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Wildlife
San Vicente Ceramics Without Clay
Chorotegas' Millenniums-old Tradition Could Disappear

By Oliver Pérez Picado
Photos by Pinar Istek

A few days from the start of winter, the hands of the artisans of San Vicente of Nicoya are idle due to the lack of clay and their families are distressed from not having resources.

"I've dedicated 35 years to this job and we have never lacked clay. Those who have a little bit stored are singing glory, but those of us who don't have any more are wiped out," said Gabriel Chavarría anxiously in his small ceramic shop.

Carlos Grijalba

 

For 4,000 years, using and producing ceramics have been associated with Guanacastecans in one way or another. The practice appeared some 2,000 years before Christ with the indigenous people called the Chorotegas, and its use and significance during the pre-Columbian era were domestic, symbolic and ritualistic.

Buying property
The only option that could help these inhabitants, totally dependent on this material from mother nature, get ahead is to buy a property owned by a family by the last name of Solórzano, which possesses sixteen hectares in San Vicente with an important deposit of clay.

However, the large impediment is that, though the owners have agreed to sell the estate, the price of 830 million colones (more than $1,660,000) is out of reach for the local potters.

Regardless, according to the potters, even though both the Municipality of Nicoya and the government have offered help with the purchase of this property, the promises have gotten tangled up in bureaucratic red tape and in the meantime, they have no idea how to get by short term.

A geologist from the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) recently concluded studies on this finca; but aside from this nothing has been resolved.

A ceramic vase with a warrior figure. Chorotegas were known to be polytheists. Their belief system has reflected on the designs of their craft.

 

The objective of the study, requested by the administrations of former presidents Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) and Oscar Arias (2006-2010), concluded at the end of last year, was to learn if the land really is optimal for the extraction of material for making ceramics. To date, the artisans don't know the results of the report prepared by the professional from MINAET.

For villagers from these towns, it's not a matter of just abandoning an artisan practice, but rather an ingrained tradition that has contributed greatly to the culture, outside and inside the country. The problem first manifested itself since 13 years ago has reached its climax. The clay was exhausted.

"The money we make doesn't stretch to buy basic foods, much less for school tuitions and the purchase of materials requested of our children in the elementary and high schools," indicated Elena Rodriguez, from the San Vicente Artisans Association.

For now, with the little they can make, their products are marketed in their homes, in the ceramics eco-museum in this very community and in hotels on the Santa Cruz coast.

Working with the leftovers
Since the last loads of clay that they managed to extract from a municipal property in this same community aren't pure, the pieces they mold break easily when submitted to the firing process, so all the work is in vain.

"The majority of us work with material that is leftover from another artisan… we're like a seamstress making suits from odds and ends," pointed out Bernardo Vega, president of the association.

 

Yolanda Alcocer, one of the few fortunate enough to still have clay in her shed, doesn't stop thinking about the moment when it will run out. "My daughters and I all our lives have subsisted thanks to this. We don't know what to work in when the little material we have runs out. What will we live on, what?" she asked anxiously.

Up until now, the clay for producing the artwork was pulled out of natural deposits extracted from lands donated by the Municipality. From there, two types of clay were obtained: bay clay—of a softer consistency—and black clay, which is finer and was used historically for preparing pots and comals (flat earthenware dishes).

"Now for sure there isn't any," Maribel Sanchez, Director of the San Vicente museum, commented with concern. "They have gone to the government for help; also they asked owners of the finca to sell us a few hectares but the price is too high, on top of which, of the 16 hectares they have for sale, only two have the necessary material."

The inhabitants of San Vicente haven't sat back waiting for help. They have looked for alternatives such as working with other materials, although the change would mean a variation in the pigmentation of the pieces. Sanchez says, "What we use here is a special earth; it's a mine. We've tried with other clays but they don't work: they can be formed and fired but not painted," she concluded.

Maribel Sanchez Grijalba has been making ceramics with the same technique since she was 10

 

Aside from this, the National University has sent a report to the minister of social wellbeing, Fernando Marin Rojas, about the social state in which the inhabitants live, to present the worrisome threat of losing the millenniums-old tradition that has provided a living for the artisans of San Vicente.

 

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