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Glass Work Disappearing on Border
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Felix Cano and Lorena Hernandez
For years Juárez has played host to tourists ready to purchase souvenirs to take home for friends and family. Shops on Benito Juárez Avenue and the Juárez market continue to offer an abundance of Mexican arts and crafts.
Juárez merchants have always managed to provide their customers with traditional Mexican handicrafts, but today one craft is rarely seen: the beautiful handblown glass for which Juárez once was famous.
The art of glass blowing was introduced to Mexico by the Spaniards in 1535. Glass blowers shape a lump of glass which ahs been softened by heat blowing air through a long pipe called a vessel. In Juárez, this method for making glass required a furnace designed to hold at least one ton of molten glass and structures called glory-holes that were used to reheat the vessel and to keep colored glass from combining with clear glass. The glass object was placed to cool in the annealing oven where the temperature is lowered slowly to prevent cracking.
The artist mixed different chemicals to make the beautiful red, purple, blue, green, and aqua familiar to glass enthusiasts. For example, an artist had to add gold to the mixture of glass to get the color red and magnesium peroxide to get purple, according to Francisco Renteria, a glass blower with 25 years experience. In the past, the artists created objects like colorful standing clowns with ruffled collars and cuffs, big shoes and hat. Other favorite items for visitors to the factory were colorful ash trays in the shape of large shells and ships, vases and fish bowls. The sizes of these items varied, such as the very popular floor vases that people used to fill with giant, crepe paper flowers.
Glass blowing used to be one of the major attractions in this area in the late 1960s. Daniel Ibarra and his brother Arnulfo brought this art to Juárez when they opened Cristales de Chihuahua in 1962. The factory included a viewing area where tourists could watch the artists creating beautiful glass objects. Soon other factories opened up specializing in this art form.
Unfortunately, the art of glassblowing is becoming increasingly rare throughout Mexico, especially in Juárez. Several factors are to blame. For one thing, the work, which has been described as dangerous, pays poorly. "Glass blowing starts getting expensive depending on the size, color, and shape figure," adds Renteria, who currently woks on the third floor of Décor, which still maintains this ancient art.
Some of the things he and fellow glassblower Gregorio Garcia make Décor are shot glasses, glass sets and elaborate dinnerware. Other objects are made only on a special order.
Another reason for the decline in this art form, adds Renteria, is that there aren't people around that qualified to do the work. He explains that the problem arises when the aging experts aren't able to continue with their work. "Unfortunately, young people do not appreciate the art of glass blowing, so that is why there are fewer workers and the factories are failing," concludes Renteria, who is among the last glass blowers left in northern Mexico. In addition, the demand for blown glass objects has fallen sharply in the past two decades.
In its place, a visitor will now find flameworked glass, which is created without blowing the glass. This from of glass resembles blown glass, but it is less time-consuming to produce per figure. Juárez glass artist Jose M. Aguilar says that it takes him five to ten minutes to complete a glass design, depending on the size and complexity. But it took him two years to learn the craft by observing others.
According to Aguilar, the essential tools required for this art are slabs of heat resistant glass, a torch and a steel table. Through a process of heating and cooling the glass, the artist is able to create all sizes of different shapes and figures. Some of the favorite subjects for these artists are animals.
Collectors often include these Mexican glass figurines in their miniature collections. Birds, seals, dolphins, elephants, rhinos, tigers and bears and others form a veritable glass menagerie.
Whether it's handblown or flameworked glass a person wants, it is still available in Juárez -- but who knows for how long?