José García Antonio at work
José García Antonio at work | Photo courtesy of Taller Manos Que Ven (Hands That See Workshop)

Craftsman, artist loses sight and learns to transform clay by touch alone

Now the sense guiding my creations is touch. When I hold the clay and feel its texture, humidity, and strength, it inspires me. I materialize everything in my mind and bring those memories to life through my work. It’s a beautiful experience.

José García Antonio
Interview subject
José García Antonio, 74, was born in the town of San Antonino Castillo Velasco in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

He has garnered many honors and accolades for his folk art-style of sculpture, including being recognized as a master folk artist of Mexico. In 2020 he won the Rodolfo Morales State Recognition of Cultures and Arts Award, granted by the state of Oaxaca.

His Manos Que Ven workshop is located in the municipality of San Antonino Castillo Velasco, where José García Antonio’s entire family works, including his wife, his three children, and two sons-in-law.

The workshop has become a tourist attraction in the town and throughout the state of Oaxaca, visited by travelers from both Mexico and abroad.

They also give hands-on workshops to preschool through college-age students, helping to teach about José’s work and his traditional style of sculpting.
Background Information
According to data from the Government of Mexico, glaucoma is the #1-rated cause of irreversible blindness that affects people aged 40 and over in the country.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in Mexico, it is estimated that there are about 1.5 million people with glaucoma, called a “silent eye disease,” and up to 50,000 cases of blindness due to late detection. It is called a “silent eye disease that causes irreversible blindness.

OAXACA, Mexico—I have always said that I was born with a unique talent for molding clay. I began creating pieces from a young age, and later I turned this activity into a lifestyle. Nowadays, I am still a master craftsman. The only difference is that now I’m blind.

 I was 55 years old when my vision darkened due to glaucoma. When the doctors detected it, they told me there was no solution. It progressed quickly and soon blinded me permanently.

I am currently 74 years old, and I see absolutely nothing. However, now my hands are the main tools to create pieces. Everything I once saw with my eyes is engraved in my memory; thanks to that, I can continue to transform clay just like I did when I could see.

José García Antonio and his "hands that see"
José García Antonio and his “hands that see” | Photo courtesy of Taller Manos Que Ven (Hands That See Workshop)

A lifetime creating with clay

When I was 7, I started playing with clay. I remember looking for the right places to find the best mud, mixing it up, and sitting down to play.

My friends tried to do the same thing, but none of them managed to create figures. That’s how I realized I had a talent—that I could mold the clay, change its shape and create anything I wanted.

When I was 23, my brother-in-law asked me to mold a figure for him. It came out nicely, and I felt excited and proud. I remember that he asked me if he wanted to continue doing that, and I answered yes.

Thus, we began to create clay figures to sell. There began my career as an artisan, on that continues to to this day despite my challenges.

When I hold the clay and feel its texture, humidity, and strength, it inspires me. I materialize everything in my mind and bring those memories to life through my work. It’s a beautiful experience.

Above all, I like to make figures of women with typical costumes from the towns of Oaxaca. We are a state with an enormous culture, and my work recreates the ladies with their traditional clothing and pays tribute to them.

The details of the clothes, shapes, and colors dance around in my memory. They allow me to transform a simple piece of clay into a craft in the shape of an Oaxacan woman, to which my wife gives the final details.

I work as if I can see, as if I kept my sight intact—but now the sense guiding my creations is touch.

José García Antonio with  his wife and some of their creations
José García Antonio with his wife and some of their creations | Photo courtesy of Taller Manos Que Ven

I lost my sight but not my life

Though my eyes failed me, my life has not. I am alive; I am still breathing and working. That is why I say you have to smile and look for the good side of life.

I’ve always thought this way. Even when I was diagnosed with glaucoma and told that I was going to lose my sight, I never gave way to anguish, sadness, or despair.

Though I didn’t know what was happening to me, I stayed calm didn’t let the stress enter my life.

I never gave up, nor did I feel defeated or destroyed. I never allow those feelings to take place in my life. In fact, I was back to work just two months after losing my sight.

I don’t want to ask my peers for financial help just because I’m disabled. I have never thought of just reaching out for a few coins. I can work—I have limbs that allow me to walk, and I have my hands to create.

Offering my handicrafts to people fills me with satisfaction. Despite my disability, I am still able to put food on the table and provide for my wife.

New challenge comes with new opportunities

This new challenge has actually expanded my world in some ways. Disability has allowed me to discover and reach places that I never could when I had my sight.

I run a workshop, Manos Que Ven (Hands that See) where people can learn more about what I do.

José García Antonio at work
José García Antonio at work | Photo courtesy of Taller Manos Que Ven

Other doors have opened to me as well—people respect me and my work, and invite me to many places as a result.

I even traveled to the United States once—I was invited to Santa Fe, New Mexico for an international folklore art show. I made a figure of an Oaxacan woman in front of the media and visitors, and the experience was a complete success . People couldn’t believe it what they saw.

It still surprises me that I have been able to travel abroad despite being blind; that is something that I never thought of doing and that I did not contemplate even when I had my sight.

Life has taught me so many lessons, and this is just one more. Something powerful in my memory, body, and soul drives me to continue living fully and enjoy my work every single day.

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Daniel Higa Alquicira is a freelance journalist who lives in Mexico City. One of his greatest pleasures is talking with people to discover what they think and what they feel.