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Bookmarks of Mexico

by

Laine Farley

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A bookmark gift from a friend’s recent trip to Mexico inspired me to review my bookmarks from Mexico, revealing a range of materials and designs as well as some common themes. A fellow traveler once warned me about the temptation to buy souvenirs with the images and colors so typical of Mexico only to find them completely out of place in one’s home. The impulse to capture the spirit reflected in the designs of exotic Aztec and Mayan figures, flowers, animals, and other folk art is hard to resist but easily accommodated by the variety of bookmarks to be found. 

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A visit to a typical market in Mexico, whether in a border or coastal town or one of the colonial cities, is an overwhelming sensory experience: mounds of colorful chiles, fruits and vegetables, aromatic spices, baskets in every shape and size, vibrant textiles, and endless small souvenirs made of every material, ranging from the finely crafted to the whimsical to the garish. One of the most ubiquitous types of bookmarks is made of thin bark with brightly painted animal designs, often in dayglo colors. They are sold by street peddlers who carry fistfuls of them along with small paintings of the same type. I have a selection of these with a red goat, gold deer, pink and blue butterfly with a cactus, red cat, and many with birds of varied colors. The paintings are rather crude and the designs repeat elements, but their energy comes from the little variations such as a pearl collar on the red cat, a bird with an especially elaborate tail, or a delicacy in the painted details. The bark paper’s earthiness and irregularities and even the painter’s flaws add to their appeal. Another bookmark on leather has similar colors and a design of a bird that is probably based on the famous quetzal bird known for its brilliant coloring. This bookmark, found in a used book, is perhaps an earlier variation of the market trinket when it was still cost effective to use leather. 

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Another style of bookmark common in markets and tourist shops is made of soft wood with the top carved in the shape of an animal. Two styles, both from Oaxaca, have a similar shape to the base for the animal and have “Oaxaca” burned into the shaft. One set with an owl and a pony have the animal’s eyes and other details burned in while the set with a bird, owl and rabbit are painted in bright colors. Again, their crudeness is part of their charm. These little objects are both handmade and mass produced, a seemingly contradictory approach that has been perfected in Mexico. 

Designed for similar appeal but less successful in my opinion are the mini-serapes. Based on the brightly colored blanket-style shawls worn by men, these little woven and fringed bookmarks typically have a mix of narrow and wide colored stripes. They have been around for a long time and have changed from cotton to synthetic fabric and from traditional to more modern color combinations. The older ones are more appealing as evidenced by the blue one in my collection. The weaving is more visible in the color transitions and it has a more finished look. The cream colored serape seems more machine-made and its color palette is different so that it feels the need to proclaim it is “made in Mexico”. 

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The most charming designs are those made by the Tarahumara Indians in the state of Chihuahua. The clever design incorporates a tiny fabric doll complete with headband and full skirt, attached to a narrow, finely woven piece finished with twin knotted tassels. Bright colors prevail once again with interesting combinations of green/purple/pink, red/blue/yellow and pink/black/yellow in the samples my friend gave me. Cynthia Gorney describes the history and current lifestyle of these fascinating inhabitants of the Copper Canyon area in “A People Apart” in the November issue of National Geographic. The women are known for their weaving which they sell to tourists, and children learn and practice by making bookmarks. The skill in these tiny weavings makes me curious about the more expert examples. 

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Another friend brought an embroidered bookmark as a souvenir from Chiapas. Its pink geometric design reflects those found in the Mayan ruins in this region. Another more figural but still stylized design is used on a bookmark from nearby Oaxaca. Its colors of white, pale gold, dark green and dusty blue seem subdued compared to other designs although it captures the boldness of the calla lilies. 

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A completely different type of bookmark uses a lighter type of handmade paper to showcase bold black designs from the ruins of the Mesoamerican city of Monte Alban near Oaxaca. The stylized bird designs appear on stone sculptures or stelae found on the site. Other designs in this series include fish, figures with masks, and a serpent. A similar series of colored designs from Aztec, Mayan and Nahuatl cultures on parchment-like paper adds a long braided tassel. The Mayan design is called “Vasija cilindrica con figuras tomando chocolate” and features figures drinking from vessels, presumably a chocolate drink. Two others have animal heads and the rain god. The possibilities for interesting bookmarks using these designs are endless and they can often be found in museum shops and bookstores.

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Silver bookmarks are prevalent in Mexico but not represented in my collection. The Silver Bookmarks site has a number of good examples: 0845, 0527, and 0305. Of course, there are also traditional souvenir bookmarks with scenes of cities such as the intriguing one brought by relatives from Guanajuato that features “Callejon del Beso” or “Alley of the Kiss.” The legend that gives it this romantic name is on the reverse but in Spanish. I can make out that it’s about star-crossed lovers Ana and Carlos who stole kisses in spite of Ana’s father’s disapproval. Sad events followed and now if lovers don’t kiss while passing through this alley, they will have seven years of bad luck. 

On a trip to Oaxaca, I found bookmarks in unlikely places such as a coffee shop called La Brew. It featured a brief menu in English with some items in Spanish, and the promise of “Servicio excelente” and “Ambiente tranquilo,” needing no translation. The stationery store across from our hotel had a bookmark I wouldn’t normally have purchased, but it was the perfect reminder for our morning ritual of having licuados, a lighter version of smoothies made with papaya or mango. It’s an image of Homer Simpson eating doughnuts with a cartoon balloon saying “MMM . . . delicioso!” This unexpected and silly bookmark always brings back the memory of that time and place and even the taste of the licuados deliciosos. From market trinkets to symbols of ancient culture to Homer speaking Spanish, bookmarks evoke the best of Mexico. 

Note: The photograph of this collection demonstrates one of the methods I use to display bookmarks. Called a French (or ribbon) memo board, its criss-crossed ribbons work well to hold bookmarks of different sizes and materials.

Bookmark specifications: Quetzal bird
Dimensions: 1 1/2" x 7 3 /4"
Material: Painted bark
Manufacturer: Unknown, Mexico
Date: 2002
Acquired: Oaxaca, Mexico, Juarez market

Bookmark specifications: Pink and blue bird
Dimensions: 2 5/8" x 9 7/8"
Material: Painted leather
Manufacturer: Unknown, Mexico
Date: 1990s?
Acquired: Bookmark Bookstore, Oakland, CA; found in a used book

Bookmark specifications: Oaxaca owl
Dimensions: 1/2" x 8 1/4"
Material: Wood
Manufacturer: Unknown, Mexico
Date: 1998
Acquired: Gift from friends who visited Oaxaca, Mexico

Bookmark specifications: Oaxaca purple owl
Dimensions: 1" x 8 1/8"
Material: Wood
Manufacturer: Unknown, Mexico
Date: 2002
Acquired: Oaxaca, Mexico, Abastos market

Bookmark specifications: Blue serape
Dimensions: 1 1/4" x 7 1/2"
Material: Woven fabric
Manufacturer: Unknown
Date: 1950s or 1960s?
Acquired: Antiques and old lace antique store, Boerne, TX

Bookmark specifications: Cream serape
Dimensions: 1 3/8" x 9"
Material: Fabric
Manufacturer: Unknown
Date: 2003
Acquired: Perfumes of the Desert, Albuquerque, NM

Bookmark specifications: Tarahumara dolls
Dimensions: 5/16" x 9 1/4"
Material: Woven
Manufacturer: Tarahumara Indians
Date: 2008
Acquired: Friend who visited Copper Canyon, Mexico

Bookmark specifications: Pink Aztec embroidery
Dimensions: 2" x 6 3/4"
Material: Embroidered fabric
Manufacturer: Unknown
Date: 2003
Acquired: Friend who visited Chiapas, Mexico

Bookmark specifications: Embroidered flowers
Dimensions: 2 1/4" x 6"
Material: embroidered paper
Manufacturer: Unknown, Mexico
Date: 200o
Acquired: Village Weavers, San Antonio, TX

Bookmark specifications: Birds
Dimensions: 1 1/2" x 7 3/4"
Material: Handmade paper
Manufacturer: Unknown, Mexico
Date: 2002
Acquired: Monte Alban, Mexico

Bookmark specifications: Vasija cilindrica con figuras tomando chocolate
Dimensions: 1 3/4" x 7 3/8"
Material: Handmade paper
Manufacturer: Unknown, Mexico
Date: 2002
Acquired: Oaxaca, Mexico, bookstore
 

Laine Farley is a digital librarian who misses being around the look, feel and smell of real books.  Her collection of over 3,000 bookmarks began with a serendipitous find while reviewing books donated to the library. Fortunately, her complementary collection of articles and books about bookmarks provides an excuse for her to get back to libraries and try her hand at writing about bookmarks. Collecting Bookmarks (Physical, not Virtual) is her website. Contact Laine.

 

 

 
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