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Handmade-- endangered species?

Peggy Stein artesania blouses crafts handmade Michoacan rebozos textiles traditional

Last year I noticed their arrival. Hung on the outside of every store that rings the beautiful Plaza Grande, the bright eye-catching designs are everywhere. It's no wonder people like these blouses, but when one takes a closer look, the educated eye can tell they’re machine made. They’re also not from around here. These inexpensive additions from Chiapas and Oaxaca are found not only in the shops of the “comerciantes” or resellers who don’t actually make anything, but in shops where one goes to seek out the quality traditional handmade textiles made by artisans in Michoacán. It's extremely common in Mexico’s touristy beach areas to see folks selling clothing and crafts that aren't locally made. There are no real indigenous crafts made in Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, or Cuernavaca. For years Huichol Indians have sold their work in Los Cabos, and peddlers from Guerrero have walked all over most of Mexico's popular beaches in search of customers for their shell jewelry and hammocks. It adds to the visitor experience and enjoyment of what one thinks is local culture. The thing is, the vendedores (salespeople) who have been forced to leave their homes and families to travel to a tourist spot in another Mexican state -- they're not really hurting anyone with their entrepreneurial spirit. But what's happening now in Michoacán is different. We’re seeing beautiful artesania, handmade by local embroiderers and weavers-- endangered.

[Above: Blouses not made in Michoacán. Patzcuaro 2017]

In July of 2016 my family was invited to attend a First Communion in Jaracuaro, on the edge of Lake Patzcuaro. It’s a traditional sombrero-making Purepecha village where few tourists go, and is one of the few artisan towns in Michoacán we’ve never visited. The hats made in Jaracuaro today are mostly machine-made and are sold in vast numbers all over Mexico and the United States. After getting an explanation and tour of the process in one workshop, I stepped into the store in front to look around. In addition to dozens of beautiful hats, they carry clothing as well, which of course I wanted to check out. The chica working there pointed out their “rebozos”. I knew they weren’t from Michoacán, because even the machine-made ones you see in the market are distinctive. These were not woven but printed with a flowery pattern, and looked like they could be from India, or maybe Turkey. I took a closer look at the tag, which was marked “Made in China”. It pained me to see that label in this indigenous Michoacán village, but what disturbed me even more was hearing that young woman passing these cheap machine made textiles off as “rebozos”. I’m sorry that she and whoever made the decision to sell them are trying to tell us that they are. A rebozo is a handmade shawl woven either on a footloom or backstrap loom. Michoacán is one of the few places in Mexico where these traditional textiles are still made, and there are several villages where it is a major source of the family income. Imported shawls are putting these weavers out of work.

In indigenous communities in the poor state of Michoacán, there aren’t a lot of employment opportunities for women without much education. If a woman can work on a blouse or rebozo for a few hours a day while a pot of beans is cooking over the fire and she watches her children, that is something that can provide some income for her family. The traditional designs that have been passed down from mother to daughter represent their community and culture. If the demand for the work disappears, it would be a financial and spiritual loss for the women and their families.  

Fast forward a year to my 2017 summer visit to Michoacán when I see that the blouses from other Mexican states have completely taken over, and it’s even more difficult to find a Michoacán-made blouse in Patzcuaro’s clothing stalls. A friend who lives in Patzcuaro and was accompanying a friend from the U.S. who was shopping around the Plaza, commented to me, “Wow, it’s getting harder and harder to find a handmade blouse in this town.” Yes, it is. Apparently someone arrives regularly with a large truck full of textiles to sell cheap to shop owners in the area. They sell faster than the more expensive handmade clothing, so they go for the quick buck. It’s understandable but extremely worrisome and short-sighted. If the trend continues, this traditional handmade work will disappear.

So what can we do? For one, don’t buy those cheap machine made products. It’s sometimes difficult to know whether something is handmade or not, and takes some experience and education. I’ve seen textiles so tightly woven or stitched that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t made by a machine. Generally though, handmade is more expensive. A backstrap woven rebozo can take a month or two to make and cost anywhere from 500 to 5,000 pesos in Mexico. Shop around, ask questions, and educate yourself. If you speak Spanish, ask the shop owners where and how the piece was made. “Hecho a mano?” “Hecho en Michoacán? En qué pueblo?” Let shop owners know that you prefer to buy local handmade crafts from Michoacán. Tell your friends who shop in Patzcuaro to also buy local handmade crafts. Better yet, if you live in or travel to Michoacán, go visit artisan villages and buy directly from the artisans. (We offer tours and consulting that can help with that.) And if you care about this and live in the United States, be aware that Mexico By Hand buys directly from Michoacán embroiderers and weavers and sells their quality handmade textiles in the Bay Area and online. The work is greatly admired by North American women who are willing to pay the price (and more) for the handmade textiles in order to cover our costs of doing business. We’re willing to spend what it takes to travel 2,000 miles to select and ship them back to the States. And we also enjoy hearing how much our customers love the blouses, and that they want us to buy even more. It is our sincere hope that others will continue to support this beautiful work, since sales to Mexico By Hand alone will never be able to sustain the artisans. That said, we vow to keep doing what we’re doing it as long as we’re able and our wonderful customers keep buying.


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