Footprints Captured in Clay
EL PASO, TEXAS – A traditional terra cotta construction material used in the Southwest comes from North Central Mexico and can be found covering floors in missions and mansions throughout the region: Saltillo Tile. Simple, functional, sturdy and as beautiful in its aged patina as a hand made heirloom.
Some date from a time not long past and some are very ancient. The old way of fabricating these gems is quickly being replaced by machine-fed conveyor belt processes. Traditionally, the red river clays from the Coahuila region of Mexico provided the material and craftsmen in the area provided the expertise and labor to mix, set, dry and fire each one-square-foot tile into a unique handmade expression. In some much older settings, these tiles bear testament to countless millions of foot steps in their softly scolloped surfaces worn away slowly by passing feet over time.
Saltillo tile is a type of terra-cotta tile that originates in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. It is one of the two most famous products of the city, the other being multi-coloured woven sarapes so typical of the region. Saltillo-type tiles are now manufactured at many places in Mexico, and high-fire “Saltillo look” tiles, many from Italy, compete with the terra-cotta originals in the consumer marketplace.
Real Saltillo tile vary in colour and shape dramatically, ranging in varying hues of reds, oranges and yellows. Tiles are shaped either by pressing quarried wet clay within a wooden frame, or carving out the desired shape from the wet pressed clay. Depending on the raw tile’s placement among other tiles in the kiln at the time of firing, its color will range from yellow to a rich orange/red.
There is a tradition in the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico, near superstitious significance, that every floor laid with Saltillo tile must have a “protector” tile set within its boundaries for good luck. That protector tile will bear the imprint of an animal’s foot print – an animal that stepped on the wet clay tile during the drying and curing process while it lay in the open-air yard of the factory before being fired in the kiln.
Tiles can be found that bear the print of a dog, a coyote, a wolf, a pig and sometimes of a cat. You can imagine a quite night in the countryside outside Saltillo, Mexico with animals prowling the fenced yard of the tile factory looking for prey. Some tiles will even feature the print of the peacock, which has been used for years as the natural guardians of factory yards throughout Mexico!
Beware of recent creative commercial imprints made by those conveyor-belt tile makers. The paw prints are only real if your Saltillo tile is authentic and handmade from the clay found in riverbeds in Coahuila Mexico. If your Mexican tile is in fact “real”… then your paw prints are most likely real as well. They contain a glimpse of a fascinating origin to your floor covering!
Our home in El Paso, Texas was built in the late 1950’s, and was probably fully tiled by the second owners in the 1960’s. Our Saltillo tile are definitely the real thing, as they have developed many chips, cracks and spots over the years revealing the “soft” clay from which they are made. Within our home, several thousand square feet of Saltillo tile cover the main living areas.
Captured for eternity in our floor tile are a remarkable collection of animal footprints embedded in the clay tiles – representing creatures whose lives crossed ours in a factory yard in Saltillo, Mexico over half a century ago. Each set of prints are unique in the story they tell, and are a blessing to us and to our visitors. Our granddaughter recently remarking with a shriek during a visit “Grandee, there’s a doggie print” in the doorway to our kitchen! There was indeed and so it shall remain, for a long, long time…