One of Mexico’s least-known and least-appreciated handcraft traditions is basketry, which includes the making of other items made from stiff plant material. It is most likely the oldest handcraft in Mexico, predating pottery and textiles. The working of reeds, palm fronds, willow branches, straw and corn husks are all categorized as “fibras vegetales” (vegetable fibers), which is distinct from textiles and used to make a wide variety of items including dolls, colored straw “paintings, etc., not just baskets.
Each year in May, the National Museum of Popular Culture in Mexico holds an exhibition and sale of these items, with artisans selling their wares directly to the public as a means of supporting various traditions from the north and central regions of the country, as well as those from the Mixtec region (Puebla/Oaxaca) and Veracruz. The event is held only for one weekend (12-15 May in 2016) and is called Entre Canastas, Tenates y Petates.
Reeds, palm fronds and flexible twigs have been used since the pre Hispanic period to make carrying and storage containers, furniture, braces for carrying loads (as the indigenous peoples did not have beasts of burden) and footwear. Most Mexican sources also indicate clothing, but this is mostly due to the inclusion of fiber from maguey and agave species, whose fibers are often rough (similar to burlap) but can be fine enough for elegant pieces of clothing as well. For the purposes of this article, we will leave these fibers (called ixtle) out, as they do not correspond to what we think of as “basketry” in English.
When the Spanish arrived, they added European style baskets to the mix, with indigenous craftsman readily adapting the new styles to native materials.
Many of the pre Hispanic forms are still being made. Some items s such as mats (petates) readily available in many traditional markets and handcraft shops. Tenates (box-like storage containers) and sandales can sometimes be found as well, especially in markets in communities with a significant indigenous population. Colonial era pieces, especially baskets and woven seats for furniture can be found in these same markets.
Unlike pottery, textiles and other traditions, fibras vegetales has not developed a collectors’ market, nor has been popular with tourists, in part because items made with time are not durable, or easy to pack. (One exception to this are the coiled baskets of the Seri in the northern state of Sonora.) This means that working with fibras vegetales has remained in a downward spiral through the 20th century into the present, with most items made for local consumption, and unable to command prices to make them worth the effort.
Main image- baskets for bread vendors at the La Merced Market in Mexico City
All images by the author and/or Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise indicated