Mexican-American folk arts and crafts have thrived along the border, in rural South Texas, and in the cities since the beginning of the state. They include the production of widely varying elements of material culture, including saddles, quilts, roadside crosses, wrought-iron work, ceramics, and yard shrines. Though some crafts, such as deshilado (drawnwork), which reportedly brought good prices in the nineteenth century, are in danger of disappearing, others, such as saddle-making, have continued to thrive. In some cases, these arts and crafts perform the private function of decorating the home or other family space, thus earning their creators an important role within the Mexican-American community but bringing them no monetary compensation. From other crafts, such as guitar and piñata making, individuals may derive a true livelihood.
Mexican-American folk arts and crafts, though linked to the pottery, metal work, leather work, and weaving of the pre-Columbian, Spanish, and mestizo heritages in Mexico, have nonetheless developed from specific Tejano culture. Beginning with the establishment of missions along the border, Tejanos plied their abilities as weavers, furniture makers, and stone carvers. Their involvement grew so that by the 1850 state census approximately 16 percent of Tejano males were listed as artisans, a fact that reveals the importance of traditional arts and crafts in daily life. The involvement of Texas Mexican vaqueros on Hipólito García's Randado Ranch, as well as on the King Ranch, led to the crafting of ranch equipment that was also aesthetically pleasing. Besides his handmaking of the all-important saddle, the vaquero also produced spurs, bridles, saddle blankets, and reatas. Today, some vaqueros continue to handmake these tools of their trade.
The craft of quilting has been part of Mexican-American women's domestic arts for several centuries. They have practiced it in Zapata and Webb Counties from the arrival of the first mestizo settlers in the area in the late 1700s and early 1800s (see QUILTS AND QUILTING). In addition, they continue to carry on the tradition of puntada (knitting), costura de gancho (crocheting), and bordado (embroidery) to decorate their homes. Yard art and home altars are two other domestically based folk arts found in working-class homes. Yard art may consist of specially arranged plants in homemade planters, ceramic figures of animals, religious icons, or folk saints such as Pedro Jaramillo, a famous curandero (healer). On the other hand, home altars, with their display of private mementos and religious emblems, often occupy a private sanctuary inside the home and are usually maintained by women, some of whom are associated with Sociedades Guadalupanas, groups of women devoted to the veneration of the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe.
Other family folk-art expressions that date from the first settlements in Starr County are descansos (roadside crosses), which often consist of a cross surrounded by flowers and a marker with the name of the loved one who has died. The descansos are placed at the site of the death to mark the spot where the family believes the person's spirit left the body. These memorials can be spotted along South Texas roads where people have died in automobile accidents or other circumstances. Some of the adornments surrounding the roadside crosses may be handmade paper coronas, which, although sometimes called "wreaths" in English, literally stand for "crowns." One of the principal uses of coronas occurs on el Día de los Muertos (All-Souls' Day), a time when families honor deceased relatives by cleaning and decorating their graves. Although the art of making coronas has diminished, it can still be found along the border, where it has provided its practitioners an income.
Probably the best-known product of Mexican-American folk arts and crafts is the piñata, which, filled with candy, is used to celebrate birthdays and other festive occasions. Piñatas were originally made from clay, but many are now formed out of carrizo (river cane) and decorated with strips of brightly-colored tissue paper. The shapes, in addition to the traditional Mexican stars, burros, and cakes, may be modeled on virtually any image. For his participation at the Festival of American Folklife during the 1980s, Cipriano Cedillo, whose family has made its living in the piñata trade in Laredo, fashioned one that resembled President Ronald Reagan.
Some Mexican-American folk arts and crafts have also been produced by artisans of independent vision. Such has been the case of José Varela, who has used the native red clay of his South Texas town, D'Hanis, to sculpt clay figures that portray family members, religious icons, and toys. Varela, a first-generation immigrant, has clung to Mexican values and customs and recreated them in his work. His ceramics, which reflect barrio life, are visible throughout D'Hanis, and he has also sold many of them at a Mexican-American pulga (flea market) outside of San Antonio. By adhering to his mexicanismo, Varela has performed the most important role of the Mexican-American folk artist because he has constructed something from "bits and pieces" taken both from the community's history and the materials available for their creation, forming "a coherent and meaningful whole" for his neighbors. Thus, Varela's clay figures, which represent individuals and actions important to Mexican Americans, are made from the "bits" of the local clay factory that, once assembled, can be shared publicly in the barrio or in another culturally recognized context, the pulga.
In spite of the fact that these folk arts and crafts are the actual, as well as symbolic, property of Mexican Americans, some efforts to share them with others have occurred through exhibitions. The exhibit Art Among Us/Arte Entre Nosotros, which featured the Mexican-American folk crafts of San Antonio, was sponsored at the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1986. The exhibit Tejano Arts and Crafts in South Texas opened at the John E. Conner Museum in Kingsville in 1990 and toured the state until 1993. A third exhibition, Hecho Tejano (Texas Made), was organized by Texas Folklife Resources of Austin to feature works that have not yet been documented. This public attention outside the Mexican-American environment, in addition to the efforts of the artisans themselves, has stimulated the maintenance of Mexican-American folk arts and crafts.