Josep Roca made his first caganer in 1991, the day his dad died. As the family gathered at the Roca home to shroud the body and prepare it for burial, Josep escaped to the family workshop and set about sculpting. The figure, created from clay, was as traditional as caganers come: a shepherd, dressed in peasant garb, in squatting stance, ass hovering over his hindquarters.
In the two decades since, Josep has sculpted thousands of caganers of all shapes and affiliations: singers and starlets, nurses and nuns, devils and dictators. His workshop doubles as a dusty museum of politics and pop culture. You’ll find obscure Spanish politicians of the past decade, one-hit wonders, old futból stars long since retired.
If you closed your eyes and tried to picture a maker of caganers, Josep is exactly the man your imagination would conjure up: tall and lanky, with a back bent like a candy cane from too many years hunching over his creations. He works in overalls, one strap unlatched, with novella-thick glasses that sit permanently at the tip of his nose. On his hands you’ll find orange deposits of clay built up like tree rings under his fingernails.
“I come from a family of clay workers. My dad worked in clay. My grandfather was from 1880, and in that time when there was nothing to do once it got dark so he made figures of saints and sold them near the cathedral.”
Josep’s workshop reflects the kind of controlled chaos you’d expect from a third-generation sculptor: workbenches crowded with chisels and scalpels, buckets of muddy water for smoothing out features, crates of unfinished projects gathering dust in dark corners.
To make a caganer, Josep rips off a hunk of clay from a rectangular slab and thwacks it onto the workshop bench. He flattens it with a dowel to a centimeter’s thickness, divides it into two parts, then works each piece carefully into a mold. The two halves are joined to form the base of the caganer, which is eventually fired in a kiln, the temperature rising gradually over the course of six hours, maxing out at a blistering 1000˚C.
This is the recipe for a basic caganer, stripped of accessories and any identifying features. Together with his son, Joan, he makes about 2,000 of these figurines every holiday season, sold out of his workshop, Terrisseria de Caldes de Montbuí, and at stalls near Barcelona’s two most famous churches: the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia and Gaudi’s sky-scratching Sagrada Familia. Most of these 2,000 statues won’t end up as the classic pipe-smoking, stocking cap-wearing Catalan shepherd; most of these have a more elaborate fate.