It was early March of 2004. My husband and I along with our youngest daughter were living in Morelia, Michoacán and my parents had finally come to visit. It was time to leave the city and visit Mexico’s famous Monarch butterfly sanctuaries, because both the butterflies and my parents would soon be leaving. I had first learned about the Monarch’s annual journey to Mexico when I was teaching 4th grade. We were studying the life cycle of the butterfly and interestingly the monarch is the state insect of California. I knew that the thousands of butterflies that spent the winter in the eastern part of Michoacán and the State of Mexico were part of the eastern monarch migration, not the same as the group that flies to California every year, but the miracle of their 3,000 plus kilometer journey was pretty much the same. I couldn’t wait to see this amazing event for myself.
We opted for the smallest, least crowded sanctuary located not far from a beautiful and highly rated hotel that I was pretty sure we would all enjoy. That trip made me anxious. I was worried if there would be enough butterflies at that time (they don’t have a set schedule and often are gone by the end of February) and would the long trek from Morelia be worth it. As we climbed up the steep rocky path on horseback, I began to worry less about the butterflies and more about the wisdom of leading my parents, who were in their eighties and had never been on a horse, up a Mexican mountainside in search of insects. I knew my mom and dad love seeing the butterflies that gather every year at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, California where they lived, and felt pretty sure they would enjoy seeing them in the wild in Mexico. They did. They managed to make the climb without falling and breaking a hip, and all-in-all enjoyed the adventure. I can’t find the few photos we took of that particular trip, but I still have a souvenir: one of the several pine needle baskets we bought from a woman who was weaving at a small stand at the trailhead. I was enchanted by those baskets then-- and I still am.
Fast forward to 2019. In the past fifteen years I have bought and sold thousands of pieces of handmade artesania (crafts) from Mexico, including dozens of pine needle baskets. I’ve acquired the baskets various ways-- sometimes from the artisans themselves while I’m in Mexico and they happen to be selling in Morelia or Uruapan, and other times through my assistant who arranges a purchase for me and ships them to California. All of my family has at least one pine needle basket, and in addition to them being a popular product for Mexico By Hand, I often give them as gifts. Who doesn’t need a beautiful basket, right? So when I got an email in October inquiring about making a large purchase of some kind of Mexican basket for a food blogger with a YouTube channel, I convinced the buyer that everyone needs one of these pine needle baskets. Could we handle an order of 600? Well, yeah, I think so. Why not? If Mom and Dad could visit the butterflies in Michoacán without breaking numerous bones, we should be able to deliver some baskets to a company in Pennsylvania. But, being that it is Mexico we’re dealing with and the fact that I have racked up a little experience working with artisans, I immediately began to contemplate the challenges with this order, and to worry about what could go wrong. The lead artisan contact confirmed they could handle an order that size by the target date-- and the deal was a “go”! The next and biggest issue of course was would the artisans actually complete the order on time. I estimate that half the time I make a special order of crafts there’s a delay, for one reason or another. Someone got sick, the rains slowed things down, it was fiesta time, etc. We hatched a plan designed to prevent such delays-- we would offer a generous bonus for delivering a month early-- an idea that we had never thought to employ before. The bonus was such a good idea and so appealing to the artisans, that the baskets were finished 2 months ahead of time! It seems that the entire village was called in to work on the baskets, and they got it done. Great news! Not only were they finished early, which meant I could have a box sent to me in time for my Christmas sale, but I could also personally see the quality of the work before the client received them. Quality control is another very important concern when one places a large order. And one can’t be sure --even with a photo-- that the artisans understood exactly what I wanted. I held my breath as I opened the box...the baskets were fantastic! Exactly as I had envisioned. Wow, this was really working out!
I sent the final payment to the artisans, and I let the client know they would receive them in mid-January. Everything was going great!
My holiday sales events were hard work but successful, and afterwards it was my time to relax for a bit.
Then, on January 2nd as I was casually checking my emails, arrived the following message: “Peggy, I hope you had a nice holiday. I am emailing in reference to the basket order # 1357 we purchased from you. Unfortunately, our investor funding did not come through and we can not pay for the balance of the order. We are closing the company. I am very sorry but we need to cancel this order.”
Whoa. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. How could this be? They had already paid me quite a lot of money and were just going to walk away from this deal? I had never received such a large order for a single product, and I never had a client cancel on me. Of all the things I worried about with this deal, this never crossed my mind. And then after I got over my initial shock, it hit me: I have 600 baskets to sell!
It’s time to tell the story of the Pine Needle Baskets.
At the end of February, about six weeks after the basket order was cancelled, I went for my third visit of a Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary--Sierra Chincua in Michoacán. It was again a magical experience being in this gorgeous setting and seeing thousands of butterflies flying around us. And the good news is that the numbers of butterflies who overwinter in the Mexico mountains have increased in 2018 and the efforts of conservation appear to be working.
But there is another story that the millions of tourists who visit the area each year don't see. Because of the prohibition on logging in the forests to protect the endangered butterflies, many of the indigenous people who live there have lost their livelihoods, and they are barely surviving. Tourism does not bring in as much money as lumbering, according to the group Monarch Watch, and “action must be taken soon if the Monarchs are to survive the 21st century, but it will require creativity, hard work, and compassion for both the butterflies and their human neighbors.”
I spent several hours with a few artisans who weave beautiful pine needle baskets in the community of Donaciano Ojeda, high up in the sierra not far from the butterfly sanctuaries.The sale of the baskets provides much needed income for families, and helps protect the butterflies.
In my fourteen years of buying Mexican artesania for resale, I have visited dozens of artisan homes in numerous rural villages--mostly in Michoacán, a very poor state, where the majority of artisans struggle to make a modest living. But I have to say that I have never seen such poverty as I did in this community. The surrounding scenery is stunningly beautiful, the air was fresh and clean and the sun was warm, yet the children we saw there appeared dirty, listless, and sad--and most likely hungry as well.
The women we spoke with are part of a cooperative called Grupo Florecito, which was formed about 18 years ago.The artisans go into the nearby forest and gather up pine needles (called ocoxal) and spend hours cleaning the needles and carefully weaving them into baskets. Most of the weavers are women, as many men travel to either Mexico City or the U.S. in search of jobs that pay better.
Finding customers for their work is always challenging. Cooperative members have to travel by bus to crafts fairs several hours away a few times a year [photo] and there’s always the hope they’ll be lucky and find a buyer, such as myself, who will purchase a large quantity. The group has no website or social media presence, and contacting them by phone can prove to be challenging. But my last order was completed quickly and the quality of these sturdy baskets is remarkable.
Mexico By Hand's customers love these baskets. They’re great for serving tortillas or bread, are extremely sturdy and have the added bonus of smelling like the pine tree forest where they’re made. Plus the issue of survival-- of both the people who make the baskets and the magnificent Monarchs-- can’t help but move customers to want one in their home.
To purchase a pine needle basket, please go to https://mexico-by-hand.myshopify.com/collections/frontpage/products/handmade-pine-needle-basket-medium-1
*Many thanks to Ferron Salniker for her beautiful photos and assistance.