As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
      Mexican Proverb


México is the most populous Spanish-
speaking country in the world. According to the latest statistics, México's total population is over 99 million. Mestizos, of Indian and Spanish blood), make up 60% of the population, followed by indigenous peoples  (30%), whites (9%), and other ethnic minorities  (1%).

Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
                     Read more

March 12, 2006

by Wendy A. Luft

A slender, blond-haired woman who just celebrated her 80th birthday, Mexico’s Dr. Ruth is an accomplished photographer, writer, teacher and physician, as well as an inveterate traveler. But she is probably best known as a friend and confidant of artisans and an avid collector – and student – of Mexican arts and crafts. Those who share her passion for this subject will recognize her from the years she worked at FONART (a Mexican government organization that assists artisans in selling and marketing their crafts) and the now defunct Museo de Artes e Industrias Populars (Museum of Folk Arts and Industries), and as the author of "Lacas Mexicanas," "Mask Arts of Mexico," and many other books and articles in which she demonstrates her expertise.

Ruth (neé Deutch) was born in Vienna, Austria. In 1939, at the age of 19, she emigrated to Mexico with her family, studied medicine in the National Autonomous University, eventually became a naturalized Mexican citizen, and married.

Her fascination with crafts first came about as the result of her father’s deep interest in archaeology. Shortly after the family’s arrival in Mexico they began traveling to pre-Hispanic sites throughout the country. Ruth found that her interests were more people oriented, and the indigenous communities, their festivities – a Huichol rainmaking ceremony, Holy Week with the Cora Indians of Nayarit -- and markets held an irresistible attraction for her, more so than the vestiges of ancient civilizations. "At first," she recalls, "I began buying what I liked and what I could afford. One of my first purchases was a piece of beautifully burnished ochre-colored pottery that I found in Ocotlán, Tlaxcala.

Then I started buying textiles, mainly to wear. At the time I couldn’t tell the difference between weaving methods, I could only appreciate the beauty of an embroidered blouse. But over the years I learned about the art behind the pieces, and that helped me appreciate the mastery of the techniques."

Little by little, Ruth’s treasures began to overtake her home…and her life. After completing medical school, she worked in a laboratory and later opened one of her own. She divided her time between her business and her travels, but her interest in handicrafts became too absorbing and she left the lab to the people who worked for her in order to devote herself full time to her passion for crafts. Her family’s move to their first apartment in the Edificio Condesa, in 1956, gave her more room to collect. But it wasn’t until she was able to obtain a connecting apartment that she decided to open her treasures to the public.

"I don’t collect simply to collect," explains Ruth. "I am attracted to well-crafted pieces because I know how much work has gone into them. I want the collection to be useful, to demonstrate this country’s many roots. This is the real Mexico and the collection is an adventure in learning about the country. I also want the collection to trace the evolution of these crafts in as much detail as possible: how they change without being lost. I go back to the same places and see changes. I’m always impressed by how things never disappear, but simply evolve." Ruth views the transformation as a fascinating process because it speaks of a vibrant culture that changes with the times and borrows from other cultures what it deems worthwhile without allowing its own heritage to disappear.

Ruth doesn’t want the collection to be broken up or to leave the country. "That is why," she explains, "several years ago, I decided to create a trust, so that even when I am no longer around it will be able to remain here and be part of Mexico’s cultural and artistic heritage."

In total, Ruth’s collection numbers about 10,000 items. Almost all have been meticulously catalogued. Closet shelves are piled high with about 2,000 pieces of textiles, some intricately embroidered, each carefully wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and divided by states, ethnic groups and towns. Over 1,200 masks, each with a unique story to tell, copper pots, ceramic plates, jewelry, miniatures, lacquered gourds, seed, yarn and feather "paintings," baskets, paper cut-outs, filigree wax altars, and trees of life are displayed on every inch of available space. They rest on tables, hang from ceilings and doors, and line shelves and floors. A macabre, yet enchanting collection of Day of the Dead art – skulls and skeletons made of papier-mâché, candy and clay – keep her company in her vivid, Mexican pink bedroom. Many of the pieces were acquired on travels to towns and villages in jungles, deserts, coasts and highlands, at religious ceremonies, crafts competitions, directly from the artisans, or at local markets.

"This collection is a testimony to the hard work and imagination of Mexico that reflects the character of its creators," she explains. "Although it is important to know how to distinguish between what is produced to serve a utilitarian or cultural function and what is made expressly to be sold, the point is not to judge a piece’s value based on that knowledge: in the end, the sale of these objects means a livelihood for the artisans."

Ruth is still looking toward the future. Her long-time dream of expanding her collection into yet a third connecting apartment has finally come true. More wall and floor space, she says "will allow me to display the pieces more effectively, to be able to separate the masks, for example, by state and region, to display more of the textiles, and also make it easier for visitors to walk around and appreciate the works as individual pieces."

Although she insists that she doesn’t have a "favorite piece" – in fact, she seems quite disconcerted that anyone would ask that question – she points out that her passion has always been textiles and masks: textiles, for their beauty and the amazing amount of work behind them, and masks, because of the significance of the dances for which they are used. "It is not a piece’s beauty or its age, uniqueness or value that make it especially precious," she explains, "but rather my own memories of the circumstances in which it was acquired."

In one corner of the museum/apartment is a table on which her publications are displayed. In her typical, self-effacing way, Ruth calls it "my ego altar."

Ruth Lechuga is an inspired teacher who loves to share her information. Her personally guided tours, which cost $15 dollars per person, include fascinating stories and insight into Mexico’s indigenous cultures. Tours are given in Spanish or English, by appointment only. Tel. (525) 533-5538.


All contents copyrighted@2004, Bob Brooke Communications
Site designed and developed by BBC Web Services.