There are handcrafts that amaze not only for their apparent aesthestics, but on closer look, the patience that they require. One of these is “popotillo,” which literally means “little straws.” Essentially it is the coloring and arrangement of very thin “straws” (really a stiff wild grass called zacate) to make designs and image by placing small pieces, one-by-one, over a surface, usually wood.
Two experts in this endeavor are wife and husband Marta Patricia Garcia Aguilar and Roberto Domingo Mejía, from Los Reyes La Paz, State of Mexico. Garcia’s side of the family has done this work for several generations. This area of the State of Mexico is now part of the urban sprawl of Mexico City, but not too long ago it is rural. Garciá’s parents did this part time and in the early 2000’s, her husband learned the trade and began producing as well. However, he noticed that the craft brought in too little money when marketed the traditional way, through middlemen.
He worked to find new markets for the craft, first by cutting out the middlemen and forming a family business and then by looking for specialty markets that paid more. His first success was entering the markets in Xochimilco, an area of Mexico City popular with weekenders because of its canals. Breaking into these special markets meant that products needed to be of better quality and more innovative in order to stand out from other handcrafts. One way that the family does this is by making their images very detailed, often working with “straws” only millimeters long. Another strategy was to enter their best work in handcraft competitions, and by the end of the decade, they were regularly winning prizes in central Mexico.
In 2015, the family business was invited to participate in the Feria Maestros del Arte, a notable handcrafts market which is held yearly in Chapala, Jalisco. They are also regulars with the annual Entre Canastas, Tenates y Petates event of the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares in Mexico City.
Although the family is now urban, the craft keeps them in touch with nature. Their raw material, zacate, grows best at very high altitudes, which prompts the plant to grow very thin stems. The workshop contracts with collectors in small villages high up on the slopes of the nearby volcanos, something Mejia takes pride in as is helps the economy of the marginalized people there.
Their markets, however, are urban. The making of framed images and decorated boxes, tradtional items, are the backbone of the business, but Mejia in particular works to create new products, such as keyring holders and an ingenous hook apparatus to keep keys from falling to the bottom of women’s purses. Of course all of these are decorated in popotillo designs and images, sometimes only about 2cm wide.
All images by the author or Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise specified