Taking Otomi embroidery to the next level

Tonani Lirio de los Valles is a 3-generation artisan family business, which has taken traditional Tenango embroidery to a new level. The family is not from the town of Tenango, but the embroidery style is the inheritance of this entire area on the Hidalgo/Puebla border called the Sierra Otomi Tepehua. The family is Otomi and speaks the Otomi language.

The family’s involvement with embroidery was traditional, with grandmother Florencia Hernandez Rios teaching her daughters and other family members. However, the development took on a new tack when daughter Rosa Gonzalez Hernandez studied fashion design and production in technical school. This has permitted the family to focus on the making of clothing and linens of their own design.

It did not start out as the family’s primary source of income. Gonzalez began like most artisans, making clothes for her family and selling items like embroidered napkins to neighbors. She expanded into dresses and other linens, but always with more modern elements in the overall design.  Her work began to attract the attention of those with professional jobs, teachers and the like who came to her to ask for a dress or a shirt for a special occasion. By the beginning of 2006, the idea had emerged that this could be a business.

The family pitched in with production and were able to have a stand at their first event the Feria del Pueblo in Pahuatlán, Puebla. The business grew enough to become a good second income for the family, including the grandmother, some aunts and their children. But most still had to work other jobs. Even 3rd generation Jaciel Flores Gonzalez had to migrate as far as Durango on occasion.

The business continued to grow, eventually becoming the main source of income, allowing the family to work together in one place. They moved from small villages such as Zacapehuaya to Pahuatlan, but about 8 years ago, they moved again to regional economic center Tulancingo, Hidalgo for better educational opportunities. This move allowed all of the 3rd generation to study, with some studying skills such as accounting and graphic design, practical to the continued development of the business. Gonzalez is still in charge of design and product development. Her husband is in charge of the cutting room. The business today not only employs most of the extended family, as well as the communities of the border region they left. About 100 people are directly involved in some way, mostly in embroidery, but more than that will come on board when business is good.

What makes Tonani’s product line stand out is that they focus on combining traditional embroidery on modern clothing and home décor items for modern markets in urban areas. One reason for this is very economic, such a market can pay them fair prices for their work. But it is also important in other ways. Many Otomi have moved from villages to cities to work, mostly in construction and in factories. They and others in the cities are not looking to wear traditional garb from the countryside but having elements from that culture reinforces pride. Innovation allows Tonani to create clothing that, for example, can be worn to work in an office, but still be unmistakably Otomi. The sales of the clothing allows the company to contract with traditional embroiderers in the rural areas, allowing this traditional craft to survive.

Willy Garcia of Wilgart modeling a shirt

They have had to made other modifications. Tenango embroidery is traditionally done on “manta” (a kind of muslin), a fabric  not really suited to city clothing in part because it is so associated with farm life. They have had to learn how to do the embroidery on other kinds of fabrics, including those that are a bit more delicate and come in a wide variety of colors.

That the family is Otomi and connected to a very traditional Otomi reason is important, says Jaciel Flores. It is true that “too much” innovation could run the “essence” of the craft, but since the family is involved in the underlying culture, this is less of a problem. For example, they have a long history of maintaining ties with embroiderers in the Sierra Otomi Tepehua, sponsoring celebrations. With the current COVID-19 emergency, they have also sent packages of basic foodstuffs to help out.

Their innovation seeks an equilibrium. It includes making clothing in sizes from small to a very non-traditional XXL. The embroidery elements are traditional, but often placed much more judiciously than on more traditional clothing. They have started experimenting with clothing that does not include embroidery such as printed t-shirts. In this case, tradition and Otomi identity is expressed not only with images, but words from the Otomi language. One variation has the Otomi word for Mexico (along with Spanish translation). More importantly, according to Flores, are those with the Otomi words for “respect,” “compassion,” and “equality” to represent traditional indigenous values and the fact that all peoples are equal.

New t-shirt design photographed for this article!

Most of their sales have been through traditional venues such as fairs and retail distributors. They do have a pretty well-developed Facebook page and can sell online. The current pandemic lockdown has decimated sales, but they feel a commitment not only to their immediate family, but also their rural suppliers, looking for ways to replace the lost business and continue to move forward. One large element is to learn how better take advantage of digital resources.

Flores is a very optimistic person who strongly believes in what he is doing for both family and community. He says,  “Many artisans do not believe it is possible to grow businesses with what they do. But it is indeed possible… We started as a very humble family and we identify with them.”

All photographs used with permission from Tonani Lirio de los Valles

They can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/TonaniLiriodeLosValles/

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