Mexican ironwood carvings

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Seri ironwood carving Seri carving Aurora Astorga.JPG
Seri ironwood carving

Mexican ironwood carving is a Mexican tradition of carving the wood of the Olneya tesota tree, a Sonora Desert tree commonly called ironwood (palo fierro in Spanish).

Mexico Country in the southern portion of North America

Mexico, officially the United Mexican States, is a country in the southern portion of North America. It is bordered to the north by the United States; to the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; to the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico. Covering almost 2,000,000 square kilometers (770,000 sq mi), the nation is the fourth largest country in the Americas by total area and the 13th largest independent state in the world. With an estimated population of over 129 million people, Mexico is the tenth most populous country and the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world, while being the second most populous nation in Latin America after Brazil. Mexico is a federation comprising 31 states plus Mexico City (CDMX), which is the capital city and its most populous city. Other metropolises in the country include Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Toluca, Tijuana, and León.


Olneya tesota is a slow growing important shade tree in northwest Mexico and the southwest U.S. The wood it produces is very dense and sinks in water. Traditionally, people used it for firewood and charcoal, and some carving.

The tradition of carving it began with the Seri indigenous people of the state of Sonora. In the mid-20th century, the Seri had to move from their traditional home on Tiburon Island to the mainland, around the same time tourism was developing in Kino Bay. The first to carve ironwood for sale was Jose Astorga, who began with other materials and ironwood for utilitarian items. In the 1960s, he began carving ironwood figures, which sold well to tourists, and others followed. The craft began to be widely distributed in the 1970s, with non Seris beginning to carve, introducing animals from other areas as subjects, and the use of power tools. Carving, charcoal production and loss of habitat has put pressure on the ironwood tree, which the Mexican government declared protected in 1994. Carving is still permitted, but the price of the wood has increased and production has decreased.

Seri people ethnic group

The Seri are an indigenous group of the Mexican state of Sonora. The majority reside on the Seri communal property, in the towns of Punta Chueca and El Desemboque on the mainland coast of the Gulf of California. Tiburón Island (Tahejöc) and San Esteban Island were also part of their traditional territory. They were historically seminomadic hunter-gatherers who maintained an intimate relationship with both the sea and the land. They are one of the ethnic groups of Mexico that has most strongly maintained their language and culture throughout the years after contact with Spanish and Mexican cultures.

Sonora State of Mexico

Sonora, officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Sonora, is one of 31 states that, with Mexico City, comprise the 32 federal entities of United Mexican States. It is divided into 72 municipalities; the capital city is Hermosillo. Sonora is bordered by the states of Chihuahua to the east, Baja California to the northwest and Sinaloa to the south. To the north, it shares the U.S.–Mexico border primarily with the state of Arizona with a small length with New Mexico, and on the west has a significant share of the coastline of the Gulf of California.

Ironwood tree

Olneya tesota, the Ironwood tree Ironwood tree.jpg
Olneya tesota , the Ironwood tree

The ironwood tree is considered native to the Sonora Desert as it is found only the states of Sonora, Baja California and Baja California Sur in Mexico and Arizona and California in the United States. [1] Olneya tesota is the slowest growing and the tallest in the Sonora Desert, with specimens able to reach heights of up to fifteen feet, if near relatively stable sources of water. It accounts for a fifth of the desert’s biomass, mostly owing to the density of its wood. The shade provided by these trees is essential for a number of other desert plants and animals. [2]

Baja California Federal entity in Mexico

Baja California, officially the Free and Sovereign State of Baja California, is a state in Mexico. It is the northernmost and westernmost of the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. Before becoming a state in 1952, the area was known as the North Territory of Baja California. It has an area of 70,113 km2 (27,071 sq mi), or 3.57% of the land mass of Mexico and comprises the northern half of the Baja California Peninsula, north of the 28th parallel, plus oceanic Guadalupe Island. The mainland portion of the state is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean, on the east by Sonora, the U.S. state of Arizona, and the Gulf of California, and on the south by Baja California Sur. Its northern limit is the U.S. state of California.

Baja California Sur State of Mexico

Baja California Sur, officially the Estado Libre y Soberano de Baja California Sur, is the second-smallest Mexican state by population and the 31st admitted state of the 31 states which, with Mexico City, make up the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico.

Arizona U.S. state in the United States

Arizona is a state in the southwestern region of the United States. It is also part of the Western and the Mountain states. It is the sixth largest and the 14th most populous of the 50 states. Its capital and largest city is Phoenix. Arizona shares the Four Corners region with Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico; its other neighboring states are Nevada and California to the west and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California to the south and southwest.

The species is protected by the Mexican government because of its overexploitation and deterioration of habitat. [1] The plant is not considered in danger of extinction, as its range is over millions of hectares and with thousands of trees, however its slow growth and use in handcrafts and firewood puts it at some risk. In 1992, before it received government protection, 21,000 tons of the wood was converted into charcoal. Ninety percent of this charcoal was exported from Sonora to the United States. Today, carving is not the biggest danger to the tree but rather the conversion of desert into pasture and cropland. [1] [2] Other efforts to conserve the tree include the establishment of organizations such as Pro Palo Fierro, to develop ways to use the resource in a sustainable manner. Since the plant is found in two countries, efforts involving the US have included organizations such as Conservation International and the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. [2]


Overexploitation, also called overharvesting, refers to harvesting a renewable resource to the point of diminishing returns. Continued overexploitation can lead to the destruction of the resource. The term applies to natural resources such as: wild medicinal plants, grazing pastures, game animals, fish stocks, forests, and water aquifers.

Conservation International nonprofit environmental organization

Conservation International (CI) is an American nonprofit environmental organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. Its goal is to protect nature as a source of food, fresh water, livelihoods and a stable climate.

Desert Botanical Garden non-profit organisation in the USA

Desert Botanical Garden is a 140-acre (57 ha) botanical garden located in Papago Park, at 1201 N. Galvin Parkway in Phoenix, central Arizona.

Use of the wood, including carving

Ironwood bears at the FONART expo in Mexico City IronwoodBears2FONART.JPG
Ironwood bears at the FONART expo in Mexico City

Ironwood is similar to ebony, as it is dark, dense and very hard; its grain is very straight. For this reason there are few air bubbles and unlike other woods, ironwood sinks in water. [3] Before the carving of ironwood figures, this wood was used for firewood, the production of charcoal and the carving of items such as harpoons, other tools, musical instruments and toys. [4] Today, the wood’s main use in handcrafts is the creation of carved figures. These are mostly sold in the United States and Mexico and earn about a million dollars a year, far more than it did as the basis of charcoal. [2]

Ebony wood

Ebony is a dense black/brown hardwood, most commonly yielded by several different species in the genus Diospyros, which also contains the persimmons. Ebony is dense enough to sink in water. It is finely-textured and has a very smooth finish when polished, making it valuable as an ornamental wood. The word ebony comes from the Ancient Egyptian hbny, through the Ancient Greek ἔβενος (ébenos), into Latin and Middle English.

Harpoon long spear-like instrument used in fishing, whaling, sealing, and other marine hunting

A harpoon is a long spear-like instrument used in fishing, whaling, sealing, and other marine hunting to catch large fish or marine mammals such as whales. It accomplishes this task by impaling the target animal and securing it with barb or toggling claws, allowing the fishermen to use a rope or chain attached to the butt of the projectile to catch the animal. A harpoon can also be used as a weapon.

Two groups carve the wood. The first are the Seri, who have done so for decades. Only an estimated 500 Seri still live in Mexico, divided into four major clans. They are semi-nomadic, and generally shun agriculture, animal domestication and extended contact with outsiders. They are concentrated on Tiburon Island and towns like Punta Chueca on the mainland. [4] The carvings are probably the best known of the Seri crafts [5] and are still produced by hand and on a small scale. [2] Seri craftsmen prefer to work on wood from trees that are already dead, such as those struck by lightning or dried out for other reasons. They chop off a trunk or branch with an ax, and carve pieces into shape using a rasp or coarse file. They smooth the wood by scraping it with a piece of glass, polish it with desert sand, then coat it with a thin layer of wax. Originally, they used wax from turtles, but today they use shoe wax. For subjects, carvers typically choose animals in the Seri world—such as turtles, dolphins, eagles, lizards, crabs, and coyotes. Styles vary from simple lines to the inclusion great detail and adornment. [5]

Punta Chueca is a Seri town located on the Gulf of California in the Mexican state of Sonora. It is located 25 kilometers north of the fishing and tourist town of Bahía de Kino. Both of these towns are part of the Municipality of Hermosillo. One of the two villages on the Seri Indian communal property, it has small stores, a primary school and a small satellite-fed secondary school (telesecundaria). It is one of the closest points on the mainland to Tiburón Island, separated from it by the Canal del Infiernillo. According to the Mexican census of 2010, the town, had a population of 520 inhabitants.

Rasp coarse form of file used for roughly shaping wood or other material

A rasp is coarse form of file used for coarsely shaping wood or other material. Typically a hand tool, it consists of a generally tapered rectangular, round, or half-round sectioned bar of case hardened steel with distinct, individually cut teeth. A narrow, pointed tang is common at one end, to which a handle may be fitted.

The second group of producers is made up of town and city dwellers from Sonora and Baja California, who began carving after the figures became commercially popular. The latter group produces the figures in grand quantities due to their access to power tools. [2] These families can produce between forty and fifty pieces per day, most of which they sell to wholesalers in Nogales, Sonora. Most of these are then sold in the United States. [3] This has put the Seri at a disadvantage in the market, with their share shrinking. Today there are fewer than fifteen Seri carvers. The carvers total use about 5,000 tons of wood per year for the craft. [2] The development of the carving as been driven by consumer and tourist demand, including the use of asymmetry and abstract forms. Some tourists think a more "primitive" looking carving looks more "authentic" than finer work. Association of the Seri with the craft is still important to its sale and many non Seri falsely put "Handmade by Seri" stickers on their works. [4]


The craft originated with the Seri people as a way to earn money from tourists. In the first half of the 20th century, the Seri were mostly confined to Tiburon Island, coming into Kino Bay seasonally to sell firewood, which included ironwood. In the mid 20th century, the traditional Seri economy was disrupted by shrimping in the Gulf of California, which reduced the sea species the Seri needed for food. In the late 1950s, tourism in the area took off in the Kino Bay area. These two developments, along with the island’s status as an ecological reserve prompted the Seri to move to the mainland to communities such as Desemboque and Punta Chueca. Selling handcrafts, including baskets and jewelry as well as the carvings, has become a vital source of income. [4]

The first ironwood carver was Jose Astorga, who began by carving animals of pumice stone. His first work with ironwood is utilitarian, bowls, spoons, etc. His first decorative items were created between 1963 and 1964, focusing on sea animals that were popular with tourists. His daughter later became the first to sign her work. [4]

Commercial wax and other sanding methods were introduced in 1968. That same year, University of Arizona students began to make monthly trips to the Seri villages to buy the carvings, greatly increasing their popularity. [4] In the 1970s, the Mexican government began to promote and widely distribute the carvings leading to about half of the adult population engaged in the craft. [3] [4]

Non Seris began carving in the 1970s, as the popularity of the craft grew, and introduced motorized cutting and carving methods in the 1980s as well as carving of animals not part of the Seri world. [3] [4] In 1974, BANFOCO became a carving wholesaler with the aim of providing the Seris with a regular income. [4] In the 1980s, distribution extended into Canada and Japan. [3] The growth of the craft however, along with continued use of the wood for charcoal, started to decrease the supply of wood. In 1994 the ironwood tree became protected by the Mexican government, allowing its use only for carving. [3] By this time, the craft had spread into various parts of Sonora as well as the Baja California peninsula. [4] However, most ironwood carving is still done in Kino Bay, Caborca, Magdalena de Kino, Punta Checa, Puerto Libertad, Puerto Peñasco, Santa Ana and Sonoyta. [3] The scarcity of the wood has caused its price to rise and production to fall. This in turn has made already existing pieces more valuable. [4]

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  1. 1 2 3 "Palo Fierro" [Ironwood] (in Spanish). Hermosillo: Comisión de Ecología y Desarrollo Sustentable del Estado de Sonora. Archived from the original on October 8, 2012. Retrieved March 15, 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Durand, Ift CA (July–September 1999). "El Palo Fierro: Especie clave del Desierto de Sonora" [Ironwood:Key species of the Sonora Desert](PDF). Ciencias (in Spanish). Mexico City: UNAM. 43. Retrieved March 15, 2012.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Ángel Mendoza Cruz. "La artesanía de Palo fierro (Sonora)" [The handcrafts of ironwood (Sonora9] (in Spanish). Mexico City: Mexico Desconocido magazine. Retrieved March 15, 2012.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 "Grinnell College Art Collection: Seri Ironwood Carvings" (PDF). Tucson: University of Arizona. 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 2, 2012. Retrieved March 15, 2012.
  5. 1 2 "Artesania Seri (Comca'ac): Palo Fierro" [Seri Handcrafts (Comca’ac): Ironwood] (in Spanish). Hermosillo: Lutisuc Asociación Cultural I.A.P. Retrieved March 15, 2012.