by Shannon Pixley Sheppard of View from Casita Colibrí blog
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or Whatsapp 741-104-48-28
Featured image – Matriarch Porfiria Gómez of Artesanias Códice Amuzgo by Rafael Rodriguez.