Back and forth across the Pacific or Is it Mexican?

Before I write this post, I’m going to have to make a confession. When I first saw these crocheted figures, I immediately dismissed them… and for the same reasons that a lot of newer handcrafts done by women are dismissed. I simply assumed that it these were copies of some fad in the United States with no relavance to Mexican culture.

Grandmother figure by Rosa Hernandez of Tianguistenco, State of Mexico at the Amealco Doll Competition

But what if the issue is not with the creators, but rather we who assume what Mexican handcrafts should and should not be?

Both Mexican and foreign enthusiasts of Mexican handcrafts favor products which have been made for centuries, preferably by families with generations of experience and living in poverty in the middle of nowhere. For Mexicans, the draw comes from mexicanismo, the idea that Mexican identity is most authentically expressed by those living pre-20th century lives in the countryside. It comes out of the Mexican Revolution and the decades after with indigenous and rural life lionized by artists and intellectuals (and a new government needing to establish its legitimacy).

This gave Mexican handcrafts its first push towards relavence. Later, in the same century, it would be supported by waves of tourists as this industry become one of the most important in the country. It is pretty safe to say that most of Mexico’s artisans are now supported by the mostly foreign tourist and collectors’ markets. We foreigner enthusiasts come mostly from countries where our own traditional ways of life have all but died out, so the allure of Mexican “traditional” life is based on more-than-a-little nostalgia along with the desire for something exotic.

I’m not going to say that this is necesarily wrong. There are those in Mexico who want their way of life to change as little as possible from that of a century or more ago. If foreigners buying handcrafts helps to that end, great! But the danger comes in thinking that that is all that Mexican culture should be. It ignores that Mexico is a country that continues to evolve in its own way.

Even in something as seemingly insignificant as a crocheted doll can show this. Is it Mexican? Well, no and maybe. It does have a foreign origin, but that origin is more interesting that one might expect. Making stuffed human and animal figures with crocheted “skins” originated in Japan, not the United States. It’s a recent invention called amigurumi, done with crochet techniques brought from the West over a century ago. This figures have been made in the West only since 2003 and have taken on various new forms. It arrived to Mexico sometime after that.

Example of amigurumi by Bigunki

The first dolls of this type that I saw looked like something I would find done by a “bored housewife” in the US (not that such really exist). However, in the past two weeks, I have been introduced to work that challenged my initial perception. The first challenge came in the way of several entries in Amealco’s annual doll competition. Here the technique was used to create a Maria doll (the kind you see in just about every tourist trap), a grandmother in undyed wool yarn, a woman in traditional Zacatecas dress and more. I realized that the technique was versatile and women were adapting it to designs of their own.

The second came with a visit to Coatepec, Veracruz, a “pueblo mágico” just south of the capital of Xalapa. Here I met a woman named Maria Nohemi Ordoñez, who specializes in making animal figures which can be amazing for their design and sometimes… sheer size. She has made everything from miniatures to figures meters long/tall, with her TRex in amazing detail.

In her case, there aren’t any stereotypical markers to indicate “Mexican” with her work. Should that disqualify it? Well, the fact is that Mexico has a long tradition of integrating foreign influences and making them its own. Just in the realm of handcrafts, examples include Talavera pottery, most embroidery stitches and designs, most copper work, and wrought iron were adopted wholesale in design and technique. Mexico even has a tradition of making knock-offs of expensive imports. One of these is the making of cloth and paper mache dolls, meant to copy those of porcelain from Europe.

Orduñez with giraffe figure

What a number of “lessor handcrafts” lack in most cases is a history… certainly the case with crocheted dolls. But we are seeing the same process happening with them that has happened before: Mexico adapts something wholesale, then works to modify it to its identity and culture. While sticking a huipil on a crocheted doll might make it more “Mexican” in some ways, the real mexicanidad comes with the country’s uncanny ability to make something its own.

Featured photo: Crocheted Maria doll by Silvia Contreras of Calvillo, Aguascalientes

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