Cement Tiles – A Dying Art in Baja

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By Russ Ham

“Making these tiles is my passion. It provides for my family, and sometimes it provides me with occupational therapy.”

— Gabriel Fausto Alvarez, on making cement tiles (roughly translated).

Cement tiles — also called hidráulicos or mosaicos — are seen throughout La Paz, particularly in the downtown stores or older homes. They are made one at a time, by hand, and the craft is a dying art.

Gabriel Fausto Alvarez is a tall, strong man of about 45 years with a quick smile and the rapid, chopped delivery of an athlete in the middle of a workout. When he is working, he never stops moving.

He has been making mosaicos for 32 years. He learned the craft at age 14, as an apprentice at a workshop next door to his parents’ home. The process requires much hard physical work — heavy lifting and meticulous cleaning — and Gabriel tells TBC that he was not allowed to actually make any tiles until he had done a year of only lifting and cleaning.

The process is also dusty and dirty in the way that all cement work can be — the fine powder permeates every texture and clings to anything that it touches, and the sticky slurries will dry rock-hard wherever they land.

Concrete mosaicos are not kiln-fired like ceramic tiles; instead, they are formed from pigments and cements compacted at high pressure then cured under water for 24 hours. They are called “hidráulicos” because of this water bath, although industrial-scale manufacturers use hydraulic presses for the compaction.

The working surface is a smooth brass plate that is kept meticulously clean. A metal frame is tightly clamped around the plate and the colorings — a mix of powdered marble, white cement, mineral pigments, and water — is ladled in. Unlike most paints, the mineral pigments will resist fading with age. The pigment is the basis of the design, which can be splatters, swirls, or (with the use of a form that separates areas within the frame) striking geometric patterns. It becomes the top, visible layer.

When the artisan is finished with the color layer, he lightly shakes on a “polvo” layer of extremely fine gray cement and sand that will absorb the moisture from the color layer. He then adds a thick “mezcla” base layer of wetter cement and more coarse sand, and levels it off. A cap is placed on the form, and the form is slid into a press.

Gabriel uses an antique, heavy-duty mechanical press with an eight-foot lever. He puts both hands at the top of the lever, takes a step back, plants his right foot at a stone post that is anchored into the floor of his shop, and leans back with his full weight. Gabriel and the lever swing toward horizontal, but he doesn’t quite touch the floor. At the end of the first pull, he gives it a vigorous second tug, then stands up and allows the lever to return to its resting position. (PHOTO 34c)

The form is pulled from the press, the frame is removed from the tile, and the tile is separated from the base plate and set aside to dry. The next day, the entire run of tiles will be immersed in water for 24 hours to cure.

After every tile, all of the excess has to be cleaned from the plate and the frame, and the process begins again. Depending on the pattern, Gabriel can make a tile in two to three minutes.

The earliest documentation of this process dates to mid-19th century France, although common lore holds that it was a Spanish technique derived from the Moors. The truth is probably a little of both theories, as it was a Catalán company called Garret & Rivet who first showed cement tiles in Paris at the Exposition Universelle d’Art et d’Industrie in 1867. As Art Nouveau blossomed, the ability to handcraft durable tiles with floral or geometric designs became popular both in Europe and the New World. They were so popular in Cuba that they are still often called “Cuban tiles.” Through the early 20th Century, they were used in landmark public buildings and palaces. Their durability and indifference to water made them popular again as California and Florida were developed in the 1940s.

Their durability and the artisan craft have now brought them back into vogue as an alternative to other floor coverings, as they have some “green” qualities. The ingredients are commonly available natural substances, the labor-intensive process provides employment for a large workforce, and their carbon footprint is a small fraction of ceramic tiles that require firing in a kiln.

You can find Gabriel at Mosaicos Fausto on the east side of Aquiles Serdán, a few doors north of Calle Sinaloa. Look for the rack displaying his work. During working hours, if you holler a friendly “hola” at the gate, you’ll be invited to the back of the yard to talk with the maestro about what you need.

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