Stroll into a hacienda, glance inside a colonial mansion or take a look at most older houses in the historic centre of Mérida, capital city of the Yucatán, and you are likely to be dazzled by the floors.

Some of these tiles have withstood centuries of use and yet can still be polished to their original brilliance- Barbara Bode

Most are made of carefully designed, often intricate, multi-coloured cement tiles. Known in southern Mexico as mosaicos de pasta, they were inadvertently introduced to Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries. Packed as ballast in Spanish and French ships seeking Mexican gold, silver and cacao as well as other valuables to take back to Spain, they were dumped on Yucatecan beaches when the ships landed.

These tiles caught the eye of fishermen, beach dwellers and others who heard about them. Among them, no doubt, were artisans and masons.

Actually, mosaic tile floors have been around since the days of ancient Rome. Tiles and tile-making skills have risen and fallen just as empires have. Post-Rome, tile floors went out of fashion until the 12th century. That’s when Cistercian monks created ceramic tiles with different colours of clay, called ‘encaustic’ tiles. They were fired and glazed and used in cathedrals and churches.

In the 13th century BC, glazed and coloured bricks were used in ancient Mesopotamia. Many of those craftsmen were later exported to use their tile-making skills and teach others to enliven the palaces of the Persian Empire.

Under the Timurid Empire (1370-1405), the golden age of Persian tile work really began. Decorating exterior domes and other places with surfaces that were not flat, a kind of jigsaw puzzle approach was used. Single colour tiles were cut into small pieces and reassembled into designs using liquid plaster to hold the pieces in place.

Tiling inspired by this approach was used in and on palaces and public buildings designed during the 16th and 17th centuries of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Arabic North Africa developed its own complex adaptation making tight geometric patterns. Medieval Europe took a different course and made painted tiles often depicting religious stories from the Old Testament. By the time of the Baroque period, Portugal and Spain were producing large painted scenes primarily for walls. Delftware in Holland – mostly small blue and white tiles – was widely exported to northern European countries throughout the 16th century.

During the Victorian era in England (1830-1901), there was a tile-work revival. Patterned tiles were made by machines, making them cheap to produce. Around the same time, in the south of France, the first high-end encaustic tiles were made. They decorated mansions of the Côte d’Azure and many of Gaudi’s Barcelona buildings.

In the Yucatán, in the second half of the 16th century, artisans began developing their own designs and procedures with assistance from tile artists from the town of Talavera de la Reina in Spain.

The process was simple. Basically, they used coloured cement and handcrafted moulds. They would first pour thick, wet, sandy concrete into a square mould, then set a metal design mould on top, into which they would pour different colours of pottery slip, according to the particular pattern.

Next, using a hydraulic press for less than a minute, this package would be pressed together and then spit out. One side would be concrete and the other would be the coloured design. They would be left to dry for several weeks. Thereafter, they were laid into a concrete floor and then polished to bring out the bright colours.

No machines, no firing, simply some quick pressure.

These Talavera tiles, as they were often known, were the envy of Mexicans in other regions. Responding to the demand, tile artisans fanned out across the country establishing ceramic workshops throughout Mexico dedicated to the art form.

At the turn of the 20th century, a Yucatecan entrepreneur named Rafael Quintero established the region’s first tile production workshop. Some 30 years ago, Eng. Tomas R. Pacheco Basulto bought it and has continued the traditional handmade approach.

He kept the original name – Materiales Traqui – but given more than 100 years of brilliant productions, he has expanded operations significantly, employing many more local artisans. Located in the tiny pueblo of Ucu, outside of Mérida, customers can select from moulds designed over the past 100 years or come up with their own designs.

By now, some of these tiles have withstood centuries of use and yet can still be polished to their original brilliance. While some Mexicans today opt for a single colour or all-white tiles, many keep the old floors and backsplashes when renovating a house or building.

These appealing floors balance out the frustrating problems caused by southern Mexico’s tropical heat and humidity. Do they compensate for what Spain took from Mexico? It’s too late to do anything about that.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us