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.