Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Tin Man of Xochimilco

Victor Hernandez Leyva has been working with tin (hojalata) for over 55 years. At age nine, he began working as an apprentice to an uncle near his home in the barrio Xochimilco in the Centro Histórico de Oaxaca, a neighborhood known for its tinsmiths and weavers. As with most apprenticeships, he started by observing and doing odd jobs for his uncle, taking on more intricate jobs little by little.

“One learns over time by doing, poco a poco", he told me. By the time he was seventeen, he was an accomplished tinsmith capable of making both functional and decorative objects. He was hired to work as an assistant to his uncle and did so for over twenty-two years.

In 1992 Victor decided to set out on his own, specializing in decorative works, such as mirrors, boxes, and light fixtures. He built a workshop in his home and at one point had fifteen assistants work with him. Over time, he purchased the many tools of his trade, chisels, punches, tin snips and wooden mallets.


The barrio de Xochimilco is known for its hojalateros. There are several shops that do similar type of work, and it is the quality of Victor’s work that sets him apart from the rest. He got involved in hojalatería as a way to earn an honest living, and he quickly fell in love with it. He has never wanted to do anything else. When I asked Victor what he liked best about his job, he answered, “Everything, I love my occupation, I put the best of myself in all that I do. I like giving the highest quality I am capable of giving”. And this he does. He has won more than twenty-five competitions at the state and national level, and has been recognized as a master craftsman throughout Mexico.

I watched him pick up his hammer and chisels and start to pound out a detailed and ornate design on a sheet of tin. When I marveled at his ability to do this, he told me, "It is something I thank God for, the ability to think creatively about what I am going to make; it does not come from me alone, but is a product of a talent that God has given me”.

Today Victor has only one assistant. Sales are not good and he claims that the
government does little to support and promote local artisans. Like many artisans in Oaxaca, the social upheaval in 2006 seriously hurt his business. He never bounced back after that time. He now sells most of his work in other states in Mexico or outside of the country. But he is very happy that he has family members who will continue his business when he is longer able to work.

Hojalatería is a Oaxacan tradition that Victor is intent on keeping alive. Despite hard economic times, Victor continues to make an honorable living doing what he loves to do. His secret: always doing his work with the highest standards of quality in mind, doing it with grace and integrity, and putting customer satisfaction first. These are the signs of a true artisan.

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