It’s been all about boys in my family — two sons, a stepson, and a grandson. That is, until eleven months ago when finally a girl — my granddaughter — made her much welcomed entrance into the world. Of course she is adorable, but so were her brother, dad, and uncles. However, I must admit that clothes shopping for a little girl is so much more fun, especially here in Oaxaca.
Naturally, I had to go to the current Museo Textil de Oaxaca exhibition, Vestir hijos con amor (Dressing children with love) — very timely for the upcoming Día del Niño on April 30
The curator’s note explains that the textiles shown “are not the sumptuous accouterments of an ancient aristocracy, but children’s clothing of the poorest people in Mexico and Guatemala… made of cotton and wool.”
“In setting up this exhibit, we have tried to show how textiles intended for children make visible the love felt for them by the first nations of this land.”
It isn’t just the girls who are dressed with love in these indigenous communities. The clothing of the boys is also just as lovingly detailed and decorated.
There is even an interactive component for children — a play area where they can assemble and decorate textile pieces. The Museo Textil de Oaxaca is located at Hidalgo 917, at the corner of Fiallo and the exhibition, in the Caracol room, runs until July 1, 2018.
Many stories about Mexican handcrafts, including those published here, talk about the struggles that artisans have selling their products and making a decent living. This is often because their work is unknown outside a small circle and/or their work is underappreciated.
But that is not to say that there never is any good news. The guitar town of Paracho, Michoacan is experiencing a boon, thanks to the Disney movie Coco. In the movie, a small boy dreams of being a musician, playing a white guitar, encrusted with pearl details and a black skull.
The design of this guitar is the brainchild of former Paracho resident and guitar maker Germán Vázquez.
The making of guitars in this town was established by Vasco de Quiroga, who established a system of trades (copper working, pottery, etc.) among the different indigenous communities of Michoacan after the Spanish conquest to improve the situation of these people. The fruits of his work can still be seen today and is so important that he is affectionally referred to as “Tata” (grandfather).
The community of what is now Paracho was assigned the making of guitars and vihuelas (a three-stringed variation of the instrument). This region of Mexico, as it was part of the Tarascan Empire, was no stranger to trades and crafts so the indigenous took to the making of the new instruments with relative ease.
The guitar has since become an important part of Mexican culture, especially related to charros (cowboys) and mariachi. The vihuela remains important because mariachi bands lack percussion instruments, and it provides the background rhythm.
While musical instruments are made in various parts of Mexico, Paracho is recognized as the premier locale, but this has not always meant prosperity. For much of the 20th century to the present, the market has been under pressure from cheaper imports, most notably from Asia. Mexican craftspeople find it difficult to compete on price as labor costs here are higher and Paracho workshops are small.
Cocomania is widespread in both the United States and Mexico. It has been a blessing to spreading familiarity with many of Mexico’s traditions, those not seen by the average tourist such as (Oaxacan) alebrijes, Day of the Dead and the importance of life-like skeletal figures called calacas. But the benefit to Paracho is particularly important as it draws attention to the quality of the guitars made here, and perhaps most importantly, the cultural connection between the playing of Mexican music on Mexican-made instruments.
One aim of this blog is to highlight not only the products of Mexico’s artisans, but the community, culture and conditions in which they are created. Without this knowledge, just simply seeing the products in a store or market, it is not possible to fully appreciate what you are buying. Indeed, it is not really possible to know if what you are buying is a true Mexican handcraft, rather than an imitation mass-produced in Mexico or abroad.
For many communities, the making of a traditional handcraft is one of very few ways to earn money. This can be for various reasons, from the lack of economic opportunities in the area, the desire to maintain a traditional way of life, or restrictions on what members of a group are permitted to do (e.g. traditional women staying at home).
The Amuzgo are an isolated ethnicity located on the Guerrero/Oaxaca border, in a region called la Costa Chica. They are one of Mexico’s smaller indigenous groups, but have managed to keep their language and many of their customs. Most are located in an around the town of Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero, but even smaller communities can be found. One of these is the tiny community of Zacualpan, just outside the regional commercial city of Ometepec. Despite its proximity, life here is very distinct from that of the nearby mestizos.
Carnaval in the town
It is best to let resident Jesús Ignacio Benito Gómez himself describe life there.
In my community, Zacualpan, we from when we begin to learn to speak, our parents teach us to speak as our mother tongue Amuzgo. When we go to primary school, which in the community is a bilingual primary where our teachers teach use to use Spanish as well as to write out mother tongue.
In the same community, from an early age, we work in the fields and learn to sow corn, beans, sesame seed and cotton to use to make clothing and to sell. The city of Ometepec is our market where to go to sell our crafts even though there isn’t much success here nor is our ancestral work particularly valued.
Work is very scarce in our community and the pay is very low. Often it is not enough to pay all of our expenses such as education, food and health.
Most of us are extremely poor.
Our family grows and harvests cotton. Afterwards we clean and spin it manually into thread using (a spindle called) a malacate.
Personally, as an Amuzgo, I want to get ahead and get a degree. I am knocking on doors to help commercialize the work I do with my mother to pay for my studies and transport.
The family business is called Artesanía Códice Amuzga. It consists of five members of a family ranging in age from 2 to 44 years. The work in the family goes back more generations than Jesus knows, working with locally grown cottons designated at green, brown and white. The cotton thread is dyed with natural dyes and the finished products made individually on backstrap looms, taking anywhere from 3 to 12 months of work. These products are traditional from ceremonial huipils, robes, blouses, but can also include items like napkins and other household items.
They do not have a fixed market stall. They sell where they can, trying to get buyers who give a fair price, whether that is in the Ometepec area or other regions in Mexico. In general, however, they do better selling directly to the consumer than to intermediaries.
Benito’s education allows him to be more open to the use of the Internet than many isolated artisans. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com or Whatsapp 741-104-48-28
Featured image – Matriarch Porfiria Gómez of Artesanias Códice Amuzgo by Rafael Rodriguez.
For urban artisans, sites like Facebook have been a blessing, allowing them to promote and sell their work to people who might not ever see what they do otherwise.
In the case of the work of Victor Hugo Castro Herrera, this is certainly the case. While I am connected to hundreds of artisans on this medium from all over Mexico, his work stands out here.
It is not particularly for what he makes, but rather his eye for design and color that makes his simple notebooks and keychains pop out.
He is all of 23 years old, but has been drawing and painting since he was a very young child and has been winning art competitions since he was 15. He was born and raised in Ciudad Juaréz on the border, but like most of Mexico’s artists, came to Mexico City to study.
He is one of those cases where art meets handcraft. He discovered central and southern Mexico’s penchant for fine handcrafts in the markets of the streets of the capital and fell in love with the colors, designs and culture they represent.
Wanting to incorporate elements of this into his work, he began by painting designs on cotton t-shirts, then onto sneakers, cell phone cases and other items. This had a practical side, as he sold these items to friends and classmates to help pay school expenses.
The success of these ventures as well as graduation has led him to establish his own workshop called VADI Artesanías. Like most of Mexico City’s almost-entirely-unknown artisans, he is located on one of the gritty suburbs of the metropolis, in his case, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, just east of the city proper.
He began with keychains sporting hand sewn and hand painted fabric elements, but the focus has since switched to the making of blank notebooks with decorated covers. Castro does make the books himself completely by hand, it is the design and painting of the covers that make his work really stand out.
Each notebook is not only hand-painted but each is unique. Most of Castro’s designs are based on Mexico’s colors, culture and art. However, being in Mexico City means exposure to foreign influences, which can be seen in his interpretation of works like Van Gogh’s Starry Night to characters from pop culture appearing on his notebooks. But even where the theme is not Mexican, Mexican elements, such as color schemes make themselves known.
No two notebooks are painted the same, varying in overall design and/or detail choices, with the aim of creating something inimitable. Castro believes that he must like the product in order to be able sell it, so the work reflects his tastes and priorities. He states his goal is “to let (people) see through his work the true color of Mexico, that people know that Mexico is simply art.”
Most of his sales now occur in the Mexico City area, but since most of his advertising is through Facebook he has reach in other parts of the country as well. They seem to have wide appeal, young and old, men and women, but clients do have an interest in Mexican culture in common. Castro’s hope is not only to extend his reach more into other parts of Mexico but also abroad. Right now, he works alone at home but hopes to have a store and even employ others in the craft.
Most artisans in Mexico live and work where there were born. There are interesting exceptions, such as Gabriela Diaz and Oscar Becerra who have lived, created and taught abroad.
Far less common, but just as interesting, are those foreigners who develop a passion for a particular handcraft here, such as the work of Argentinian Susana Buyo, who developed her style of alebrijes in Mexico City but now lives and teaches in Mazatlan.
Marcia Blondin is another example. 66 years young, she is a Canadian who has lived in Puerto Vallarta since 1991.
Most foreigners who begin creating in Mexico usually take on a Mexican tradition and add their own flavor to it, but Blondin’s work is a bit more complicated than that. There are North and South elements in her work, but they have more to do with the materials she works with and the people she interacts with.
Blondin’s work is to make recycled jewelry, something that began very simply and very organically 6 years ago. She has no background in anything artistic or creative but her life along the Pacific coast brought her in contact with interesting bits of stuff that would wash up on the beach. Like many people, she picked up things that caught her eye to use in simple mosaics and necklaces. She considers her first works purely as learning experiences.
Hating waste and liking the challenges that recycling gives, she widened her “sources of supply”. As many foreign retirees live in this area, many have old and broken jewelry, silk scarves and blouses and other heirlooms that are unusable in their original state, but can’t be simply thrown away. The idea is to take these pieces and rework them somehow so that they can be worn or otherwise used again.
She primarily uses vintage silk for collar necklaces, one of her best sellers, using old scarves, blouses and men’s ties. Most have been either worn to the point that they have been overmended, or they belong to a mom or dad who recently died. Blondin believes these pieces have a “soul” that no new material can match.
Trips home mean visits to thrift stores (not a thing in Mexico generally) and access to more jewelry, beads and baubles to spark her imagination.
The mix of sources means that her work can either be creating something where the client provides most (or the most important) of the raw materials, or creating pieces for sale to a more general market. Either way, the use of recycled materials means that now two pieces are exactly alike. However, there are certain styles of products.
“Mixtos” are pieces, usually earrings that are a mix of materials, old and new. The base are recycled items, which generally include something from her own past,in particular a bead from a necklace her father gave her mother in the 1950s. With earrings’ weight is an issue. Blondin says these earrings are meant to be worn “for a good time, not for a long time.” The weight is an issue even though the mix often include usually-shunned plastic bases to keep the weight down.
Blondin has literally sold pieces that she was wearing while walking down the street. However, most of her sales to the public occur in the Puerto Vallarta area at the Marsol Friday Market by the pier and the Three Hans & a Rooster Market on Saturdays. She also has a few pieces on consignment but generally avoids this sales method. Most sales are to tourists and foreigners, making the business relatively seasonal.
The work is as much for her own pleasure as it is for making any money. While Blondin admits she should create an online presence, she does not feel any overwhelming pressure to do it soon. She is concerned that such work would take away from the face-to-face sales she enjoys.
In case you do not have your plans set for the Holy Week vacation period here are some suggestions for this year. Because it is such a major holiday season in Mexico, many tourist destination have events during this week, and many have a section dedicated to Mexican handcrafts, with actual artisans and often with high-quality products (which usually sell out very fast) Here are three examples:
The Tianguis Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday Market) is a major event for the small city of Uruapan, in the heart of avocado-growing country, but still fairly unknown to tourists outside of Michoacan. While the market is worth going to on its own, there is much more, parades other events dedicated to the state’s indigenous peoples, a food market to die for and one of two of the state’s major handcrafts competitions. While there are events all week, for shopping, Palm Sunday is recommended as all the best stuff sells pretty much on the first day or so. The area does have a reputation for being unsafe as it is on the edge of the Tierra Caliente (where drug routes are) and the Michoacan highlands. However, I have been here and the town proper is quite safe, especially for this event. There are major hotels in the town center and most of the city is walkable.
The Festival de Cartonería (Paper Mache Fair) celebrates Mexico City’s tradition of making figures for celebrations and holidays such as piñatas, Judas effigies, skeletal figures and alebrijes. This annual event began only in 2012, but it has quickly become an important venue for a craft tradition that has not yet received its due. The event extends from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, but I recommend visiting on Saturday afternoon, when they “burn” (really explode) various effigies of Judas… either as the traditional devil figure or more creative images…often of politicians. It is one of still few events that can obtain permits for this activity.
Artisans all over the central valleys of Oaxaca will be out in force for the tourists with many different small exhibitions of local handcrafts. All of the towns with handcraft traditions such as San Bartolo Coyotepec, San Martin Tilcajete, Arrazola and others will have events during the week, especially on Easter weekend. A list of ferias and expos for the state can be seen here.
A newcomer to the Holy Week scene can be found in the small town of Zacualpan, Morelos. This is a sugar-cane growing area just east of the city of Cuautla. Handcraft-wise the town is best know for its paper mache work related to its annual Mojiganga event, where groups called cofradias compete with themed costumes with elaborate masks and other accesories which take the entire year to create. This is the first year for this particular event, which will resurrect the Burning of Judas in this area on Holy Saturday along with promoting the handcrafts of eastern Morelos state, including paper mache, ceramics, wax, and textiles including rebozos. Be sure to try the local aguardiente or sugar cane liquor, which holds its own against any rum. The burning of Judas will occur at 6pm on Holy Saturday at the town’s main square.
Have you ever seen an advertising campaign that recognizes artisans and their crafts? Actually, there are few celebrations around this topic. On March 19 is the Artisan’s Day in Mexico, date recognized by the National Fund for the Promotion of Fine Crats (FONART), since 2013.
The actual reality of artisans is complicated. According to Sedesol, in Mexico there are nearly 12 million artisans, of whom 55% live in poverty. In Jalisco, there are about 400 artisans and 13 representative fine craft techniques; some of them endangered.
Clearly, this is not the best-case scenario for artisans, who, through the teachings of their parents and grandparents, have created unique and soulful pieces from generation to generation. This people, who put their talent and effort into the creation of wonderful pieces, deserve a better quality of life.
Therefore, in Fundación con Causa Azul, we believe it is necessary to emphasize the importance of handcrafts and start to unleash a movement. The Artisan’s Day campaign aims to generate positive messages in favor of handcrafts, with the objective of increasing their appreciation and consumption in Jalisco. This year’s slogan: “With the hands and heart”, talks about the passion and dedication that is present throughout the whole crafts creation process.
Some of the main elements of this campaign are the realization of a music video with FANKO, a Mexican music band, as well as the creation of a micro documentary, which seek to demonstrate the richness and transcendence of the artisanal topic. In addition, we will be organizing different events, activities and workshops that will take place in academic spaces and which aim to raise awareness around this topic.
Mexican handcrafts (artesanía) may have started as trades to produce items of utilitarian importance or, sometimes, the creation of products to be consumed only by certain classes of people (e.g. silverware).
The Industrial Revolution took its toll on handcrafted items, wiping or nearly wiping them out worldwide. Where they do survive, it is because their making as taken on a cultural significance.
This is the case in Mexico as well. By the beginning of the 20th century, most handcraft traditions in the country were in a death spiral because of mass production. Such production is still a threat, with the added “bonus” of even cheaper products from abroad.
But artesanía still clings to life in Mexico and there are even bright spots in the tradition. There are two main factors: the recognition of these traditions to Mexican culture and the tourism industry. How this works is for another article.
Promotional video on the artesanía represented at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
This cultural aspect means that artisans can receive government, NGO and other support other business might not. These include state and federal handcraft competitions and grants, private efforts such as the Feria Maestros de Arte and sometimes spontaneous efforts from Mexican students.
Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Studies (generally referred to simply as Tec) is Mexico’s largest private high school and university system, with campuses in most of the country’s states, especially in the north and center. It has a privileged position with access to the latest technology, and students who can use it.
Animation on the history of the Vochol
All Mexican undergraduate students are required to complete an insane number of community service hours (480) in order to get their degree. How that happens is up to the student and the institution they attend. Since 2011, the Mexico City campus of Tec has a unique program that allows students to create online resources, particularly in Wikipedia called Wiki Learning Tec de Monterrey.
Students are permitted create any kind of content from the text, to photographs, to videos, animations and more. They are also permitted to choose topics, but since one of the coordinators of Wiki Learning is your humble blog author, Mexican handcrafts is a favored topics. Most Wikipedia articles on Mexican artesanía are either authored by us or have been translated from our work in English and Spanish.
Animations on alebrijes and the Monumental Alebrije Parade
But we are not limited to text. We have majors in video, sound engineering and animation, which has allowed us to create everything from short gifs to 15 minute mini-docs. Two examples of our best work relates to artesania. One is a video about alebrijes, done in collaboration with the Museo de Arte Popular and another on the Vochol… a VW Beetle decorated by 4 Huichol families using 2.7 million beads. This piece has traveled to countries in North America and Europe to raise awareness of Mexico’s handcraft tradition.
The beauty of these videos is that all are in Creative Commons Share Alike license, allowing anyone to use the videos for any purpose (with attribution), a requirement of Wikipedia. This not only allows students to use the work as part of their portfilios but individuals and organizations can also promote the video and its content. A must in today’s world, even though very little of traditional media has caught onto this.
In the past 20 years or so, Mexican cartonería has opened up to participation to artisans who are not from families who have no history associated with the craft.
While traditionalists may bemoan the “lack of connection” oft these nouveau-artisans to the past, it has become clear that they are responsible for expanding the reach of cartonería both geographically and artistically.
Gabriela Diaz is an interesting case, converting herself from student to international cultural embassador in paper and paste.
For most of her life, Diaz lived an ordinary life. She was born in Mexico City, living there and neighboring State of Mexico, but not from any artisan family. Her interest came only 3 years ago, living in Colonia Roma, Mexico City and discovering the Tlamaxcalli Workshop. She began taking classes with the intention of doing cartonería only has a hobby while she worked in marketing. However, in a short time she fell in love with both the craft as with maestros Alvaro and Jazmin, who she counts as dear friends, even leaving her job to create full-time.
In 2016, she and her husband decided to move from Mexico, where they lived for 10 years to his home of Rennes, France. Instead of trying to do marketing work, Diaz decided to continue her work as a cartonera, creating her own workshop called “La Poupée de Carton” (lit. cardboard doll). The move allows her to work her own schedule, one of the attractions of being a craftsperson, but still use her marketing background to promote her projects.
But perhaps it is fate that have given her the biggest boost. Last year Disney released the animated feature Coco, which features Mexican imagery, especially that related to Day of the Dead. While not about cartonería, this craft features prominently in the making of decorative items for altars such as colorful skulls and skeletal figures reflecting attitudes and actions of life.
Diaz saw the movie in France with French friends. She fell in love with the movie (has seen it three times so far) and her friends with Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
While Diaz makes and sells purely Mexican pieces, the making of Day of the Dead decorations and the tradition of incorporating local color means that she has the freedom to mix in French elements into her work. For example, she makes a kind of Brittany Catrina…. Mexico’s skeletal grand dame, but dressed in the traditional finery of the region of Rennes.
Her work has great appeal to those fascinated by Mexican culture, selling her pieces in both art and handcraft markets in France, as well a though the Internet and special orders. This work has also caught the attention of local and regional press despite her short time in the country.
Diaz admits that she will never get rich doing this work, but the satisfaction and appreciation she has found in France makes up for it.
I had hoped not to have to write this, but unfortunately this is not the case.
Due to health and financial issues (somewhat connected) I will have to put Creative Hands on hold for a while. Neither of the two kinds of issues are so serious… but the two together have been a time and energy drain. The good thing is that only one needs to be resolved in order to bring this blog back.
Which I really hope to do as soon as possible. If the last two years taught me anything, is that the world of Mexican artesanía is far wider than anyone might imagine and includes people from many different origins, social classes and life circumstances.
There are SO MANY that deserve attention and havent gotten it.
If you are interested in helping me get Creative Hands back online. By all means contactme at osamadre at hotmail dot com and lets talk!