This traditional footwear has its roots in pre Hispanic Mexico with variations found among the Olmec, Purhépecha, Mexica and other indigenous cultures. The word derives from the Purhépecha kwarachi.
The most original huarache types are simply strips of leather or even ixtle woven through holes made into a sole, which can form (but not necessarily) intricate pattern. Originally, they were made only from leather or braided cord, but the use of rubber from old car tires in the 20th century increased their popularity. The rubber makes for a much more durable sole, and it requires the use of nails to fix the uppers onto the soles, which also increases the shoes’ lifespan.
Huaraches can vary greatly, from the cheap souvenir type to pairs as fine as any footwear from Europe. The uppers vary from a couple of straps to those resembling modern closed-toe shoes. Some even have holes for shoelaces. What makes a sandal a huarache is that it is handmade and that the upper has at least some braided leather (even if it is only decorative). Commercially-made sandals go by various names, most commonly “chancla.” The importance of the natural upper means that most huaraches are some kind of natural tan to brown color, but multicolored versions are widely available as well. The use of synthetic materials even in the uppers is increasing. Designs have become more complicated and have taken cues from other modern footwear.
Most artisans making the shoes are found in Guanajuato, Jalsico, Michoacan and Zacatecas. Only about ten people in the entire country produce the finest huaraches. Most are sold on the street or traditional markets and can cost anywhere from just 100 pesos and up, depending on style, materials, and craftsmanship.
The shoes are iconic in Mexico, mostly associated with the indigenous and Mexican farmworkers, both important to Mexico’s view of itself. The name huarache has since come to refer to a common street food, basically, a large thick tortilla with a thin layer of beans inside topped with vegetables, meat, cheese and/or salsa. The name comes from the idea that the base is the size and shape of the shoe’s sole, but most huaraches eaten today are far larger than that.
However, they have found favor with other segments of Mexican society and with foreigners as well. They were initially popularized in the United States by hippies in the 1960s. Since then, they can be easily found in tourist markets all over the country. They can be popular among certain, generally younger, segments of Mexican society, especially those which have updated designs.
(Featured image: Traditional huaraches from the north of Mexico on display at the Museo de Arte Popular (Alejandro Linares Garcia))