Giving papier mache artisans their own proper store

Visiting Tekitl… and a cheap plug for my book

In a teeny-tiny space on Donceles Street, near the Senate Palace in the historic center of Mexico City, is a store called Tekitl. The name comes from Nahuatl meaning “work” often the kind done for the community, and sometimes its means “craft.”

Tekitl is dedicated to the work of Mexico’s papier mache artisans. This is not grade-school projects. It has strong cultural roots, especially in central Mexico, and is called cartonería. Those who do it are called cartoneros. (To read more about its significance, please check out this article.)

I do not usually dedicate blog space to a resale operation unless there is something special about it. We will start with the owners, Alberto Montessoro, Jose Luis Maldonaldo, and Felipe Jaso, who are all working cartoneros. The business was originally Montessoro’s idea, as he has retail business experience through running a corner store. He invited Maldonado and some others to join him and the store opened in October of 2019.

Things went well at first, but soon there were disagreements among the initial partners. This and the start of the Covid-19 crisis forced the store to close and reorganize.

It was a difficult 4 months or so, but Maldonado believes the three current partners have succeeded in making the store much better than it was before, with better organization, outreach, and merchandise. What did not change was that it is owned and operated by cartoneros to promote cartoneros.

Having their hands in paper and paste for years, these men are uniquely qualified to judge good pieces, both in design and technique, and put this knowledge to good use. Of course they have work by a number of artisans of great reputation in the cartonería community, such as the Urban family in Tultepec and Alfonso Morelos in Jojutla, Morelos, but they also have discovered work by who have come into the craft recently and through non-traditional paths. For them, the quality of the work is more important than reputation or who is well-connected in Mexico’s handcraft world.

The vast majority of the pieces come from the Mexico City metropolitan area, but that is because there are so many cartoneros here, and shipping is not such a big issue. But Tekitl does not limit themselves to “chilango” work. The artisans are charged a 300-peso monthly fee to put their pieces in the shop, but that is a pittance compared to the 1,000 and 2,000 pesos that many events charge for a table, and only for a few days.

Tekitl’s work is not limited to just putting handcrafts on shelves. Part of its mission is to promote the cartonería community while getting the name of the store out there as well. They have an arrangement with a general handcraft store called La Cieba on Calle Bucarelli in Mexico City. This arrangement allows the two stores to rotate merchandise between them, giving the work more exposure. They have started working with local commercial establishments, such as pulque (an indigenous alcoholic drink) bars to display cartonería pieces as decorations and to have them available for sale as well. Devil figures (called Judases) and Day of the Dead altars work particularly well for this.

The business also negotiates with local cultural events to participate both as a business and as a representative for the cartonería community. Currently, they are negotiating with Cumbre de Catrinas, an event dedicated to the famous female skeletal figure, atthe archeological site of Teotihuacan. The idea is to create a monumental-sized Catrina for display there. In the past this event drew 15,000 people and hopefully that figure won’t be too far off this year even though the archeological site just reopened to limited capacity.

The most obvious benefit to the store is having a permanent presence in one of Mexico City’s tourist areas, giving visitors a physical space to see the kind of work being done. This not only include potential buyers but also government and cultural authorities, giving them and idea just how seriously cartoneros take their work.

The space is tiny, so the shop concentrates on small items such as masks, skeletal figures, alebrijes, skulls, magnets, and other small knickknacks, which are easy to buy and have a taste of what cartonería has to offer. Those looking for more larger and more elaborate pieces can speak to the staff, which is happy to help them find an artisan who can help them.

Unlike many initiatives of this type, it is a completely private enterprise, with the initial investment by the owners, and income generated by sales. This is important because while government has done much to help artisans, it is far from sufficient. Artisans are realizing that they need to take their future into their own hands, and they will be better off for it in the long run.

So far, the store has not turned a profit, but Maldonado says they are making progress toward that end. The owners are very optimistic for the long run with ideas of opening other stores in tourist areas, a project called Corazon de Cartonero to promote the craft nationally, and even to create a kind a “Unión Nacional de Cartoneros.”

One thing lacking so far is the ability to sell online. They have a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Tekitl-Cartoner%C3%ADa-y-m%C3%A1s-100498385105500 and are on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/tekitl_cartoneria/?hl=en but no website as of yet.

Tekitl is located on Calle Donceles 47 in the historic center.

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