Tejerías: industrial sites of a not so remote past

The making of bricks and roof tiles, in what in Bolivia is known as tejerías (or in Spain as tejeras), is still an important part of the economic life of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Like pottery (alfarería: from the arabic word fahhâr, mud) and other related techniques, the tejería (teja: from the Latin word tegula, itself a diminutive based in the Latin root tegere, to cover) is an ancient industrial technology. The Europeans introduced the tejería technology to the Andes and the Amazon, where it combined with established native pottery traditions and diverse ceramic techniques. Pre-Columbian Andean buildings were roofed with woven reeds covered with plaster, and still today many peasant homes do not use roof tiles. Nevertheless tejas are an essential component of urban Hispanic Colonial architecture and a symbol of status. The urban landscape of Latin American cities would be inconceivable without this construction material.

According to historian of local traditions Carlos Cirbián (El Deber, September 2013), in the Colonial Period the tejerías were located in the city district known as “El Tao” (a deformation of the Chiquitano word tauch, meaning mud, or clay). A pond, fed by the waters coming from the tejerías, was part of this neighborhood until at least the end of the Nineteenth Century. At the beginning of the Nineteenth century it was inhabited by descendants of African slaves, who probably also worked in the brick-and-tile site. By the middle of the Twentieth Century the tejerías and the pond disappeared, replaced by a square, as part of the modern urban reform plan being implemented by the city, as it became connected to the rest of the country and neighboring countries by road and railways.

My childhood memories are full of snapshots of yet another pond where we used to catch small fish. Just some kilometers northwest of the old “El Tao” district, on the road to the province of Beni, a middle class neighborhood called “Hamacas” (for the hammocks that travelers hang at the road side) developed at the end of the 1960s. The image of a tall tower hovering over us dominates many of these memories. And the warning from the adults still rings in my ears: do not swim in that tejería pond! The pond disappeared but the chimney of the tejería oven is still there. Most probably that oven is not functional anymore, but the business that owns it continues to produce Colonial style tejas (ceramic roofing tiles). Despite the proliferation of high buildings in the neighborhood the tower is visible from different angles. It is an architectural mark that gives this district its identity, and, at the same time, a witness to the violent process of modernization that the old colonial town and its hinterland underwent during half a century.

As in other parts of the world, the chimneys of the tejerías or tejeras, if remain visible, are a powerful rem(a)inder of our industrial pasts. As sites of memory, they embody the superimposition of temporalities and saberes that constitutes our present.

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