New acquisitions exemplify the depth of Mexican traditions

When curatorial field travels resumed in 2022, Daniel Piper, PhD, curator for Latin America and the Middle East, went searching for new instruments to refresh the Mexico exhibit. He traveled to San Luis Potosí, Veracruz, and the Yucatán Peninsula and found 20 stunning objects for MIM’s permanent collection.

“What we are aiming for now, well into MIM’s second decade, is for our collection to be constantly improving,” Piper says.

The Mexico exhibit revisions demonstrate greater historical narratives.

Piper first traveled to the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosí in search of mid-20th century examples of the distinctive folk guitars played in the traditional son huasteco style. He visited elder instrument makers in mountain villages, but the guitars he found were not well maintained. Undeterred, he visited the home of Maria Rosa Martinez Ramirez, the president of the Council of Indigenous Elders of the Huasteca Culture, which has been receiving instruments from the people of the region for decades. Among other instruments hanging in the dark in the rear corner of an outdoor structure Ramirez’s late husband had built, Piper spied a mandolin-shaped guitar with an armadillo resonator. Cleaning a thick layer of dust revealed a wonderful instrument ideal for MIM’s collection: a 1960s guitarra conchera, well made and distinctive in its design and subtle decoration.

Maria Rosa Martinez Ramirez and MIM curator Daniel Piper hold two acquisitions: a three-string fiddle and the guitarra conchera.

After making an agreement for the guitarra and a three-string fiddle of the Tenek people native to the Huasteca, Piper asked Ramirez to help him search for more Tenek instruments, hoping her knowledge of the community and its history would uncover more treasures. They traveled to the village of a family Ramirez’s father had known and discovered that the son of harpist Lucas Santiago Cecilia had carefully guarded his father’s instrument for 18 years in the family’s thatched-roof bamboo home. The harp was elegantly crafted from Spanish cedar and featured gut strings, carved squirrel and bird figures on the neck, and a bone tuner. Cecilia had carried it over his shoulder while playing in processions, ceremonies, and dances for more than a half-century before he died in 2004. This exceptional gem, preserving Tenek instrument traditions, is now a highlight of the revised Mexico exhibit.

The animal figures on this harp reflect Tenek beliefs linking music with the natural world.

Piper’s second trip was an extension of his daily networking with researchers, collectors, and makers. In September, Piper learned of the collection of Mexican ethnomusicologist Alejandro Alcocer Alvirde, who left behind more than 800 instruments when he died, and began corresponding with his widow, Manina Cervera Molina. A few days after determining the collection’s potential, Piper was on a flight to the Yucatán.

He arrived to rooms bursting with instruments. After 10 hours of inspection and discovery, Piper and Molina agreed that 14 instruments would make the trip back to MIM, including an 1897 tololoche string bass, a late 19th-century wooden marimba, and a 1960s Huichol fiddle. Alvirde’s handwritten notes provided information on instrument materials, dates, uses, and locations for the exhibit.

The instruments joining the Mexico exhibit are not just remarkable additions to MIM’s collection; they exemplify our curators’ dedication to MIM’s mission of preserving cultural heritages from around the world. By partnering with traditional communities and national institutions, MIM is helping to support and sustain the instrument traditions of underrecognized communities by sharing their most extraordinary examples with the world.