Understanding Mexican Culture Through Crafts: Three Activities

Dianne Turner

At the heart of modern Mexico is a culture rich with arts and crafts. Today, we can see the roots of Mexican culture in the work of living Aztec, Huichol, and Kuna Indians, who maintain traditional crafts that date back to their early ancestral roots, from the time before Hernán Cortés first introduced Western ideas and technology to Central America.

The influence and role of crafts in the Mexican culture is evident in many aspects of life, especially in family life. In many communities, the family will eat together at midday, the meal spread out on a hand woven tablecloth. Arts and crafts are part of the celebration of baptisim, quince anos, and marriage. A young woman might dress for quince anos (Keen-say AHN-yos: a celebration for girls turning fifteen years old) in a blouse or dress decorated with mola (brightly colored applique panels).

Women in Mexico make traditional crafts such as brightly colored ponchos, blankets, skirts, and pottery bowls and jars, passing the skills of their trade from one generation to the next. For example, a young girl might learn how to process wool fibers and dye them with natural vegetable dyes. Other traditional Mexican crafts are passed down from men to their sons, such as carving stone or creating Huichol yarn paintings.

In the United States, young students can be introduced to the culture and history of Mexico by exploring Mexican handcrafts.1 Traditional crafts can reveal much about a people’s beliefs, way of life, history, and values. Three of the most recognizable crafts in Mexico are Aztec Stone carving, Huichol Indian yarn painting, and the Kuna Molas (traditional appliqué panels). This article will describe each of these crafts and suggest methods for teaching about them in the classroom.

An Aztec Sun Stone

The Aztec Empire, a combination of several societies, became a single power in the early 1400s. The early Aztecs were nomadic traders, regarded by existing cultures as primitive, inferior “dog eaters.” The Aztec calendar was composed of 18 months, each having its own sacrifice festival. The Aztec also used a numbering system and pictograms to record their trade.2

The Aztecs believed they were living in the fifth and last creation of the world. They called each creation a sun, because movement of the sun maintained human life. Their cosmology led them to fear that the world would end every 52 years. During the reign of the sixth Aztec monarch in 1479 A.D., a huge stone was carved and dedicated to the principal deity: the sun. The stone has both mythological and astronomical significance.3 Clay suns are still made in Mexico in a place call Metepec by the Nahua Indians, who are descendants of the Aztecs.4

Students can create their own Aztec sun stone replicas in the classroom. This lesson is appropriate for students in grades one through six, with modification for older students’s abilities. Materials needed for each child include 2 to 4 ounces of Crayola white Model Magic, acrylic paints (in bright colors, including gold), paint brushes, and a clear-coat spray.5


Step I

Show photos and explain the traditional meaning of Aztec sun stones. Then lead the class in creating sun stone replicas by reading these directions: “Roll 2 to 4 ounces of white Model Magic into a ball (it is a clean medium and will not stain desks). Flatten the ball on the desk. Cut out a circular shape with a plastic knife using the top of a paper cup as a template. Make a radial template from a manila file folder, and then cut the sunrays out. Position the radial rays around the sun. Make facial features on the sun out of more Model Magic, pressing nose, eyes, and lips onto the larger form so that they adhere. Allow the completed sun to dry overnight.”


Step II

Read aloud to the students, “Paint your sun using acrylic or tempera paint. Acrylic gives the sun a more brilliant look. Apply gold paint around the rays, as is traditional in Mexican sun stones.”

When the paint is dry (about 2 hours), spray a clear coat over the replicas, giving them a glossy sheen. Once the Aztec sun stones are completed, mount them onto individual pieces of construction paper. Then glue the creations all onto a piece of black poster board or construction paper, creating a beautiful display. These small sculptures weigh about 2 ounces each, and can be adhered with the use of a spray adhesive.

Discuss the sun’s facial features in relationship to the sun faces of the Aztec stones. What are the expressions on the original sun stones? What might they mean? How difficult was it to make a sun stone from a clay-like medium? What would it be like to carve a twenty-five ton Aztec Sun calendar out of stone?


A Kuna Mola

Molas are the brightly colored applique panels made only in the San Blas region of Panama by the Kuna Indian women. The Kunas have resided in Panama and Colombia for centuries, surviving successive waves of European exploration and settlement. During the 1800s, the Kuna began migrating eastward, where they were introduced to manufactured cloth, scissors, needles, and thread. They put these new things to use by creating a new art form, building upon their own traditional images.

The term mola can mean “cloth,” “clothing,” or “blouse.” Girls learn to make molas at a young age. A woman might spend up to 100 hours completing a mola. The sources of inspiration for molas include: natural-world native animals (iguanas, lizards, parrots, fish), local vegetation (palm trees, coconut crops, sea grasses), and the shapes of the coral reefs around the San Blas islands.6

Students in grades four through six will enjoy creating paper molas. Materials needed include: four sheets of black and brightly colored construction paper, scissors, paper clips, and glue. 7

Prepare one paper mola, unassembled, to use in a demonstration. Then read instructions aloud to the students: “We are now going to make a replica mola. Take one sheet of black paper and three sheets of different colors. Choose a traditional Kuna Indian design for a basic shape. Draw the design onto a piece of colored paper. Be sure that the design is about the size of your hand. Cut out the design. As an example, I made a small green turtle.”

“Now take a different color, like red, and trace around the first shape, leaving a thin border all around. Cut out the second turtle, which should be slightly larger than the first turtle. Glue the green turtle on top of the red turtle. You should now have a green turtle with a red outline, like this.”

“Then take a third color, like yellow, and trace the turtle shape again. Glue the pieces together being sure to leave a thin border of yellow all around the outer edge. Finally, glue your three-layered turtle onto black paper. From the scraps of paper left, create details for your mola. Cut out and glue details for eyes, mouths, claws, back plates, or other ornamental traditional Kuna designs appropriate for the animal that you choose.”

Once the paper molas are completed, ask the students to imagine making molas with the use of traditional cloth appliqué. Would they have the patience to spend 100 hours completing just one mola, as the Kunas often do? Display the paper molas by mounting them onto a black piece of paper. Ask students to explain why they selected their particular island symbols for their molas.


A Huichol Yarn Painting

The Huichol (pronounced Wee-chol) Indians live in the central Mexican states of Nayarit and Jalisco. Huichool adults encourage their students to communicate with the spirit world by using symbols and participating in rituals. The Huichol Indians believe that they are sustained by their earthly representatives, which include corn, the peyote cactus, and deer.8

Yarn painting is traditionally men’s work. Huichol men warm beeswax in the sun, then spread it on thin boards. They press strands of colored yarns into the warmed wax to make a yarn picture. In pre-Columbian days, the artwork was considered to be a prayer, an offering to the spirits, and it would be left in “a place of power.” Designs were often based on natural subjects such as deer, birds, other animals, and plants, Today, the pictures in yarn paintings sold in markets often depict legends of village life. The pictures are highly stylized and sometimes abstract. Mandalas, often found in the center of the yarn paintings, symbolize the entrance to the spiritual world.9

Color is used symbolically in yarn paintings. White is the Cloud Spirits. Blue is the south, the Pacific Ocean, water, rain, and feminine. Red is the east, grandfather, fire and masculine. Green is the earth, heaven, healing, and the heart.10

Students in the upper elementary grades can create a replica of a yarn painting. Each child needs a pencil, a 4'' x 6'' piece of cardboard, white glue, and thick yarn in assorted bright colors. Toothpicks are also helpful.

Read aloud to the students: “On your piece of cardboard, draw a large outline of an animal or natural shape of your choice, like a fish, a mountain lion, or a tree. Draw the shape in the middle of the cardboard. Squeeze a line of glue onto one portion of the picture, creating a closed shape. This shape can follow the outline of the animal, or it can define one section of it, like the front half of a fish or the haunches of a mountain lion. Lay a strip of yarn on the line of glue. Use a toothpick to keeping the yarn aligned on the cardboard. Divide the background into several closed areas by using the same color. Then fill in each shape with different colors of yarn.”

Once the students have completed their Huichol yarn paintings, display them on a black background to show off the brightly colored designs. Explore with the students how it felt to work with intricate yarn designs. Would they have the patience to wait for the sun to warm bees wax and work with thin strands of yarn? Can they imagine the difficulty in obtaining the fine detail with the Huichols’ thin yarn? Why do they think this craft is so significant in representing the Huichol Indian beliefs?



Introducing students to the crafts of Mexico can help reveal the ethnic diversity of that society and its rich cultural traditions. By making something with their hands (replicas of Aztec sun stones, Kuna molas, and Huichol yarn paintings), students might begin to appreciate how artists work with materials, stories, and symbols, to create objects that reflect their natural and social worlds.



1. Conrad R. Stein, Mexico: Enchantment of the World (New York: Students’s Press, Golier, 1998).

2. Y. Merrill Yvonne, Hands-On Latin America (Hong Kong: Kits Publishing, 1997).

3. The Aztec Calendar (www.ai.mit.edu/people/monalvo/Hotlist/aztec.html)

4. A. M. Terzian, Kids’ Multicultural Artbook (Charlotte, VT: Williamson , 1993)

5. D. Turner, “Dick Blick Art Materials” (in preparation).

6. K. Mathews, Molas! (New York: Sterling, 2000).

7. D. Turner.

8. Mexico Connect, “Yarn Painting: Images of a Vanishing Culture” (www.mexconnect.com/mex_/huichol/huicholart.html).

9. Mexico Connect, “Huichol Indians: Their Art and Symbols” (www.Mexconnect.com/mex_/huichol/abt_huit.htm).

10. Huichol Art on the web (huicholart.homestead.com/page1~ns4.html).


Suggested Reading

A. H. Lang. “Mola Inspired Stitches.” School Arts, March 2000.

H. T. Nicely. “Clay Suns from Metapec.” School Arts, March 2000.

M. E. Presilla. Mola Cuna Life Stories and Art. NY: Henry Holt, 1996.


Dianne Turner is a professor of art education in the School of Education at California State University in Bakersfield.