San Felipe Santiago is a small community just off the highway that connects Toluca and Zitácuaro in the State of Mexico. It is still rural, on rolling hills mostly covered by fields. The area used to be forested, with remnants still stubbornly clinging in the higher elevations.
It is a Mazahua community which struggles to maintain a traditional way of life, but it is not easy. It is more rural than other Mazahua communities which are near large cities and industrial corridors, but the lures of modern life are still tantalizingly close for the town’s young people. Most of the community has lost the Mazahua language and most young girls would rather study in school than learn the traditional skills of their mothers and grandmothers.
For these reasons, and the need to find new and better markets for their goods, a group of about 15 women from the community banded together about two years ago to form the La Estrella Mazahua Workshop. It is named after the Mazahua Star, a very traditional element in Mazahua embroidery. Prior to this organization, the individual craftswomen were completely reliant on middlemen to sell their goods, with the very low prices that usually go along with this kind of marketing.
One of the organizers and leaders of this group is Enith Martinez Fonseca. She is young, only in her thirties, but has been embroidering with her mother since she was eight. Her mother, now 81, still works with the group, both embroidering and going to markets to sell. Because the town is more traditional, most women still do not work outside the some, making embroidery a main means for women to supplement the income of their husbands, who generally work in construction and in local fields. While embroidery originally was for making items for household as well as to sell, since about the 1980s, almost all is now done on items to be sold. One notable exception seems to be the underskirt that traditional Mazahua women wear. It is embroidered on the hem, which is the only part that shows.
Originally the group concentrated on embroidery only. Any clothing items they bought pre-made from other craftswomen, but soon they received help from National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI) to purchase industrial sewing machines. Now they make clothing items exclusively of traditional fabrics (loose weave wool and a heavy muslin called “manta,”) but they do not make only traditional clothing items. In fact, very few of the clothing items made to sell are completely traditional. The closest are the “peasant” blouses, but even these are modified to make them more acceptable in the market.
However, the most important, the stitching, the images and various decoration techniques, remain 100% authentic Mazahua.
The Workshop has broken the women’s dependence on middlemen. Now they depend on various state and national agencies which work to promote Mexico’s traditional crafts. Most of their sales are now at various fairs and festivals, mostly in the State of Mexico, but FONART does sponsor their participation in their ongoing fairs in tourist areas all over Mexico.
I asked Enith if they had thought about an online presence and selling outside of Mexico, but she sheepishly dismissed the idea, stating that there is limited Internet access in the area (I can attest to poor cell phone coverage) and that most of women felt that working online was out of their reach because of poor education levels. However, maestra Enith does not dismiss technology and foreign contact completely as she does have an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), and can read and write some very basic English.
One of the groups major hopes in the long run is to preserve Mazahua embroidery. To do that, they say it is extremely important to develop markets for their work and earn an acceptable amount for it. Only then, maybe, they can convince enough of the next generation to keep it alive.