Showcasing indigenous businesses

The purpose of the Expo de los Pueblos Indígenas event is to showcase and promote indigenous-owned small business, but it is also one the best Mexican handcrafts expo despite is less-than 3 year history.

The Comisón Nacional para el Desarrollo de Pueblos Indígenas (National Commissioin for the Development of Indigenous Communities or CDI for short) is a federal agency tasked with supporting indigenous efforts towards economic development, taking into account culture and ambient resources. Most of projects revolve around preserving and marketing native handcrafts, along with the development of processed food products based on traditional agriculture.

Stand belonging to the Yoltachuchihuaej cooperative of Buenavista, Hueyapan, Puebla

It is held twice a year, late spring and late fall, at the Expo Reforma. The latest edition was held from 4-7 May at the Expo Reforma in Mexico City with over 230 participating vendors. Participants are those who work with CDI and are all ethnically indigenous, most speaking native languages.

Each edition has shown improvement and innovation. The main one this time is the creation of an online catalog (click on the catálogo tab) of participants whereas before it was printed, not allowing for all participants to be represented in this way. This is important because not only do the vendors do good business during the for days at the venue, they also make important contacts for later business relationships.

Tea sets by Alfareria Pascual Me Hai-Otomi of San Ildefonso Tultepec, Queretaro

Most of the stands relate to handcrafts, especially textiles, pottery and workworking. Many of Mexico’s overall handcraft traditions are represented although a few are either not there or not strongly represented because they are not done by indigenous people. Most vendors are from the center of the country, followed by the south. The north is not well- represented principally because environment (sparsely populated desert) and that fewer of the indigenous communities survive than in other parts of the country. Those who were there were almosst exclusively from the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, which have the largest and most cohesive communities such as the Tarahumara and Seri.

Wool textiles by Las Palmitas from Veracruz
Wood and hide chairs by Los Zailas of Colonia Macorawi, Sonora

I have spoken to a number of artisans related to this event over the past couple of years and they have nothing but good to say about CDI and the event in general. This is quite surprising because relations between artisans and federal agencies (along with handcraft museums) are usually poor. Either the agencies do not do as promised or they negotiate prices down to levels that fail to support artisans. Several artisans told me that even those who come to this event are a different breed. It seems to attract more people who truly appreciate the effort involved in production as well as the cultures behind the goods. Heavy negotiation of prices, a general hallmark among Mexicans, is almost non-existent.

This does not necesarily mean that the goods offered here are the absolute best that Mexico has to offer, although they are the best produced by the country’s indigenous communities. Most are traditional goods, but there is also innovation. Two that stand out are the creation of rag dolls in various traditional garb and the making of modern shoes with traditional motifs and/or colors.

Rag dolls by Creaciones Mixtecas of Ensenada, Baja California
Shoes by Moises Poot of Yucatan
Traditional women’s dress from Chilapa, Guerrero

The artisans include those with interesting backstories. The Nuumi cooperative has 10 female members, all Mixtec women whose families were originally from Oaxaca but currently live outside of Ensenada, Baja California. They are part of Mixtec migration to the area about 40 years ago. These families formed independent communities that preserve Mixtec culture and language here, but their handcrafts are innovative. They originally made “Maria” style dolls for sale to tourists, but have since branched out to dolls depicting Frida Kahlo and La Calavera Catrina. They also make necklaces and other jewelry similar to what is locally made with seeds, but in their case, they use wooden beads. From the other corner of the country is the stand belonging to the Tres Reyes Mayan cooperative from the small village of Buenavista near Bacalar, Yucatan. This community does not have a handcraft tradition. Instead several families began working with native hardwoods with the support of CDI to take advantage of local tourist markets. The cooperative originally began with masks and other trinkets with ancient Mayan motifs, but have since expanded to kitchen wares (including wine bottle holders), jewelry. The most important development is foregoing any sort of paint; rather they combine woods to let the combination of natural colors take center stage.

The word “artesanal” in Spanish also applies to the making of various food stuffs, especially moderately-processed foods such as alcohol, honey products, coffee, salsas, marmalades and other preservatives. The line of coffee producers particularly stands out, with producers from Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas. The next most important area focuses on mezcal from various states, both north and south of the countries. There are also stands promoting tourism, especially to areas that are vitually unknown even to Mexicans. Ecotourism and aventure tourism dominate here.

Part of the room-long coffee bar on the second floor of the venue.


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