A perennial problem that artisans have is the push-pull between production and sales. Any time spent on sales takes time away from production, but relying on resellers results in very low prices for artisans.
One answer that a number of artisans have found is in cooperatives. The simplest and most successful of these have been small groups of producers, often women, who make similar items and take turns selling, especially at fairs where one needs days of travel and sales time.
However, there have been attempts to take the cooperative idea and develop it into something further, both economically and culturally. Huizache Arte Vivo de Oaxaca is one of these.
Most people’s first look at Huizache is their store, located on one of Oaxaca City’s main tourist avenues, Macedonio Alcalá (near the corner of Murguia) in the historic center. It is an old colonial building that the cooperative practically rebuilt. The building has ten rooms, each concentrating on the different handcrafts produced in the state of Oaxaca. These include the famous barro negro from San Bartolo Coyotepec, the pottery of Santa Maria Atzompa, various huipils and other textiles along with lesser-known items such as gold and silver jewelry, knives, a multitude of textile products (cotton, wool and silk), baskets, leather and more. All of the state’s eight regions are represented. The fixed, prominent location of the store has given the artisans associated with it a number of benefits, but perhaps the real beauty of Huizache is what is behind the scenes. First, of all, there is an organization behind it strong enough to send representatives to other parts of Mexico to promote their project and network. I became aware of the organization by meeting member Pedro Mendoza at the First Reunion of Cartoneros in Orizaba, Veracruz.
The idea of an artisans’ cooperative is not new in Oaxaca. Huizache itself branched off from a similar organization called the Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca, which was established in 2001. Thirteen years later, a number of families from the Casa wanted to create a more inclusive organization, one not only open to artisans, but other kinds of creators as well. They were also interested in adapting traditional rural and indigenous organizational concepts to a modern cooperative.
Today, seventy families form the membership base of Huizache Arte Vivo de Oaxaca. Almost all members are artisans making Oaxacan alebrijes, various types of pottery, textiles, jewelry and more. In addition to products made by the member families, products from 400+ more make their way into the shop, with a board of authenticity making sure that all products are handcrafted 100% in Oaxaca. Huizache has worked to have artisans from a variety of age groups. About 40% are over 40, but the rest are between 26 and 40 years of age. But the main goal of Huizache is help artisans live as such “with dignity.” They combat the idea that being an artisan is only for very poor people with no other means of making a living. About 40% of their membership has college degrees. Some have abandoned their professions entirely in favor of their craft. One example is Pedro Mendoza Ko, who now works full time in wood and paper mache, creating a number of very visible projects.
But perhaps one of the main ways that Huizache works to raise the prestige of artisans is through its cultural programs. In addition to the store, the building is a cultural center as well. It supports and promots musicians, artists, anthropologists and those practicing traditional medicine. One reason for this is discontent with the state’s annual Guelaguetza extravaganza, which many consider to be nothing more than a money-making scheme. In addition, there are many aspects of Oaxacan culture that do not adapt well to large stages and are ignored by the annual event.
In additon to art and handcraft exhibitions, concerts, literature events, the center offers classes in cultural studies such as Zapotec cosmology. Perhaps with activity with the most direct link to the artisans are those which teach the making of the various crafts. The goal of these classes is to teach tourists and others to appreciate the time and skill needed to make fine handcrafts, although the classes have produced a number of people who decide to pursue the activity.
Unlike other artisan cooperatives, Huizache has welcomed visual artists, musicians and writers present at their facilities and even be members. The current president is a radio announcer. But all members, artisans or not, produce something for the organization; none are there only to do administration. One benefit to inviting other kinds of creators is that Huizache has been able to promote itself in ways many other artisans do not, in particular taking advantage of social media. They have a blog, a Facebook group and a YouTube channel.
That is not to say that administration is not important. It is extremely important and extremely difficult. One the the artisans’ main concerns create an administrative system that remains true to their values and avoids power getting concentrated into a few hands… or worse… shifting to the government.
In Huizache, all admininstrative function are done via unpaid community service by members, a concept traditionally called tequio. There are many administrative positions and these rotage among the membership with two-year terms. No position can be held by the same person for a second term without a ten-year gap inbetween. This means that just about all members are performing administrative functions, all eventually learn all aspects of administration and it works to keep “vicios” (lit. vices) away.
The concept of tequio is just one of five traditional concepts that underlie the organization and which come from the traditional organization (usos y costumbres) of rural and indigenous communities. These are the Asamblea (assembly), the Tequio (unpaid community service), Guelaguetza (festival), Trueque (barter) and Tianguis (market). The Asamblea is the main authority of the community. For the cooperative, members meet once a month to make communal decisions affecting their operations. Tequio underlies the building maintenance and care along with administrative tasks. In Huizache, Guelaguetza is achieved through its various cultural events. The last, tianguis, refers to economic activity necesary for the organization’s survival. The organization also encourages members to trade goods and knowledge among themselves.
The organization exists in part because its members feel that official government channels do not meet their needs, or worse, thwart them. Huizache and other similar Oaxacan organiztions promote these traditional ideals as a way to resolve many of the social and economic ills that plague one of Mexico’s poorest states, not just as a way to run a cooperative. When artisans are doing shifts in the store, they have to resist the urge to focus on the sale only on their own wares, but to promote everything in the store. They need to think communally to the point of taking classes and workshops so that artisans of any type can explain what is important about any other kind of handcraft in the store, not just the ones they personally make. But perhaps one of the most dignified things that Huizache does is individualistic… it DOES give credit to the artisan (family) that made the item. This is something most galleries, even government-run ones, do not do.
Huizache is completely self-sustaining, receiving no government or NGO help. The organization takes only 10% of the purchage price to cover expenses, which includes rent for the space (prime real estate), utilities, etc. Sometimes extra costs are taken on voluntarily by the group. A member was fined heavily by her local community for teaching classes in her craft at the cooperative, something prohibited by the local council. Although she only asked for a loan to pay the fine, the membership decided to chip in and pay it for her. This independence gives the organization freedom to operate how they want, and the government cannot ask them for “favors” such as supporting certain policies. It also gives them a kind of authority and reputation in Oaxaca. They have worked to discourage the very Mexican tradition of negotiating prices down. The main reason for this is that such “regeteo” comes from an ignorance of just how much time and talent is needed for the making of fine handcrafts. It also disrepects the communities that produce them, which are often very poor, very rural and indigenous.