Angel Gonzales smiles patiently at the cruise ship passengers crowding his stall at Wilhelmina Plaza. They want to dicker over the price of his wares. He shakes his head no. Why should he discount his merchandise? Clearly he offers the most authentic handmade art in Kralendijk, Bonaire’s capitol.
It would be easy at first to dismiss his work. About 60 Christmas ornaments line one table, raising the suspicion that they’re machine-made in China. On closer inspection, each one appears to be slightly different from the next. They cannot be stamped on a manufacturing line.
His art is not only beautiful; it also carries the weight of history. His father taught the technique to Angel, and his grandfather taught his father. And so on and so on until one reaches the Incas of 2000-3000 years ago. They were the first to use the technique called burilado, which is to burn or etch a design into wood.
Angel’s carved gourds bear designs that speak of Bonaire: octopuses, seahorses, butterflies, kingfishers, corals, turtles, and, of course, flamingoes. Next he “fires” the gourds by using a flame to darken the surface and shade each figure from light brown to black. The Incas used body parts of goats to create a leather bladder and a torch that carried a flame. Now Angel uses a gas balloon that allows him to regulate the flame and change the density of the shading.
He grows the gourds in Peru, his homeland. Only eight to ten gourds out of 100 qualify as a medium for his carved containers with fitted lids.
Angel’s children, a boy and a girl, currently study international business at a university in Peru. They engage in burilado as a hobby and contribute ornaments to the inventory for sale in the market. Their father, though, is the artisan, practicing a technique handed down over hundreds of years.