a great passion for this earth, which frequently caused them great obstructions. Their stomachs and their bellies will be swelled with it and become as hard as a stone. And they themselves, as yellow as saffron. I have mind to taste this ragu, which is so much esteemed beyond its worth. But I declare I had rather eat a piece of stone.

Connors McQuade: Which I think is pretty funny because she’s talking about how she is tempted, but she’s really… she’d rather not. She thinks it’s a little crazy. She doesn’t quite understand.

Dungy: The Countess goes on to say that the búcaros clay has “a great number of properties that are good against poison and cure an abundance of diseases.” And then, this is her final point:

Clapot: I have a great cup made of it, which holds a pint. It spoils wine that is put into it, but it makes water excellent.

Dungy: Purified water was valuable in seventeenth century Europe. So if your water was excellent, and free of disease, then your skin might be excellent too. But, perhaps, at a cost.

Kasl: I suspected it all goes back to the actual physiological effects of eating the clay, that it did make people pale. It did make them anemic. it did disrupt menstrual cycles. It had a physiological effect on people.

Dungy: The relationship between clay and medicine is a long one. Early medical records themselves were written on clay by pressing signs into its wet surface. The Met has some of the earliest forms of writing on clay, and one of those is a medical text: an Assyrian cuneiform tablet that could date as far back as the 9th century B.C.E.  But using clay as a medical treatment has a complicated history. More on that after the break.

There’s nothing new about eating clay. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates warned against eating dirt, while in the first century Pliny the Elder described medicinal uses for clay. Think kaopectate, which was originally derived from a kind of clay called kaolin. There’s also pica, which is the urge to eat anything that’s not usually considered food, like dirt or clay. These cravings sometimes arise in pregnant people or malnourished people. But every few years, you still see a kind of new agey approach to clay-eating. As recently as August of 2021, the actress Shailene Woodley made headlines for her comments on the benefits of eating clay, which she claimed “bonds to negative isotopes” and….oh… I don’t know, I can’t fully explain her reasoning. And many medical experts were quick to point out that she couldn’t either.

So thinking about all this, it’s around this point in this story that my producer Eleanor and I were starting to get a little worried about whether people are going to hear this and feel tempted to go eat some clay themselves. Eleanor took this concern to Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, a historian of science and medicine who also studies the búcaros.

Kagan: I feel like I need to make a disclaimer in this episode that like, people probably shouldn’t eat clay. Right?

Cañizarres-Esguerra: [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t think you need to say that! Hey, by all means, if you want to eat clay, go for it.

Kagan: Really?

Cañizarres-Esguerra: Of course. Why not? [Laughs]

Kagan: Have you ever eaten clay? I’m so curious.

Cañizarres-Esguerra: [Laughs] No. No, I haven’t. I never felt the impulse to, although when I visited The Met and I was getting used to all the collection of búcaros they had there. I felt like I should have some of these búcaros but I would be expelled from The Met and never invited again. [Laughs]

Dungy: I’d still say maybe don’t take your medical advice from an art podcast. But anyway, it makes sense that Jorge’s interest in búcaros made him want to use all his senses, even taste, to most completely experience the vessels.

Jorge’s studies in the history of science led him to the scientific painting technique of the Baroque artist Diego Velázquez. Velázquez is known for his expert understanding of light, geometry, and perspective. He specialized in portraits of kings and queens and everyone else in their courts,like one of King Philip the 4th of Spain, and one of his daughter. Both are hanging at The Met. But Jorge says there is one particular Velasquez work at the Prado Museum in Spain that’s really worth investigating.

Cañizarres-Esguerra: There is no Meninas without science in Velázquez.

Dungy: The “Meninas” he’s talking about is Las Meninas, which Velázquez painted in 1656. And it’s a work that scholars and art fans have been analyzing ever since, partly because of what Jorge describes as its astonishing optics and perspective. Both Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso painted homages to it in the 1950s.

Las Meninas depicts a scene from the Spanish court. The central figure is a young girl: the Infanta Margarita Theresa, the daughter of King Philip IV. Five years old, blonde, pale, and wearing a white gown that almost swallows her, the princess is surrounded by her entourage. One of the Infanta’s ladies in waiting (the titular “meninas”) curtsies beside her, serving her a silver platter, on which there’s a small, red búcaro.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656. Oil on canvas, Height: 320.5 cm; Width: 281.5 cm. Copyright © Museo Nacional del Prado

Cañizarres-Esguerra: It’s right in the middle, these red objects the Menina is giving to the Infanta. And so it became clear that it was a baked clay, and somebody made an argument that it was a búcaro from Tonalá. And so when I came across Velázquez, that is one of the things that caught my attention because Velázquez appears to be making a medical argument there as well.

Dungy: Why would someone be handing the royal child this búcaro? It could be that her lady-in-waiting is offering a drink of water infused by the earthy scent of the clay. But Jorge sees another possibility.

Cañizarres-Esguerra: He was also making a statement about the case of the Infanta Margarita who had “precocity of puberty,” according to physicians at the time. She had, apparently, early menstruation.

Dungy: What Jorge just said, “precocious puberty,” means that there is some conjecture that the Infanta started to menstruate much, much earlier than is usual for girls. Perhaps it’s worth noting here that the Infanta, who was at the time the sole heir to the Spanish crown, came from what you might call a very close-knit family. Her father was also her mother’s uncle. So it’s possible the precocious onset of puberty was a manifestation of genetic anomalies.

Cañizarres-Esguerra: Given her age and the work, there was preoccupation in the court about that. And so the búcaros eating, it addresses that issue directly.

Dungy: In addition to changing the color of skin and protecting against poisons, people believed that eating the Tonalá búcaros worked in the same way that birth control does today, by regulating pain and other symptoms that accompany menstruation for some people, and acting as a form of contraception for others.

Cañizarres-Esguerra: So out of that painting, I became interested in búcaros in general and the role in courts, precisely because it allowed them to enjoy sex without having to worry about pregnancy.

Dungy: Jorge even tells us that nuns ate búcaros to bring them visions of God.

These bucarós seemed to offer something for everyone who took a swig or a nibble. And so, I’m curious: what did they taste like? Here’s Margaret:

Connors McQuade: Certainly I've smelled them. I haven’t tasted them; as a curator it would be not necessarily well-taken for me to just take a bite of these pottery. But I've certainly smelled them. I mean, they have this wonderful kind of earthy smell. But you could see how someone could be just really taken by this idea of smelling the earth from another land, from a distant land.

Dungy: It’s interesting to think about the nature of belief. How great would it be to be able to buy just one object that would fix all your problems... it would make you beautiful, it would give you control over your sex life, it would protect you against toxins, it would even make the water you drink taste great, it might help you connect to God, and serve as a connection to cultures and lands beyond your own. An object like that would be something to covet. These are powerful ideas, impossible to contain once they take hold.


By the late seventeenth century, many Spanish noblewomen who collected búcaros didn’t seem to be using them as humidifiers or even drinking cups, but instead kept them in what were known as curiosity cabinets, places to store and display these signifiers of their status, wealth, and access. Margaret says that the largest known collector was a noblewoman named Doña Catalina Vélez de Guevara.

Connors McQuade: She had thousands of pieces of búcaros, which is quite astonishing.

Dungy: And the collection, which includes búcaros made in Portugal and Chile as well as Tonalá, is now in a museum in Madrid.

Connors McQuade: So today, if you go to the Museo de América to their storage rooms, you can just see shelves and shelves and shelves of these wonderful búcaros, including these wonderful jars with these twisted handles. The forms with all the dimples in them. I mean, I always think, well, what is collecting for, was she collecting just for herself? Was she collecting so that she could say ‘I have the largest collection of búcaros?’ Or was she… was she using these pieces? Was she having big parties so that people could enjoy their own piece for that evening?

Dungy: Margaret says it’s hard to know. And Ronda doubts that the two búcaros in The Met collection were ever used to store water—or nibbled upon for that matter—because their decoration is so well-preserved.

Kasl: Well you know, I… I walk through these galleries a couple of times a day and pause in front of different, different objects, depending on what catches my eye when I walk through.

Dungy: When I see them, I just think about how beautiful they are. Their color is rich and deep, almost as if blood had been baked into the dirt. It’s not orange, not red, something in between and more.

Kasl: One of the things that interests me most is to observe the reactions of visitors when they see them. I try not to eavesdrop on their conversations, but I really am interested in how they respond to them and how long they look at them and the kinds of questions they ask about them.

Dungy: These two jars are almost identical and especially ornate, with dimples pressed gingerly into their curves. Among the dimples, they’re decorated with a series of small faces, like a gallery of tiny masks watching you watching them. Ronda says that scientific testing confirms that those faces, now blackened, were once covered in silver leaf. They offer the possibility of a texture that is deeply alluring. They must be nice to hold.

Kasl: Sometimes people will recognize what they are. You know, very often if we have visitors from Mexico, they immediately recognize the pottery from Puebla because the same kinds of things are still being made. So that’s always very interesting to me, this recognition of something that is, that belongs to one’s own culture.


Dungy: Fernando Jimón thinks it’s entirely plausible that his ancestors made some of those jars. Jars that went on a journey across an ocean into those curiosity cabinets of the wealthy, and sometimes made their way to current day museums.

Jimón Melchor: Las ven como, como, como un legado.

Hernandez: People see it as legacy.

Jimón Melchor: Los ven como un legado, y las familias originarias de Tonalá y que tradicionalmente nos dedicamos al barro.

Hernandez: People that is originally from Tonalá and people that work, families that work with clay…

Jimón Melchor: Lo vemos precisamente como si mi familia haya hecho una de ellas.

Hernandez: …we see that as if we as a family made one of those pieces.

Jimón Melchor: Tristemente, no tienen firma, no sabemos quién las hizo, verdad?

Hernandez: Sadly, those búcaro jars don’t have a signature, so we don’t know who made them.

Kagan: Yeah, yeah, I, I find myself wishing I had th… I knew the names of the people who made them when they’re in a museum, you know?

Jimón Melchor: Claro, yo también, verdad? [Laughs]

Hernandez: He’s like, ‘Yeah, me too.’ [Laughs]

Dungy: We were curious if Fernando had heard about the people who ate the búcaros. Like, how must it feel to know there were people eating your family’s artwork? And, perhaps even more, that people believed that the clay, the land that he lived on, is somehow the secret to their health and beauty? It turns out Fernando doesn’t find the idea of women eating Tonalá clay that surprising.

Jimón Melchor: Ah, como anticonceptivo, no, pero… pero sí para, para el estómago.

Hernandez: He says not as contraception, but yes for stomachache or, ¿para dolores de estómago?

Jimón Melchor: Ajá, para dolores de estómago.

Hernandez: Stomachaches.

Kagan: Oh.

Hernandez: Not… not for birth control.

Dungy: Fernando says eating clay is a tradition among people that are about to give birth. And that two or three people have even come to his workshop asking for clay to eat.

Jimón Melchor: Porque sienten la necesidad de comer barro. [Laughs]

Hernandez: Because they feel the need to eat clay.

Kagan: What do you make of that?

Jimón Melchor: No lo sé. No lo sé. Ahora sí que.

Hernandez: He’s like, ‘I don’t know.’

Jimón Melchor: Es algo que… es algo que la mujer o las mujeres sienten en ese momento, esa necesidad, no? Tal vez de saciar el gusto.

Hernandez: He’s like, ‘It’s something that women feel like eating in that moment.’

Jimón Melchor: La sensación de masticar, tal vez, el sabor, no sé.

Hernandez: The sensation of chewing, um, the flavor, is… I don’t know.

Jimón Melchor: El sabor del barro es muy rico. Sí, lo, sí lo he probado.

Hernandez: He says that clay’s taste or clay’s, clay’s flavor? It's tasty. He says he has tasted himself.

Kagan: What does it taste like?

Jimón Melchor: A tierra mojada. [Laughs]

Hernandez: Wet dirt. [Laughs]

Dungy: That wet dirt, Fernando says, is precious. He says that there aren’t any places in Tonalá anymore where you can dig clay out of the ground yourself. Instead he buys half his clay from the neighboring towns. The Tonalá white clay is an endangered species because the city keeps building housing developments on top of the banks where the clay deposits live, and doing nothing to preserve them.

What Fernando does have control over, he hopes, is the preservation of his family’s art traditions.

Jimón Melchor: Está en peligro de extinción.

Hernandez: It’s also in, in danger of extinction.

Jimón Melchor: En Tonalá, sólo… sólo nuestra familia lo trabaja.

Hernandez: In Tonalá the barro bandera technique, it’s currently only being worked by the Jimón family.

Dungy: Barro bandera, or flag clay, uses only the colors of the Mexican flag. Red and white from the clay itself, and a natural green coloring added after the vessel is fired in a wood kiln.

Jimón Melchor: Y ahí la… y ahí la importancia que yo veo en que mis hijos continúen trabajándolo.

Hernandez: And this is the importance that I see that my children are still working with that technique.

Jimón Melchor: Porque sí, sin ninguno de ellos lo sigue trabajando, esta técnica morirá.

Hernandez: If none of my children keeps working on this technique, the bandera technique, this technique will die.

Dungy: Fernando says that he can be kind of pessimistic sometimes. He has four children, all of whom make art themselves, but it often seems to him like all they want to do is play video games. “It’s a constant war between us and technology,” he says.

According to Fernando, art is very much the engine of Tonalá’s economy. If you go to visit, you’ll encounter huge markets where artists set up their wares. But he says, you have to be careful. Some of the pieces that are sold in those markets aren’t made locally. Some aren’t even made in Mexico at all. To find the real Tonalá pottery, you have to go to an artist’s workshop. Meet them, spend time with them. Learn about their craft. And their history.

Jimón Melchor: Y creo que, creo que por lo menos alguno de mis hijos seguirá, por lo menos, espero los cuatro, pero espero que todos sigan con el… con la tradición.

Hernandez: I hope that at least one of my kids carry on with the tradition.

Jimón Melchor: Espero, espero ver el… bueno, no sé hasta donde la vida me, me permita, pero… pero hasta donde me permita ver que, que la tradición familiar sigue, continúa y que va a seguir hablando, se va a seguir hablando de Tonalá a nivel mundial.

Hernandez: I hope that as long as I’m still alive, I can see that Tonalá clay is being spoken about throughout the world.


Dungy: While Eleanor did this interview, Fernando’s 27-year-old son stood in the studio capturing a video on his iPhone. Fernando turned the conversation to another clay tradition: the tastoanes masks that hung on the wall of their workspace.

Seeing these masks, I’m reminded again of that malleable quality of clay. How Fernando called it a noble material. Because of both its molecular structure—but seemingly also its spirit—clay allows itself to be molded in the literal thousands of ways that you can see it at The Met. Yet no matter where in the world it lands, it’s a material that seems to always honor the earth that it came from.

Like every July 25th, when people of Tonalá celebrate the Fiesta de Santo Santiago. They dress up in furs, carry wood and leather shields, and wear these enormous, ornate, grotesque clay masks to honor the memory of the indigenous people who fought against Nuño de Guzman and the Spanish conquest.

Jimón Melchor: Y uno de ellos tast… uno de los tastoanes es mi hijo que aquí tiene su máscara. [Laughs]

Hernandez: And one of those tastoanes is Fernando’s son.

Kagan: Really?

Hernandez: And he’s showing us the mask? Yeah, you want to see? We would have to turn the camera back.

Kagan: Yeah.

Hernandez: Ok, what’s the name of your son?

Jimón Melchor: Fernando, también.

Hernandez: Yeah, so there are three Fernando’s in this room, Eleanor.

Kagan: Amazing.

Dungy: Fernando, the son, puts the tastoana mask on, and dances around. The mask’s wild expression snarls and swipes through the air, fangs bared, wide blue eyes unblinking, its long white horse hair shimmering and its scowl unchanging.

Fernando Jimón Melchor (the younger) showing a tastoana mask to the camera

Kagan: Wow, that’s incredible.

Hernandez: He’s doing the signature moves.

Dungy: In the Fiesta de Santo Santiago, a group of tastoanes like this engage in a ritual mock battle. They fight someone dressed as Santiago, or St. James, who bears a whip or sword and represents the Spanish Catholics. As he dances, the young Fernando exclaims from behind his mask:

Fernando Jimón Melchor (the younger): ¡Aixcaquema!

Hernandez: ¿Qué grito hiciste?

Jimón Melchor: “Aixcaquema.”

Hernandez: “Aixcaquema.”

Jimón Melchor: Qué significa “Contigo hasta la muerte.”

Hernandez: That means “with you till death.”

Dungy: The tastoanes mask Fernando wears features a lizard on one side of the face. Spiders, scorpions, a serpent slithering down its nose. Yellow bumps represent smallpox and other diseases the Spanish brought with them to Mexico. The mask, like so much of what we encountered in the studio of Ceramica Jimón, is a holdover from an Indigenous tradition inflected by the complicated questions of what and who managed to survive centuries of encounter and change. It looks heavy. Yet Fernando continues his dynamic movements. He made it himself, his father says, beaming at the camera.

Hernandez: It’s a talented family, as you can see.

Dungy: I’m Camille Dungy, and this is Immaterial.

Immaterial is produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise.

This episode was produced by Eleanor Kagan and Ariana Martinez.

Our production staff also includes Jesse Baker, Eric Nuzum, Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, and Elyse Blennerhassett.

And from The Metropolitan Museum: Sofie Andersen, Sarah Wambold, Benjamin Korman, and Rachel Smith.

Sound design by Ariana Martinez. Engineering by Ariana Martinez and Kristen Muller.

This episode includes original music composed by Austin Fisher.

Additional recording and translating by Fernando Hernández.

Fact-checking by Christine Baird.

The podcast is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos.

Additional support is provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

This episode would not have been possible without Curator Ronda Kasl in The Met’s American Wing, Research Scientist Federico Caró in the Department of Scientific Research, and Monika Bincsik, the Diane and Arthur Abbey Associate Curator for Japanese Decorative Arts, in Asian Art at the Met.

Special thanks to Sarah Cowan, Lam Thuy Vo, and ArtShack Brooklyn.

And to Marie Clapot for playing the role of the French countess.

To see Fernando’s ceramic artwork, the mask, the búcaros, and more, visit The Met’s website at

I’m Camille Dungy.