Cross-cultural exchange. Goodwill ambassador. Terms like these bring to mind government programs or other large-scale endeavors designed to bring strangers greater knowledge of each other. This kind of program can be wonderful, but sometimes the best cultural exchanges happen on a small scale, like the one that occurred in Durham last week when Graciela and Hector Gallegos, along with translators Patricia and Adalberto Pérez Meillon, visited from Mata Ortiz, Mexico.

Nearly every day brings fresh evidence of the demographic changes transforming the Triangle, as more and more Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Central America settle here. La Casa Multicultural. El Centro Hispano. La dentista. Iglesia Bautista. Iglesia Católica. Tiendas opening all over town. Queso, chorizo and màs harina available in Kroger. Cinco de Mayo celebrations, mariachi bands, religious pageantry unprecedented in the Protestant Bible Belt.

The average English-speaker can now recognize quite a few Spanish words, yet the general understanding of cultures south of the U.S. border remains poor and often extends only so far as requesting “La Cucuracha” while under the influence of tequila. Maybe we know something about the Mayans, or about Guatemalan weaving, or about Chiapas or endemic government corruption or the terrible conditions in the maquiladoras–but we are very unlikely to know anything about contemporary art or craft.

Thanks to the efforts of potter Pepper Fluke, the sponsorship of Clayworks and the Duke Union Crafts Center, and a City Arts grant from the Durham Arts Council, a few hundred adults and school children in Durham got to learn something from the Gallegoses about their version of an art form familiar and dear to most North Carolinians: pottery. It makes me ashamed to admit this, but until a month ago, other than enjoying flower pots and cheerful majolica ware, I had never thought about pottery-making in Mexico except in the context of the distant Mayan past. As much time as I’d spent studying the pottery of the U.S. Southwest, it had never once occurred to me to look across the border to see if pots were being made to equal those of the great modern pueblo potters like Nampeyo, Lucy Lewis, María Martínez and their artistic descendants.

Well, there are, and many of them are being made in the little village of Mata Ortiz, located in Chihuahua state near Nuevo Casas Grandes, about 150 miles south of Deming, N.M., or 200 miles southwest of El Paso, Texas. An amazing thing has happened in Mata Ortiz over the past 25 years, an artistic and economic miracle. A lost tradition has been reinvented, and, in the process, a village has transformed itself.

In the late 1960s, when Mata Ortiz resident Juan Quezada was a young man, he roamed the high plains and foothills of the Sierra Madre collecting firewood and wild plants. He would often find ancient shards of decorated pottery and became fascinated by them, studying their striking designs at home at night. These shards came from the Paquimes culture, which died about 500 years ago. Paquimes is a Nahuatl word that means the same as Casas Grandes: big houses. The Paquimes people made large, multifamily dwellings similar to those at Chaco Canyon or the pueblos further north, and there are many similarities in the pottery as well. But the Paquimes tradition was completely lost. Juan Quezada, who had only a few years of schooling, had no idea how a pot could be made, no one to ask, no books to study. So he reinvented, through trial and error, an entire ceramic technology.

After gathering wood, or working on the railroad, or doing agricultural labor, he searched for clay deposits. He figured out how to purify the clay, how to mix it for plasticity, how to form it. Out of frustration, he created a unique method that fuses molding, coiling and pinching and results in amazingly thin-walled ollas and vases. He discovered which minerals to grind for paints and learned how to fire the pots so they wouldn’t crack. But best of all, he painted beautiful designs based on the ancient shards and on what he saw around him. After a while, he sold a few pots in nearby towns. Soon, other members of his family wanted to learn the skills. By the time American anthropologist Spencer MacCallum came to Mata Ortiz in 1976, there were several competent potters there, and Juan Quezada was making pots that MacCallum thought the world should see.

To make a long story short, the world now knows about Mata Ortiz pottery, and it wants more of it all the time. Consequently, the village is poor no more. Nearly one-fifth of the population is now made up of artists who sell their intricately decorated pots for up to $2,500 apiece. An entire economy has sprung up around art.

In addition to making their work, some of the more accomplished artists from Mata Ortiz travel to show their pots and give demonstrations, workshops and slide shows. In Durham, the Gallegoses did all these things. They made Mexican children at Eastway Elementary proud to have such visitors from their home country. They inspired everyone with their almost magical skills and powers of concentration. Hector Gallegos, a big man and former cowboy, held Durham School of the Arts students in thrall as he painted complex designs with a brush made of five human hairs. By the time the Gallegoses left, the kids were pestering their teacher to let them make pots like that.

But best of all, the visitors from Mexico made the border between peoples more permeable. They enlightened and were enlightened. Just as many Americans are ignorant of Mexican culture, so are Mexicans unsure as to what they might find north of the border. Adalberto Pérez Meillon told me that before he first came to the United States, he didn’t know how it would be–he was a little scared. There was so much crime, he thought, and he didn’t know if they had any culture in the United States. Fortunately, he has found some civilization, as, I hope, did Graciela and Hector Gallegos during their visit to North Carolina. I know they went home with a big sack of Orange County red clay, a recipe for grits casserole, and a fortune in goodwill in exchange for their generous sharing of their art and culture. EndBlock