95D is the main highway that links Mexico City and the resort of Acapulco. It was built primarily so that chilangos can get to the glitzy resorts with a minimum of time. It passes over some very rugged and isolated terrain with the use of more than a few suspension bridges spanning high over narrow valleys. One of these bridges is called Puente Mezcala Solidaridad. If you look quickly to the side, you will see a river far below but probably not much else.
But immediately off this bright yellow bridge are 14 Nahua communities straddling the river, the source in this dry, dusty land. The indigenous here are aware that they had migrated at some time in the past because of their language, but no one knows when. It is a tough existance. The two main economic activities have been subsistance farming during the rainy season (no irrigation despite the river) and the preparation of palm fronds to sell to artisans in the State of Mexico who use them to make hats and bags. The poverty of the area forces many of the residences to other areas to find work, either in nearby Chilpancingo (a very small city) or even further afield.
Jose Luis Juarez Baltazar lives in one of these 14 communities, called San Juan Totolcintla. It takes about 1.5 hours to get there from Chilpancingo even though it is only 26 km to the north and visible from the highway. The main reason is that the road down from the shiny yellow bridge is dirt and winds down the steep sides of the valley. Juarez makes the trek between his hometown and Chilpancingo regularly.
For a time the main reason for the commute was to attend university. While a student, he attended a conference for indigenous students. One of the sessions was focused on what participants’ home communities were losing. Most indicated that their main concern was their native language, but this was not really a concern for Juarez. The Nahua language is well-preserved in this region. Most people are bilingual (Nahuatl/Spanish) with code-switching between the two natural. Nahuatl dominates, especially among the older people.
L: doll in everyday traditional dress and R: in festive apparel
While he recognizes that the loss of indigenous languages is a real problem for a number of communties, Juarez’s concern is the loss of traditional clothing, especially that worn by women. In the latter 20th century, women as well as men from these communities had to migrate out to take jobs in Chilpancingo and even farther away, prompting them to wear more modern clothing.
Juarez says this was the case as late as 2014. At that time he thought of how he could reinstill pride in wearing traditional clothing. The family had a sewing machine and he began to learn how to make the aprons and 1950s style dresses that mark the everyday wear of Nahua women of this area. This not only included sewing the items but also embroidery, which is very important on the aprons. It took him a week to make the first article of clothing.
He showed his work to family and local women and some began to ask him to make them things. The orders grew and he continued doing this even though he was still making the trek to Chilpancingo to study.
In 2015, he began to wonder if he could not help local women make some money making the clothing, allowing them to stay home instead of going long distances to work. He found women with more experience in the making of traditional clothing then he. y Together they began making both everyday and festive garments for the Nahua women of the area.
The making and selling of the clothing had an immediate and strong impact. Juarez found that the work both provided some income and gave him pride seeing his friends and neighbors wear clothing he made. Every local woman I saw in the area was wearing some form of the dress/apron combo. Juarez says there is now an effort to get the local public school to change its uniform to girls to this style of dress.
In 2015, Juarez prepared a proposal to CDI to fund a project to found a workshop of local women to make and sell traditional clothing. The project was approved and the group was able to buy some industrial sewing machines and rent two spaces in which to work. They also get funding, marketing advice and support to travel to festivals and fairs in which they can sell their work outside the valley. For a number of the women in the cooperative, these travels to sell their wares was their very first time outside their home villages. I bought one of their early dolls at a CDI event in Mexico City.
The group has had luck selling their traditional clothing, both everyday and festive wear in markets catering to indigenous communities, but these clothing styles do not cross over the way that a number of other indigenous clothing styles can and do. To address this problem, the group has worked on two solutions. One is to make new articles of clothing, not traditional but inspired by tradition. The second, which has had much more success, is the making of dolls in authentic traditional clothing. The doll making has become successful enough that it is now their main product, although clothing for real people is still made.
Because of the success of these initial dolls, other types have been developed and more are on the way. They have one representing the state’s famous Jaguar dance (complete with spotted jumpsuit and mask), and dolls in traditional male clothing. They are working on developing dolls to represent all 8 regions of the state of Guerrero. The dolls bring in significant more income than either the palm fronds and most of the farming. However, to maintain pride in this original craft, all of the dolls’ hats are made from local palm leaves.
It’s no secret that artisans and artists struggle to make a living from their work. Necessity, being the mother of invention, prompted some to come up with creative ideas for marketing.
The Casa Roja (Red House) is a cooperative located in the Centro Historico of Chilpancingo, the capital the state of Guerrero (better known for Acapulco and Taxco). That it is a cooperative is not what is most interesting; many artisans and artists have discovered the benefits of coming together to share marketing and promotional duties. But Casa Roja has taken the concept to another level.
Scences of the shop and one of the workshops at Casa Roja
First of all, it is a cooperative of young people dedicated to different creative activities from traditional handcrafts of the state, modern ones as well as fine art. These creators have banded together along with a coffee shop cooperative to taked over a house (which is red of course) to not only sell coffee, art and handcrafts … the upper floor of house is dedicated workshop space, giving classes in leather, embroidery, other textile crafts, jewelry making, filigree, painting, photography, and even music.
All of the participants are from Guerrero state and most are from the Chilpancingo area. Each artist/artisan has dediced space for their wares in the former living room of the house, which functions as a reception area/store/place to drink coffee.
One important thing about this handcrafts store is that all pieces are labeled with the information about the artisan. This almost never happens with handcrafts sold in private or government stores and galleries, cheating artisans the opportunity to become known for their work.
Decorative mask by Dunik
Camino a Mictlan by R Froster
Embroidered girl’s blouse by Tsomara
Casa Roja opened its doors only four months ago. It is the joining of two cooperatives, one of artists and artisans who were looking to find an economical means to rent a storefront in Chilpancingo, along with the cooperative that runs the coffee shop end of things. By the way, the coffee cooperative makes one of the best café de olla I have ever had, not too sweet allowing the flavor of the coffee and spices to come through. The artists and artisans come from different backgrounds. Some studied art but most come from areas completely unrelated to what they do now.
There are 15 members now working in different capacities in the organization. The house serves mostly as a gathering place and directly generates the most revenue through classes, coffee and special events. Most sales still occur off-site, but the grouping has allowed for more invitations to more events at further distances from Chilpancingo than before.
Embroidery by Narval Violeta
Left: hoop work by Narval Violeta Right: Sign on textile and jewelry workshop
The entire arrangement is well thought out and well-executed. The only drawback to the location is that it is not accessible to the casual visitor to Chilpancingo, but the city is not really a tourist attraction. The classes and cultural event do serve to engage the local community. However, the success of Casa Roja is not assured. When asked what the future plans of the Casa were, the immediate response was “pay the rent.”
What is most impressive about Casa Roja is that this is an effort by creators, for creators, relying on zero help from government agencies (and the strings that often come attached with such). It is also doing what it is doing in a very tough market. I see no reason why a similar organization would not have success in a larger city, especially ones with areas known for cultural activities.
Casa Roja is located a Altamirano 34, in downtown Chilpancingo. It has a Facebook page here.
Featured image is a filigree and drawing by Ariday
The craft is called ocoxal. Baskets are made of all kinds of materials in Mexico, based on the plants that are locally available. Many are similar to those made in other parts of the world: others, like the coiled baskets of northern Mexico are recognizable to that region. But those made of pine needles are an equally localized phenonenon, not readily associated with Mexico.
Mexico has millions of acres of pine forests, generally mixed in with other species such as holm oak. These are most prevalent in central Mexico into the north and at higher altitudes. Those in central Mexico, such as the border area between the State of Mexico and Michoacan, have an environment that those of us from the Appalachian and some Rocky Mountain states would feel right at home in.
These pine trees tend to grow very long needles, making baskets a viable product. They have been woven by the Mazahua of this region as well as in some other parts of Mexico (parts of Jalisco, northern Queretaro and Durango). It is the work of the Mazahua which is the best-known and best-marketed.
One of these Mazahua areas is the El Oro municipality, right on the State of Mexico side of the border. It is a former mining area, now best known as a Pueblo Magico and for its proximity to the monarch wintering sites.
The making and marketing of the baskets has been somewhat successful because of the abundance of raw material, as well as their uniqueness. The process of making the baskets begins with the collection of needles. This is limited to the beginning of the dry season, when needles fall off trees and dry out. (Needles are not harvested green or from the tree.) Two species of pine are favored: pinus michoacana and pinus montesume, colloquially called pino teocote and pino chino respectively.
The dependence on naturally falling needles presents some challenges. Pine needles, even from the same species of tree, do not grow the same. Soil conditions and other factors can result is a wide variety of colors and quality. Colors range from rust, to dark brown to an almost blonde. The main challenge is gathering enough quality needles. Most are broken, discolored or otherwise damaged by the elements, requiring the sort to occur on the forest floor. Eight hours of this work yields only about 400 grams of usable material per person. Artisan cooperatives can scour up to 80km2 of forest to collect enough.
Once the appropriate needles are selected, they are cleaned and disinfected with soap and/or bleach. They are then sorted by tone so that finished products can have uniformity. Pine needles baskets and other items are made principally with the coil method. Needles are laid out in a loose roll and then tied together and onto the previous circle to stablize the structure. Flexibility of the pine needles is an issue principally in the tightest of circles, when needles need to be bent the most. These needles are usually soaked in water, but the effect of cold temperatures on the needles’ naturally-occuring resin is also a concern. In outer circles or straight lines, needles can be worked dry without breaking. The string used to tie the coils together can be of various materials, but in most places, the most common is commerical hemp twine because of its strength and resistance. The cord is worked using metal needles and these needles, as well as the pine needles, can and often do piece hands. The time needed to complete a piece depends on size and complexity, but a basic tortilla holder with lid generally takes two people about two days to make. This include cleaning, disinfecting, moistening and the actual weaving. There are various families and cooperatives in El Oro and other locations which make the pieces. Most sell to intermediaries, but some have been able to organize representation at craft and other fairs to sell more direct to the public. However, the craft is very poorly paid for the amount of work it requires. These craftspeople must do other things, including subsistence agricutlture, to make ends meet.
Of all the materials available to these craftspeople the pine needle baskets have had the most success. They are unique and can emit a pleasant smell, especially when moist and recently made. The craft originated for purely utilitarian purposes for auto-consumption. Purely traditional objects and designs are still made and sold, but commercialization has had an effect on this craft like so many others.
The vast majority of artisans’ inventory is modifed traditional items or those which are completely new, which is the case in purely decorative works. The most important innovation has been the addition of metal accents. This is recent, probably about 15 or 20 years old. The metal is almost always polished stainless steel, which as been commerically-made specifically for this craft. The accent are found on edges and other parts where wear is strongest, so it has a practical as well as an aesthetic appeal. It is interesting to note that the addition of this cheap, industrial material does not detract from the handcrafted pieces but rather enhances them, especially those made with darker pine needles.
If a piece is used frequently, it can last about 5 years or so. Purely decorative pieces last much longer.
Completely new products include lamp bases, carrying bags, serving trays, storage boxes of all sizes, banks, fruit bowls and even Christmas decorations. Many are made to order. The range of popularity of these basketry items is limited mainly to inland tourist centers such as Michoacan, Mexico City, Tlaxcala and Moreloes.
Gerardo Castro is a pine needle worker from the small community of Santiago Oxtempan in El Oro. He belongs to the Xihuatl (pine) Mazahuart organization. He and the organization are Mazahua, one of six core members, employing up to ten more during peak seasons. He is at least the third generation in his family to do this work commercially, but does not feel that it is viable for those generations after him. Central Mexico offers more economic opportunities, which parents want their children to take advantage of. However, Castro hopes the craft can be preserved as a cultural activity.
One reason this column is named “Creative Hands of Mexico” is because I regularly run into creative work that spans outside of the traditional notion of “handcrafts” into design, art and other disciplines. The work crosses lines because it either has a “popular” aspect (as in popular culture) and/or objects of a utilitarian nature. I also run into foreigners who have made important contributions to Mexico’s creative culture.
Laura (or Lao) Gabrielli was born in Buenos Aires in 1971. She is absolutely a visual artist rather than an artisan, but some of her life and works share aspects with fine handcrafts and their makers.
She did not initially train as an artist, rather studying architecture, design and urbanism at the University of Buenos Aires. As a creative endeavor, architecture has both aesthetic and practical considerations, much like a good craftsman does. Later, she studied painting and painting restoration in her home country, then participated in art seminars in Argentina and New York.
Gabrielli came to Mexico in 2009 with her family. It was decided that Mexico could provide better economic opportunities for the family, in part because her husband already had a brother with a business here. Since negotiated compromise to come, the move left her disconnected and unsure of what path she should take. She knew absolutely no one here. She had some background working in fashion design, especially traditional Argentinian clothing, and furniture restoration, but all that stopped when she moved to Mexico. It was an abrupt change, and she found herself with little to do, as 9-to-5 jobs held no interest.
Her story began to change when Gabrielli decided to study Italian, meeting Italian-Mexican artist Luciano Spano and museographer Mercedes Auteri. With them and others, she began to connect with Mexico’s fine artists community… a move that allowed her to find her niche here in this country.
Although Gabrielli had some traditional artistic training, she began to question her work, she decided that she needed to draw upon all of her previous experience, being drawn to design, functionality and structure of the Bauhaus tradition. She experiments with both two and three dimensional works and with various kinds of materials, from the traditional canvas to those not ordinarily associated with artwork such as acrylic and mirrors. Today, her work is heavily abstract and geometric.
Much of the artist’s work is heavily dominated by the placement of lines, with the idea that the movement of the onlooker creates changes in the piece and completes the experience. Gabrielli wants her work to draw in the spectator… to participate in it. Vivid colors are an essential part of her work, an aspect she credits to Mexican influence. This influence can be traced back to one of her first exhibitions, featuring canvases inspired the designs of traditional Mexican textiles, especially weaving on backstrap looms. She has also been fascinated by Mexico’s seeming obsession with skulls in both fine and popular art.
Gabrielli finds Mexico to be an extremely creative country, although the art scene can be very competitive. Although her Mexico stay started off rough, she now has no plans to return to Argentina as she has a career and is comfortable here. She has had three individual exhibitions: two in 2017 in Miami, Florida and the Alianza Francesa in Mexico City and an upcoming exhibition in 2019 at the Argentine embassy of Mexico.
Gabrielli’s canvas works are most definitely abstract art in the classic sense of the word. But it is the mirror and acrylic light works that are more interesting from a handcraft fan’s point-of-view. These works really show her penchant for design. They also seem far better suited to home or office space rather than to a museum. Like fine handcrafts, one must spend more time understanding the piece to fully appreciate it. Both require that the onlooker check the craftsmanship of how the work is put together. Both require that the onlooker spend significant time checking it out from various perspectives.. not just once the way most museum visitors are limited to, but in multiple occasions. These pieces are best appreciated taking short looks at them passing by on different days on the way to do different things, as one would do in a home or home office.
All photos courtesy of the artist, featured image of skull for the Mexicraneo project 2017
The Flor de Mazahua (Mazahua Flower) workshop has it roots in a government program which is the likely origin of the ubiquitous María doll. Unfortunately, the phenomenal success of this doll has not translated into success for the Mazahua (and Otomi) women who stitched thousands of them in Mexico City. In fact, while the Mazahua as a people have been fairly well documented, along with their presence in Mexico City, their handcrafts have not.
Many indigenous peoples from all over Mexico have made their way at one time or another to the capital, but the Mazahua are one of the largest here. Their home area is based in ten municipalities in northwest State of Mexico and one (Zitácuaro) in far eastern Michoacan. Despite the State of Mexico’s overall strong economy, this area of the state is one of the poorest and most marginalized in Mexico. Much of the farmland here is seriously eroded and most of the forests have been cut. The industry that fuels much of the state’s economy has barely touched this region, and where it has, has caused problems of its own.
Migration of Mazahua and Otomi (whose territory overlaps that of the Mazahuas) to Mexico City began in the 1930s and 1940s because of economic conditions and social unrest. They congregated in and around the Merced Market on the eastern edge of the historic downtown. The men took menial jobs in factories and commerce, but their incomes were not enough to meet families’ needs. Women took jobs as well, but were most visible in the market selling agricultural products and handcrafts.
Migration of Mazahua surged in the early 1970s, especially from the areas around San Felipe del Progreso in the State of Mexico due to a number of crop failures from late frosts. These new migrants followed the footsteps of the generation before adapting to a way of life that is very different from the one they left. Mazahua women’s lives in particular were changed. Although they took jobs doing what they knew: childcare, cooking and handcrafts, they were no longer bound to their own houses and much of the time not directing attending to their families’ needs. Despite this, family ties remained extremely important as a way to cope economically and culturally.
Antonia Mondragon was only fourteen when she arrived to Mexico City with her parents in the mid 1970s. Their aim was not only to support themselves but also family still in the State of Mexico. At that time, mass migration of Mazahua to the United States did not exist. (That has since changed, and for this reason, mass migration of Mazahua and Otomi to Mexico City has ended.) At first, Mondragon worked taking care of smaller children as well as doing embroidery and sewing.
Mexicans’ attitude towards the indigenous is mixed at best. Indigenous women found themselves shut out of most types of employment due to language, appearance and dress. Many resorted to selling on the streets, which brought its own problems. Authorities restricted the selling of handcrafts in the city only to those indigenous who would wear traditional clothing. This led to Mazahua and Otomi women being more visible, but also stereotyped. These women became known collectively as “Marias.” The stereotype was the base of a well-known comic actress’s persona “La India Maria” (Maria, the Indian) in numerous movies and on television. It is important to note that even to this day, Mazahua/Otomi traditional women’s dress has really caught on among folk art collectors or those looking for “something Mexican” to add to their wardrobes. Their distinctive appearance made them easy targets for discrimination and abuse by local authorities and vendors’ groups with whom they competed.
Maria dolls based on the techniques taught at the Centro de Capacitación Mazahua-Otomi
One of the city’s answers to this problem was the founding of the Centro de Capacitación Mazahua-Otomi (Mazahua-Otomi Training Center) in 1972. It was initially founded in a building near the La Merced market and supervised by Guadalupe Rivera Marin. Rivera worked with city official and well as the governors of the states of State of Mexico and Queretaro (where most of the Mazahua and Otomi were from) to research the situation.
One conclusion of the study was that it was important to get the Marias off the street and into a safer work situation. This was the main focus of the Centro. It was open only to women, and these women were required to speak Mazahua or Otomi and know how to embroider. Very soon after starting, the program moved into larger facilities in the Merced Market proper, prompting resistance from other market vendors. The program shifted the women’s focus from the selling of handcrafts to their production, capitalizing what the women already knew, but the city also employed people to train the women in the making of dolls and the working of modern sewing machines. According to the program, women worked four-hour shifts, with the rest of the work day dedicated to literary classes, meal preparation, child care. The program was also designed to provide medical attention. The city bought the raw materials in bulk and every fifteen days, took loads of finished products to be sold in various parts of Mexico and even abroad. The earnings from sales was destined to support the program costs. The program started with over 300 women, but the numbers shot up to 800 after word got out about it. Interestingly, the program triggered even more migration of women to Mexico City.
Examples of traditional Mazahua embroidery
By far, the most successful product of this program were “Maria” dolls, based on the Mazahua/Otomi street vendors. Longtime Mazahua leader Antonia Mondragón credits the program with the design and training of the women in the making of the doll and their dress. Originally, the program created various types of dolls, from those in modern outfits and regional dress. This work was divided among five workshops, each dedicated to a different aspect of fabrication such as design, cutting, stitching pieces, stuffing and embroidery. The women working at the center, either making dolls, clothing or other items, were not considered artisans but rather employees.
The program had problems from the beginning, but the main one was that the pay for participants was very low. The city refused to pay the women the legal minimum wage. Nor did it have the usual benefits of government employment. However, the program worked adequately for about two year, more or less providing what was promised. It was safer than selling on the street and the women formed informal mutual help networks. This informal system of mutual help has remained intact in successive organizations.
Traditional embroidery on non-traditional items, a coat and a toilet-seat cover
However, the situation rapidly deteriorated. Most of the women remained illiterate, and medical care became nothing more than doctors notes for missing school or work. Pay remained low and became difficult to collect. By 1978, a group of women from the Centro made a formal complaint for lack of payment but were threatened with jail time. Opposition to the Centro from the rest of the Merced Market grew. Many women began to abandon the project, returning to street vending, but the program limped along until 1986, when its administration was transferred to the Venustiano Carranza borough, which decided to discontinue it. In addition, the 1985 earthquake damaged the Merced Market, which served as a pretext to shut the Centro premises down.
After the Centro’s demise, between 40 and 50 Mazahua women worked to keep the only livelihood they knew. The women were unable and did not to return to the State of Mexico, as they had no land rights as women. Their plight at that time was the focus of a documentary called Rehje (“water” in the Mazahua language). The Centro’s premises in Merced were padlocked but women took over empty spaces in the same market and got a court order blocking removal. They took their case to various organizations to ask for help. The first institution to do so was the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National School of Anthropology and History-ENAH), which gave them space to organize businesses selling food and washing clothes. From there, they gained advocates among the city’s artists, intellectuals and journalists.
Nevertheless, membership in the group dwindled to between seven and fifteen. Many of those that left went back to the streets, but also formed organization of Mazahua street vendors. Finally, the Venustiano Carranza borough decided to help the women form a tax-exempt organization under the name of Centro Mazahua. It began with 25 women, which its first tasks the recuperation of machinery, materials and products lost then the Centro was padlocked. This center worked with ENAH, adding handcrafts to the other activities. The new organization received support from press, and material support from local and even international non-profits. The lack of women and time meant suspension of many of the handcraft activities, especially doll-making because of its complicated nature. There were also internal political and organizational issues as well as regulatory issues with the borough.
Throw pillow that folds to imitate a stuffed animal
Those last demands led to a reorganization as a cooperative in 1989 with the name of Sociedad Cooperativa de Producción Artesanal Flor de Mazahua with thirteen members. Internal and external struggles put the organization into the red, and they had to give up the fight to keep what space they still had in the Merced Market. They moved east to an area called Colonia Viaducto as it was cheaper. When that move was completed, the cooperative had 28 members. They also abandoned their cooking and laundry businesses along with the facilities in ENAH. Financial problems continued and membership dropped to five. In 2002, the cooperative subsumed itself under the Asociación Civil Cihuatl, which works to see that government funds destined for indigenous persons are spent as directed. They had representation in the organization, but lost the facilities in Colonia Viaducto.
The thirteen founding members of the Cooperative have since physically split up, each with home-based workshops working with family members in eastern Mexico City as well as suburbs east and north of the city. The workshop of Antonia Mondragon, who was president of the cooperative for many years still uses the name Flor de Mazahua and employs about ten people in two interrelated families. They live in Arenal Puerto Aerea, just south of the Mexico City airport. Four generations are associated with this workshop, all of whom except her born in Mexico City.
Although simplified to reflect the lack of hands, the organization and focus of the workshop is much the same as that of the old Centro. This is problematic because the Centro’s mission was simply to get the women off the streets, not to teach them to create viable businesses. Generations later, these craftspeople do no know how to market. Despite being in an urban area, they have not even taken to social media (like many paper mache artisans have), instead still looking to government agencies to somehow fill in the marketing gap.
The products made are very similar to those made back in the 1970s. The embroidery work and doll-making are top notch, and thanks to Centro Nacional para el Desarrollo de Pueblos Indígenas (CDI), the family has industrial sewing machines and support through some annual fairs. One innovation off the dolls is the making of a kind of throw pillow, which folds into a kind of stylized stuffed animal and is well-made. Attempts to modernize traditional clothing has run into problems. The workshop understands the need to adapt traditional Mazahua clothing to modern markets, but fashion design and construction requires training that they do not have. Clothing other than the most traditional are not yet ready for market. It remains to be seen if Flor de Mazahua can survive and evolve into something viable for future generations of Mexico City Mazahua.