The Neglected Stonemasons of Escolásticas
The small town of Escolásticas, built on ancient volcanic rock, carves a jagged path through a high desert hill in central Mexico. Three hours northwest of Mexico City, this community of 3,000 is surrounded by sharp cacti like nopal and sun-scorched desert trees like palo dulce. Travelers could easily walk through the place without noticing more than its potholes and weathered storefronts.
Looking closer, there is much more to see.
There are perhaps 200 stone-cutting workshops in Escolásticas, all small and open-air. About 300 local men work in these workshops as artisan stone carvers and call their finished work “cantera,” a word derived from the Spanish word for “quarry.” (“Cantera” is also a generic term for a type of soft stone used in hand-carved columns, moldings, and other architectural features.)
Surprisingly few people in the world know this place exists.
The craftsmen of Escolásticas are heirs to a tradition of stone carving that dates back several millennia.
Around 3,000 years ago, sculptors working among the Olmecs – widely considered the first elaborate pre-Columbian civilization in Mesoamerica – mastered the art of sculpting the human form. More than 2,000 years later, the Aztecs were producing large stone carvings often borrowed from Olmec designs.
This feeling of shared inspiration continues to this day.
I first visited Escolásticas in January 2020, while searching with friends for story ideas on fascinating and overlooked topics. I had never seen an industrial landscape so saturated with small workshops – with chunks of volcanic stone, cantera carvings, clouds of dust and a high desert sun that seemed to scream more than it shone.
A hundred years ago, haciendas and churches in the region needed cut stone for walls, steps and tiles. The locals figured out how to do it and slowly the quality of the art started to improve.
Today, you can buy sculptures directly from the artists, and the Escolásticas cantera is exported throughout Mexico and the United States.
Without the aid of computers and other modern technology, carvers draw a basic shape on stone, then bring that shape to life using power grinding tools, hammers, chisels and, finally , sandpaper. They look at a piece of volcanic rock, remove what they don’t need, and carve almost countless animals, archangels, fountains, chimney fronts, and other designs.
When I asked a sculptor named Francisco Maldonado what he could do, he said, “I can do anything, señor. What would you like today? »
Stone carving is the dominant profession at Escolásticas. Even children will take a small hammer and bang it against a stone. Older mentors teach younger ones to carve, and so the tradition continues.
Many sculptors, I am told, die young breathing stone dust. Virtually no sign or identification of their art. In a way, anonymity is an inherited and accepted fate.
Aaron Camargo Evangelista, 29, lives in a two-room red-brick shack just off the road through town. He might throw a feather out of his pillow and hit the passing trucks at night. When Margo, my interpreter, and I first met him, he was standing beside the road carving an incredibly detailed nine-foot crow.
I asked him if he had considered showing his work on Facebook or Instagram.
“I’m not smart enough,” he says, as if his carving wasn’t proof of amazing intelligence.
Rubén Ortega Alegria, 50, said he was inspired by Michelangelo’s designs. His 10-year-old son, José Juan Ortega Contreras, also wants to sculpt. During one of my visits, José went to his father’s outdoor workshop after school to watch and learn. His father chose a moment to guide his son’s hands over the stone, so he could feel the life inside.
“You have to touch it and feel it move,” he explained. “You have to know that before you can carve it.”
Alejandro Camargo is a master sculptor. An accident he suffered at the age of 17 prevented him from doing other heavy work, and so he turned to sculpture. Now 60 years old, he relies on his sons to help him move the heavy stone, to which he gives life. He is called by other local sculptors “Maestro”.
I asked if he was talking to the stone. “Of course,” he said. “I ask the stone: ‘What do you want to be?’ And the stone speaks to me. We are friends. I listen to the stone.