The struggle of Mazahuas in Mexico City

Mazahua street vendor in Mexico City

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.

Mazahua vendor in Tlalnepantla (credit: Marrovi)

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.

Mondragon with doll and great-granddaughter

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.

Embroidery in the Mazahua flower pattern

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.

A “baby Maria”

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.



El trabajo artesanal: Una estrategia de reproducción de los mazahuas en la ciudad de México Norma Juliana Lazcano Arce October 2005 Instituto Nacional de la Mujeres Mexico City

Cooperativa Flor de Mazahua cumple 40 años La Coperacha April 22, 2015

Interview with Antonia Mondragon April 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.