The Feria Nacional de la Cultura Rural was recommended to me as worth visiting for handcrafts. The demise of my favorite Mexico City event, the Feria de los Pueblos Indígenas, meant the loss of a very important source of contact with artisans outside of my immediate region. Admittedly, I waited until the last day to get myself there, but I will definitely go back next year.
I go to events like this hoping to find the innovative as well as the traditional. I usually do a quick pass before starting to select artisans to approach, but upon arriving to the booth belonging to the family of Javier Intzin Lopez, I had to stop and interview them right there and then.
What stopped me in my tracks was Persian knotted rugs… done in Chiapas.
Intzin and his family is from a tiny village called Pajalton (Tenajapa), located in a very rural area of the Chiapas highlands. There are fewer than 700 people in the village living in just over 90 traditional indigenous homes. Most speak Tzeltal and about 170 do not speak Spanish at all. The nearest city is San Cristobal de las Casas, but it is not easy to get to because of the poor roads.
Intzin says that in 1985, a number of Otomi artisans from Temoaya, State of Mexico came to San Cristobal to teach their craft. Temoaya has had a knotted-rug industry since 1968, when the technique was introduced a way to create jobs. A number of Chiapas artisans learned it and for a time thereafter the village of Crutzon in San Juan Chamula became locally famous for the rugs. But the craft all but died out there and in the rest of Chiapas. But Intzin was also one of those who learned and has stuck with it for over 22 years despite the considerable difficulties… the only one who does it in his area.
The rugs he makes use the same techniques that the Otomi in Temoaya use, and like their best work, the rugs are 100% wool. What makes these rugs unique are the designs. Intzin and his family take various designs from embroidery and other textile traditions in the region and adapt them. The designs include those from communities such as San Juan Chamula, San Andres La Reina, Chalchuitan and Carranza. He also does special orders and has even done rugs with organizational logos.
As impressive as these rugs are, they are not easy to sell. Markets for this kind of work is limited mostly because of cost. The rugs on display were about 1.5 meters square, rectangular throw rugs. The prices started at 7,500 pesos (~400 dollars), not a quantity generally spent on a whim and out of reach of most Mexicans. However, the price is cheap when the time needed to make one is considered. One square meter takes an average of 25 days working 11-hour days to twist the approx. 200,000 knots needed. This makes the 6,000/m2 price absolutely cheap.
Almost all the rugs made are sold through fairs, and the maestro has had the opportunity to sell at venues such as the Feria Maestros de Arte in Lake Chapala that draw the kind of customers willing and able to pay for such work. But such sales involve travel time away from production. One obvious venue is the Internet, but this option is limited. Even cell phone coverage is spotty, and Internet is still nearly non-existant. It is possible to contact through WhatsApp, Facebook and an email address (WhatsApp preferred), but there is no web page and no online payment. Just be patient for an answer.
The family is able to make rugs up to 50 cm wide and 3 meters long. One drawback is that the wool yarn is imported from Australia, usually pre-dyed with commercial dyes (for economic feasibility). However, it is possible for them to order undyed wood yarn and dye it with traditional materials such as indigo, cochineal and various plants. One such naturally-colored rug won a handcraft competition for the family in San Luis Potosi.
These rugs can last up to 35 years if cared for well. One caveat is that they cannot stay wet or the wool will rot. At the Chapingo Fair, rugs were prominent and attracted attention, but their prices mean that few will be sold. To make fairs more worthwhile, the family brings other items made by them and neighbors which are easier to sell.
To contact maestro Javier Intzin Lopez…
Thanks to the artisan for sharing many of his photos with me to add to the ones I took.