Mexico’s major handcraft-producing states such as Oaxaca and Chiapas have known for some time the value of having their better handcrafts for sale at major cultural events. States such as these have events dedicated solely to handcraft traditions, but often one of the better ways to find authentic handcrafts is to attend other kinds of cultural events as well.
Most of Mexico’s major and best-developed handcraft traditions are located in the center and south of the country. This is not only because the Spanish conquered these areas first, but more importantly, these areas had major civilizations such as the Maya and the Aztecs, whose wealth and concentrations of populations allowed for the creation of what were essentially luxury goods for the elite. Here the Spanish simply added a new layer of such production and in a number of cases really didn’t even do that.
The north of the country did not have major civilizations or major population centers until the colonial period. The Spanish found nomadic and semi-sedentary people, who were considered crude even by their southern indigenous cousins. Such lifestyles do not lend themselves to the creation of time-consuming luxury goods, especially those which require stationary installations such as kilns. There are a few exceptions, such as the Paquimé pottery found in Chihuahua, which has been reincarnated as Mata Oritz ceramics.
The state of Zacatecas is part of Mexico’s “wild” north, though the southern edge of such. It was home to nomadic peoples, almost all of which were wiped out in the colonial period despite fierce resistance. The Spanish dominated this area early in the colonial period because of the discovery of silver, establishing the city of Zacatecas in 1546.
Despite the lack of an indigenous handcraft industry, the Spanish had more time to transplant their traditions here. For this reason, there is more varied handcraft work overall to be found than in other parts of El Norte.
However, it is not as widespread or as well-developed as in the south, so handcraft fairs are rare and small. To see the best of what the state has to offer, it is necessary to go to events related to the culture’s strengths, such as the annual National Charro Congress and Championship which is held each October. The commercial pavilion is dominated by cowboy and charro gear, mostly but not always made in the state, but other elements of the state’s heritage can be found here, too. There are representations of many (but not all) of the state’s major handcraft traditions from leather, to various textiles to silver. It has a number of surprises, such as Huichols and their work, but notably absent was the state’s really fine cantera (volcanic stone) sculpting and relatively nascent paper mache (cartonería) work.
The state has been more active in promoting and supporting its artisans, with programs such as Voluntariado, which seeks to give small artisans in very rural areas of Zacatecas a route for selling handcrafts, particularly traditional housewives making textiles. However, efforts here suffer from the same problems as those even in the more developed states. There is little to no information available about the state’s traditions and their histories. In the state cooperative efforts, the creators of the items are not identified, nor even the place of origin. Emphasis is on immediate sales, not creating awareness, which hurts long term efforts. Even questions to the people in charge of the booths and permanent stores in the capital yield the most rudimentary of answers, principally because they themselves do not know.
That said, events such as this are fundamentally important, especially to the individual artisans fortunate to have a presence there. At the very least it is easy to determine which vendors are local to the state, from outside of it or are simply resellers. Those from the state proper do know their products and their history. For such serious artisans, events like this charro congress provide an outlet. Even if it accounts for only a small portion of their total sales, it provides national and international visibility for their products. One silversmith told me that international sales now account for up to 20% of his business, almost all contacts made through highly visible events such as this.
This year, the National Congress is on from 13 October to 4 November and definitely worth a weekend trip to Zacatecas, not only for the local products and food, but for demonstrations of some of the best of Mexico’s charros.