(COVID) Necesity is the mother of digital invention

This damn pandemic continues to affect the livelihoods of Mexican artisans, most likely for the rest of the year.

Perhaps one good thing to come of this will be the embrace of digital resources to promote and sell Mexico’s handcrafted items. Most artisans have not really taken advantage the Internet to sell. One reason certainly is a lack of access, especially those who live in extremely rural areas where even cell phone access is iffy at best. But there are also cultural issues.

The first is a misconception that using each and all online resources cost extra money. Yes, a professional website does, but there are free options such as a Facebook page. Another problem is that artisans have limited time to dedicate to learning new technologies (which keep changing).

Perhaps the most important issue is that Mexico is a very F2F culture, with people needing social contact, sometimes extensively. Face time builds trust and focuses the artisan on the matter at hand, as they usually have to juggle so many roles simultaneously. Email, Facebook and the like takes that away. Urban artisans seem to do better with digital resources than rural ones, both economically and culturally, but many of these do not take full advantage of what is available either.

Government and artisan organizations do not fare better, for similar reasons. There are also legal issues with them putting artisan information up, including the communal rights of indigenous peoples related to their cultural products.

However, I have noticed a subtle shift happening with this pandemic. For example, previously, I could not get artisans to do online interviews with me. They wanted me to come to their houses, sometimes multiple times. (And most still do.) Although such visits are optimal, they do cost money. More prohibitively, they take a lot of time in travel and the social niceties before we get to the 20-60 minutes of interview and photo-taking tbat translates into an article. This limits the number and geographic locations of artisans I can profile. Lately, however, I have been able to do some online interviews, with interviewees referring me to other artisans willing to work in this manner. In the long run, I hope I can reach artisans that I would never be able to otherwise.

Israel Mondragon managing online session from his home in Magdalena Contreras, CDMX

Organizations are starting to experiment as well. The Red de Artesanos Anáhuac (https://www.facebook.com/Red-De-Artesanos-Anahuac-1873662276254653/) had a series of 4 traditional conferences on different topics set for the spring and summer. The first, in March, went off as planned just as the pandemic was starting to affect daily life. The other three venues then shut down. Instead of simply waiting, Israel Mondragon decided to try his hand at doing the other conferences online. The learning curve was horrifically steep, not only learning what technologies to use, but also learning how to adapt presentations to the new media. Each session saw major improvements from the last, and more people coming in to see the sessions, both in real time and in recordings.

US-based organizations that support Mexican handcrafts have also been trying their hands with digital support. Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art (FOFA) has long been a sponsor of exhibitions and handcraft competitions to benefit artisans from Oaxaca. Their first attempt at doing a digital exhibition comes through their new Instagram channel @Friends_of_Oaxacan_Folkart, which inaugurated on July 1 with a series of photos highlighting various crafts and the artisans behind them. Throughout the month, FOFA will continue to put photographs up, especially those related to past young artists’ competitions.

Very recently, the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala had to cancel the 19th edition of this well-respected event. Realizing that even a postponement is not feasible due to logistics, they are in the process of setting up a new website that will work to help Feria artisans with sales at https://www.feriamaestros2.com/. This is in addition to already having accepted artisans for this year listed in a directory at www.feriamaestros2.com/2020maestros, which allows potential buyers to contact artisans directly.

It is very much human nature not to change how we do things until or unless there is a crisis. There is nothing wrong with traditional venues, which will certainly come back when the pandemic is over. We are social creatures, and current technology does not quite replace all other kinds of contact and maybe never will. But it is an important tool that needs to be in the arsenal of both artisan and aficionado alike.

Featured image by Alejandro Linares Garcia

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