Six months ago, almost to the day, I received an email from the buyer at the SFMOMA store. “Are you still in business, Peggy?” If so, I’d love to talk to you about our upcoming Diego Rivera exhibit. Tobey was a buyer there in 2008 for the Frida Kahlo show and she hadn't forgotten us. I remember that she made a point of acknowledging the artisans who created the pieces (they actually displayed some of my photos in the store) and also her enthusiasm for the artesanía we provided then. Tobey was a pleasure to work with and of course it’s an honor to be asked to participate in such an exhibit. Of course I’d love to talk about that! We both marveled at how many years had passed —really, it was 14 years ago?—and then we got down to the business of selecting and ordering the art. I spent weeks finalizing their choices, contacting the artisans in Mexico, placing orders, and sending money. I traveled to Mexico in April to pick up the orders, pack and ship the boxes (there were many, many boxes) and finally to deliver them to the museum in early May. And now, the long-awaited show has finally arrived and many of Mexico By Hand’s crafts and folk art are now on display in the museum store!
It’s been a rough couple of years for so many, and Mexican artisans have especially suffered from the Covid pandemic. Crafts events were canceled, tourism all but disappeared, and we lost some of our finest artisans to the virus.There was fear, despair and at times desperation— with many wondering how they would be able to survive. Being able to offer a few folks a chance to earn a large amount of money felt really good.
What a lot of folks don’t understand is that communicating with artisans from a distance can be challenging. I had to clarify prices, specify colors and sizes, and then make clear that the order had to be delivered by the date specified…or we would be screwed. The good news is that, for the most part, I was working with artisans who I knew for many years and trusted to do good work— folks who wouldn’t flake on me. And they trusted that I would pay them our agreed upon price quickly, so they were very happy to get to work. But since they’re Purépecha, they didn’t openly show it. When I told Angela, the Ocumicho artisan, that the museum would like to order 500 clay whistles, she responded, “Está bien.” It’s fine? We know she must have been jumping up and down at first thinking how many pesos worth that was, and then probably hyperventilating after she realized what a huge order she had been asked to produce.
Angela completed the job on time, as did Alejandra and Ticas of Capula who created beautiful clay Catrinas. The pieces were collected and ready to send.
Above is Peggy picking up the order of Frida catrinas from Alejandra in Capula.
Below is Ticas Perez and one of his skeleton couples.
Jesus Espicio of Huancito and I actually had never met in person. I wrote in a previous blog about how we found each other last year, and since I knew that he was able to use technology to communicate with me, I believed that working with him was my best chance for getting the 80 clay pots Tobey wanted.The burnished pots from Huancito were a big seller at the Frida show in ‘08-- so popular that the store re-ordered. At that time I had other ways of delivering them, but this year I needed to do something different. Below is a photo our friend Betsy took the day she helped us by picking up the pots from Jesus in Huancito, and a shot of some pots made for SFMOMA in the kiln.
We also ordered woven cotton rebozos from a women's cooperative in Turícuaro through our friend Diana. The photo below was taken when she delivered them to our hotel...they were gorgeous!
Other than the rebozos, all of our items were extremely fragile. The plan was for me to collect the orders in Michoacán and then pack and ship everything with a Mexican shipping company to pick up in Tijuana. From there we would drive it home to the Bay Area. It’s the least expensive— and more importantly— the safest way. Doug and I have done this before, and our most recent experience the year before wasn’t bad--except for it being a very long ride from the border to the Bay Area. That time not one finger of any of our clay Catrinas was broken. Even the border crossing wasn’t that stressful. And this year we had a better way to safely leave our car while we shopped in Michoacán, because our good friends had just moved to Baja California! We could even spend a few days with them getting to know El Valle de Guadalupe (Mexico’s booming wine country) and enjoy the great restaurants and craft breweries there. Combining business with pleasure is a tradition with Mexico By Hand, so this was going to be fun!
WhatsApp, and smart phones in general, have without a doubt made buying Mexican crafts easier than when we first started our business. So have the numerous ways we can now quickly and inexpensively wire money to artisans. Communicating, ordering, and paying are a hundred percent easier. However there still exist some huge challenges that you would never imagine. Like…boxes! We have spent hours running around Patzcuaro hunting for decent cardboard boxes we can use to pack up our precious cargo. We’ve so often had to make do with small ones that we could buy at the local grocery store that usually smelled like the detergent they came in. But we needed a lot of large, sturdy boxes, not only for the SFMOMA order, but for another big one that was to be sent to Iowa. Up until last year we had a packing assistant who bought good boxes to ship items to us in California, but we are no longer working together. However, we had flattened and saved many of the boxes from those shipments in our garage—so we hatched what we thought was a genius plan. Since we weren’t flying but were driving into Mexico (Valle de Guadalupe) we could fill up our vehicle with cardboard boxes and ship them with a paqueteria (shipping company) to Michoacán! Plus we could ship the copper wire we wanted to give to copper artisans along with it. (The copper wire story is really cool and will be posted later, but right now we’re talking about boxes.) It’s a long story, but with the help of our friends and the nice folks at Castores Paqueteria in Ensenada, our boxes were going back to Michoacán to be used one more time.
We packed up the merchandise in those boxes at our Mexico By Hand office in Patzcuaro (aka Betsy’s house) and then needed to get them to Castores in Morelia.There were a lot of boxes and we would need a very large van or a pickup truck. There are pickup trucks one can hire through the taxi companies and we quickly lined one up. We had confirmed the time, the place, and the price and I thought were all set, until he informed me at 10 o’clock the night before that he didn’t want to do it. Not cool! But we eventually found another taxista, who was amazing. Juan managed to carefully fit every box plus our luggage onto his truck, drove us to the paqueteria where our shipment was loaded onto two pallets, and then afterwards took us to our hotel.
A few days later, it was a Wednesday, we flew to Tijuana and then planned to enjoy a couple of days in El Valle at our friends while we waited for the boxes to arrive. Maybe they’d be there on Friday, or Saturday at the latest. We’d be home by Sunday night. Let’s just say that all did not go according to plan. Communicating with the company seemed impossible for a while (a few dozen phone calls to five different phone numbers) until I found someone there who responded to my WhatsApp messages. It was taking longer than anticipated, we were stuck waiting and I was really stressed. But the reality was that we were stuck in a beautiful place (see photo below of the view from our "casita") with a lovely place to sleep, and good friends to hang out with. It was a forced mini-vacation and I needed to just “go with it”. Finally, we picked up our boxes the following Tuesday and headed towards the border.
Without getting into all the gory details, let’s just say that crossing the U.S.-Tijuana border is not for the faint at heart. Much patience is required, and with experience I can tell you that every time is different. At least it has been for us. We had heard the line (known as “la linea”) was longer now since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2021 it took us about an hour and a half, which folks say is not bad. This year it took three hours. I had reserved and paid for a U-Haul trailer on the U.S. side and we were really sweating it; the way things were going we might not get there before they closed for the day and we’d be screwed. Just a minute before we arrived at the Customs and Border checkpoint, I received a phone call from the rental place reminding us they would be closing soon.“Yes, we’re on our way, almost there…we’re trying to cross the border right now!” The woman on the phone answered me, but I didn’t hear all she was saying because right then I was told by a border patrol officer to get off the phone. To make a long story short, we got through, and at that moment I received a text telling me not to worry, the U-Haul people would wait for us! I couldn’t believe it…SO nice. So within about ten minutes we were hitching up the trailer to our Honda Pilot and could be on our way. Yippee!
Even better is when after driving 10 hours to Berkeley we arrived home and opened up the boxes of artesania— because that is what this whole adventure was about, right? I started unpacking the clay Catrinas because they’re the most fragile. All of the first five boxes I opened were fine! Relieved and exhilarated, Doug and I opened a recently acquired bottle of Michoacán artisanal mezcal and celebrated our success. “Salud!”
The following week we delivered the merchandise to Tobey.
And finally, on July 28, I was able to see the beautiful artesanía we had brought from Michoacán in the SFMOMA store! Here are a few photos:
Below is a pic of some of the pots made by Jesús Espicio of Huancito in the museum store.
Diego Rivera's America at the SFMOMA is a fabulous exhibit. If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area between now and Jan.2, I highly recommend you see it! More info here: https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/diego-riveras-america/
We are happy to also carry a selection of burnished pots from Huancito and woven rebozos from Turícuaro on our website: www.mexicobyhand.com and I hope you'll take a look.
all the best,