Glazed dishes being stacked into a traditional open-top, wood-fired kiln, Capula, Mexico
For the Super Bowl, we headed across the street to a steak place with a big television. We ordered Victoria beers and hammered-thin bistec served a la mexicana or arrachera, with grilled nopales. As usual, it was served on heavy, handmade red ceramic plates decorated with a rustic pointillism around the edges. I am no expert in Michoacán artesanías, but because I’m in up to my ears with my husband’s doctoral research into the politics of cottage industries and the global markets, I know one thing: these dishes, a little worse for wear, are glazed with lead.
As an American mother, I know all kinds of things about lead.
I know that lead, even if it is “all natural,” does not belong in the body, even if we went around licking rocks. But because it is smelted out of rock and incorporated into items that humans come into contact with (chipping paint, leaching water pipes, burning leaded gas fumes), we all carry some of that heavy mineral around with us. High body loads lead to lead poisoning, but even low levels can have devastating effects. As has been recognized for at least two millennia (although long denied by petroleum and paint producers), lead damages brains, particularly children’s brains.
To make matters worse, lead is passed from generation to generation: lead, like calcium, is actively drawn out of a pregnant woman’s body by the placenta and delivered in concentrated form to a developing fetus.
In the U.S. (overcoming decades of industry lobbying to the contrary) lead has been largely eliminated from new products. It hasn’t been allowed in paint in the U.S. since before I was born, and was removed from gasoline in 1990, before I was old enough to drive a car. And the U.S. is late to the game: an international covenant banning lead from interior house paint went into effect in 1925.
But Mexico is still fighting lead, particularly in its traditionally made ceramic tableware like the plates my family dined from last night.
As with many dangers to society (see my recent article on seatbelts!), using lead glaze on dishes intended for food is technically illegal in Mexico. But the reality is different. According to potters, people who buy their products prefer the shinier leaded glazes to the lead-free alternatives that state and federal agencies have concocted and attempted to disseminate. With competition for domestic markets on the rise since the NAFTA came into force in 1994, and profit margins for this cottage industry already razor thin, artisans are disinclined to abandon centuries-old methods. But while this reticence might help potters cling to a diminishing slice of their domestic market, it fully excludes them from global markets (the U.S., like most developed markets, forbids the import of food items containing lead). But world markets are my husband’s territory, not mine (you can read his take in this month’s issue of Americas Quarterly http://www.americasquarterly.org/node/2140).
A potter at work in Capula.
What distresses me is that Mexican shoppers are not concerned about lead, even when it’s on their chipping dinner plates; nor are producers, who paint by hand and fire lead-glazed dishes in open-top kilns next to their homes. I worry for them. I worry for their children.
And so I admire the potters from Capula who have upgraded to lead-free glazes in spite of economic risks and the inherent resistance we all have to changing our ways.
Overcoming the temptation to use lead means that artisans will be able to pass down knowledge they themselves inherited to their own children, because the industry will not have crumbled under the weight of globalization (as continued lead use ensures). And they can do so without also handing down toxic body burdens of lead to those same children.
And besides being healthful, the lead-free pottery is really beautiful:
Lead-free dishes made by Fernando Arroyo, Capula, Mexico
Intricate painting is time-consuming (these are Michoacán’s iconic fish), and risking this work to experimental firing deters artisans from upgrading.
Detail of previous piece.
This over-sized, lead-free platter, which took two months to finish–Capula’s pottery is painted with a sort of pointillism–is hard to sell in Mexico, where prices are dropping due to the influx of foreign imports. Needless to say, profit margins are razor thin, further deterring experimentation with new methods.
Detail of previous piece.
Photos by Steven Samford, ©2010. Used with permission.