Chango Mezcalero: Collectible Pottery Mezcal Bottle from Oaxaca,
black pottery / barro negro mezcal bottle
Oaxacan Clay Spirits Container Has a Curious History in
San Bartolo Coyotepec
Chango Mezcalero has become a very collectible folk art item
whose history has been recounted infrequently, if at all.
While by all accounts it originated in the State of Oaxaca,
home of mezcal the spirit distilled from the baked,
then fermented agave plant its now highly sought
after by collectors residing much further abroad.
The story of Chango Mezcalero may provide a link between the
grey, functional pottery produced in Oaxacas San Bartolo
Coyotepec initially during pre-Hispanic times, and the areas
contemporary black pottery or barro negro. Black pottery is
stated to have resulted from the 1952/53 innovation of now
famous Zapotec native potters, Doña Rosa Real and husband
Don Juventino Nieto.
What Exactly is Chango Mezcalero, the Curious Monkey-Shaped
Chango Mezcalero is a clay receptacle in the shape of a monkey,
often painted in brilliant colors, traditionally used for
mezcal. In modern times the monkey shape has been manufactured
as mainly decorative folk art, sometimes unpainted yet with
detailed etching into the grey clay, occasionally bottomless
and without a spout since its not intended for serving
The traditional Chango Mezcalero was used to hold, display
and / or gift mezcal for imbibing, and hence the name. The
clay bottle is just that, usually with a stopper made of cork,
or a small piece of corn cob.
Some of the more common poses of the monkey include eating
or simply holding a banana, arms across the chest, and one
hand in front with the other covering an eye.
Chango Mezcalero served both the tourist and local trade.
Its encountered with Recuerdo de Oaxaca (Souvenir
of Oaxaca) written on the back; and sometimes as a pair, with
the name of a man painted on the front of one figure and of
a woman on the other, suggested local use as personalized
gifts for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and other
rites of passage. Sometimes its found painted, yet with
no inscription, by no means unusual since its original function
was as a combined adornment and serving bottle kept on the
shelves of cantinas.
Chango Mezcalero´s size is usually between 8 and
9.5 in height. The traditional forms hold between about
700 ml and 1 liter, respectively.
Linking Barro Negro and Chango Mezcalero in an Historical
Eighty-year-old Don Valente Nieto, sole surviving progeny
of Doña Rosa and Don Juventino, states that anyone
else in his hometown of San Bartolo Coyotepec who maintains
that they or their deceased relatives were the creator of
Chango Mezcalero, is mistaken or misstating fact. He believes
that his father, a highly talented sculptor, was the innovator
of not only Chango Mezcalero, but other fanciful clay vessels
used for holding mezcal.
Valente reveals that it all began when cantina operators from
Oaxaca first one, followed by others started
coming to the Nieto-Real homestead, requesting the chango
bottle for keeping, displaying and selling mezcal. Eventually
other animal forms were requested and produced. While the
gifted Don Juventino created those different shapes as well,
Chango Mezcalero gained notoriety.
Valente notes the clay molds of the chango, mermaid, stylized
owl and more, tucked away as mementos of his fathers
legacy. He points to vintage photos of his parents alongside
such figures waiting to be placed in a rudimentary in-ground
oven for baking. Don Juventino died in 1973, at 70 years of
age, while Doña Rosa died some seven year later, at
Indeed Don Valentes parents are the acknowledged innovators
of barro negro, the shiny black pottery now providing the
livelihood for most townspeople in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
In fact Nelson Rockefeller was an admirer of Doña Rosa
and her barro negro, and himself had a substantial collection
of her work. Before the early 1950s innovation of black pottery,
and dating to pre-Hispanic times, villagers were producing
only utilitarian grey clay pieces such as San Bartolos
noted cantaro form.
An alternate version of the origin of Chango Mezcalero comes
from the San Bartolo Coyotepec family of Marcelo Simon Galan,
deceased. His granddaughter advises that her abuelo used to
go on trade routes with his grey clay pieces including water
bottles and pitchers. She continues that someone once asked
him to make a monkey form, he complied, and then orders began
to come in from others. He worked with the clay, while others
did the painting.
With further investigation more facts will hopefully emerge
which may lead to additional credence being given to this
version of the origin of Chango Mezcalero. For what its
worth, one of Don Marcelo´s changos is on display at
the Museo de Arte Popular de Oaxaca in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
the foregoing, and subject to further information coming to
light, if the Nieto-Real family was the creator of barro negro,
now coveted by collectors of Mexican crafts across the globe,
is it too far a stretch to suggest that perhaps the same family
was the innovator of Chango Mezcalero? As to why initially
a chango, perhaps theres a relationship between the
black-faced, monkey-feautured Memin Pinguin Mexican comic
book character, and the origins of Chango Mezcalero.
Cautionary Notes Concerning the History and Significance
of Chango Mezcalero
The foregoing is hypothesis, based on partial oral histories
and an examination of various vintage and contemporary pieces.
While some would discount the validity of oral histories vis-à-vis
Oaxacan studies, they remain an important methodology for
piecing together information including chronology; sometimes
complementing, while at other times being the only viable
research tool yielding results.
When examining the relationship between the development of
pre-Hispanic pottery traditions, barro negro and Chango Mezcalero,
one must keep at least three points in mind:
- The richness, diversity and multitude of pre-Hispanic art-forms
developed in the central valleys of Oaxaca, as evidenced in,
amongst other places, Oaxacas Rufino Tamayo Museum of
- Two oral histories exist in San Bartolo Coyotepec regarding
the origins of Chango Mezcalero, and more may come to light
(or perhaps have already been told), with the distinct possibility
that there may never be any definitive answer and perhaps
development began at roughly the same time, at different workshops;
- There may indeed be physical evidence disputing the foregoing
stories of the origin of Chango Mezcalero, and in fact close
examination of bottles suggests that at some point in time
it was produced using a different clay than that used for
making barro products in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
Despite these and other caveats, the little, often colorful
monkey-shaped mezcal bottle known as Chango Mezcalero, provides
historians with fruit for further research, and folk art collectors
with at least provisional answers to their queries.
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978.
After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law
School, thereafter embarking upon a career as a litigator.
Alvin now resides in Oaxaca where he writes, leads personalized
tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, is
a film consultant, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed &
Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
), combining the comfort and service of a Oaxaca hotel with
the lodging style of a quaint country inn
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