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Como se dice? (How do you say...?)

artesania crafts folk art Mexican

People often ask what we sell. I will answer “crafts” and sometimes "folk art"-- if I'm talking to people who don't understand Spanish. There just isn’t a good translation for the word artesania. Sometimes Spanish speaking experts in the field call it Arte Popular, but these days that isn't used much. The problem with both the Spanish term artesania and the English term "crafts" is that people have different ideas of what that is. We do not sell crochet items or cute DIY things made with supplies from hobby and craft stores. We don't sell piñatas either. Most of the items we carry are handmade, traditional, one of a kind pieces made by skilled artisans...or artists. But in Mexico, people who work in clay, carve wood, and hammer copper vases all day are rarely called artists. There is a question we have asked ourselves and others in the Arte Popular world: "Is it artesania or is it art?" An inspired clay sculpture expressing the artist’s vision of heaven and hell, or an elaborate hammered copper pot with chiseled handles in the shape of a lizard, or a maque (lacquered) plate or gourd-- how are they NOT art? I'll never forget when someone in my extended family asked me many years ago about one of our copper vases. She wanted to know where the artisan studied to learn how to make it. I explained that he learned by watching his father and uncles and grandfather in their family workshop, and that most indigenous artisans in Mexico have little education (many are in fact illiterate) and only a handful study art. She was amazed, and actually had a hard time believing that such beautiful art can be made by people who are considered to be "untrained". So the Spanish term Arte Popular (people's art) functions as a distinction between formally trained and untrained artists. I won't argue that the hammered copper vase or a delicately painted clay platter are “fine art”, but I will call them "fine crafts."

There is also some confusion for Spanish speakers who casually toss around the word artesanias-- so that word sometimes doesn't have any meaning in Spanish either. Often used synonymously with the word souvenirs, we have seen stores in Mexico, even in Michoacán which has a deep cultural connection with artesanias, that refer to merchandise which is clearly factory made ( maybe even in China) as artesania. You can buy your cute shot glasses with a cactus at the airport store, or the ceramic cup with boobs at the tianguis (craft flea market) but Mexico By Hand doesn’t sell that stuff. We DO sell some popular handmade items that are not traditional, but are clearly folk art. I put skeletons and other pieces that people refer to as "Day of the Dead Art" in that category. Tin niches with the Virgin of Guadalupe and Frida Kahlo? That's definitely folk art. So now I usually end up telling people that I import "fine crafts and folk art" from MIchoacán, Mexico. Which leads to other questions-- like where is Michoacan?

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