The Untold Cultural History of Nicaragua Enlightened by the Potters of San Juan de Oriente

April 03, 2017

The Untold Cultural History of Nicaragua Enlightened by the Potters of San Juan de Oriente

Nicaragua over the past 15 years has become somewhat popular for international travelers looking for a different experience. The cloud of civil unrest of the 1980’s finally diluted backpackers then adventure and ecological tourism has started to rise.

What continues to be mysterious however is the cultural past of Nicaragua and how this region fits within the vast cultural history of Mesoamerica and South American cultures.
When I arrived to Nicaragua in September of 1995 as a Peace Corps Volunteer there certainly wasn’t much information to be had. Even the one room Nicaraguan Consulate in New York City at the time had a couple of pamphlets. I remembered one stating that there were only 4 elevators in the whole country.

Upon setting foot in Nicaragua, I was placed in a small pueblo called San Juan de Oriente.  The now internationally renowned potters of the village at that time were in the beginning stages of reinventing the pottery tradition with modern influences.

Now almost 22 years later there is a mature movement of San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua pottery.  What remains to be the case however is that there is a general lack of understanding of the rich cultural heritage of Nicaragua of which the pottery tradition of San Juan de Oriente is born.

The government over the past 10 years has played a major and important role in completely halting the mass exodus of ancient artifacts out of the country. Most of these objects over decades were collected and transported off of the island of Ometepe. However, many areas of the country have reviled evidence of the cultural past with major deposits of artifacts around both of the major lakes and surrounding areas. While I was still in the Peace Corps I made a trip to New York City and was amazed to see all of the examples of ancient pieces in their collection listed as “Costa Rican” style. To this very day the same description remains.

In it’s “Ceramica de los Ancentros” exhibit starting in 2015 the National Museum of the American Indian made a major step forward in the understanding of Central American cultural heritage.  It was the first time that the cultural zone known as the Gran Nicoya region was featured in an international exhibit. 

At the same time the information created for the exhibit reviled some of the reasons for why Nicaragua has been excluded from the institutional description of the area.  The NMAI documentation of the exhibit articulates the over 12,000 objects in their collection.  Furthermore in a larger document describing the acquisition of these objects in explains that the government of Costa Rica had donated thousands of the objects in Museums’ collection starting as early as the 1930’s.

Without a proper understanding of the cultural history of the area and the Costa Rican government donating thousands of objects to museums around the world for many decades, these example are misrepresented as Costa Rican in most of the major museums in the world with objects on display from the Gran Nicoyan Region.

In his book Pottery of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Samuel Lothrop properly identified the pottery work of the region as a shared heritage of the two countries.  His doctorate thesis for Harvard University was published in 1926 via the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.  This extraordinary two volume resource remains the most complete and accurate description of the cultural heritage of the region.                                   The Island of Ometepe in the Great Lake Nicaragua has proven to be the center of this cultural zone and has been a virtual ancient burial center for over 4000 years.  With tens of thousands of objects taken from the island one studying the pieces that remain have little doubt the overwhelming source for the objects distributed around the world by the Costa Rican Government have their origin in Ometepe. 

Talking with Moises Ghitis, founder of El Ceibo Museum in Ometepe where he displays almost 2000 objects all collected around the island that undoubtedly the majority of objects from the region around the world have their origin from Ometepe, Nicaragua.

In over 20 years of experience working with the cultural potters of San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua and then visiting and studying many artisan pueblos of Mesoamerica it occurs to me that the finest resource into understanding an areas unique cultural past is found in the observation of cultural artisans of the area.

Whereas academics relay on information of experts, artisans maintain a relationship though the continual cultural rites via their handcrafted wares. 

For San Juan de Oriente this cultural craft in clay has not maintained with a treasure trove of knowledge of where this tradition comes from and the historical significant of it’s roots.  In the case of these potters it is a generational process and where those memories end so does the true understanding of the cultural past. Because San Juan de Oriente has realized a renaissance in the pottery tradition over the past two decades there is both a deeper understanding of where this tradition comes from and international stage in which to share that cultural history and the current craft born out of it.

Gregorio Bracamonte the local master responsible for recapturing the Nicoyan pottery style has been designated a National Hero for his cultural artwork.  A student and Internationally renowned potter Helio Gutierrez received the UNESCO award for cultural artist in 1999. Those two village masters sparked a movement that now has San Juan de Oriente creating some of the finest cultural pottery in the world.

The depth of both this history and contemporary movement were displayed early in 2017 when 87 artisans from San Juan de Oriente participated in the first annual Nicaraguan International Ceramic Art (NICA) Competition.  The entries into the competition spanned from young to old, ancient to contemporary and $8500 in awards were created by both International and National support. What is clear is that this small artisan community has all of answers to the question of what has happened to Nicaragua’s lost cultural heritage.  While there are many aspects to the cultural past of Nicaragua the artisan pottery of San Juan is the gateway in which to both understand and explore obscure past.

I believe many international travelers are visiting and enjoying Nicaragua because there still feels like there is something to discover there in a ever shrinking world.  There IS so much to discover in Nicaragua.  One part of that discovery is the roots from which the diverse, vibrant cultural Nicaraguans has emerged.

The pottery art of San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua is the finest example of what Nicaragua has to offer in both it’s traditional and contemporary culture.   NICA Ceramic Art ( is a resource to both know the cultural potters of San Juan de Oriente are and what cultural objects they create.


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