The butterflies embodied in a textile from Chiapas, a flower painted on wooden carvings from Oaxaca, or the earth that lives in a clay pot from Puebla: each piece hand-crafted in Mexico has a life and soul of its own, and they are connected with nature.
These pieces contain stories of women who recognize the importance of their work as a means of generating income and supporting their families, but also as a way of expressing and preserving the traditions of their ancestors.
This is the way Rosa Pérez and a group of other women in Los Altos de Chiapas live. Los Altos is a region in the southeast of Mexico, located between green mountains that take everyone’s breath away, far away from urbanization, but also far away from other sources of employment.
Traditionally, women learn the textile trade from each other. Although not all learn from childhood, mastering the technique provides great satisfaction at any age.
Rosa learned how to work with looms when she was 15 years old by watching her mother. Like most women, she inherited this knowledge from other women. Now, at age 48, she creates textiles with other women as part of a community. They are inspired by nature, and are particularly happy when they have a secure job. “When there is a work request, the group meets to think and discuss how they are going to do the job together so that it turns out well,” she tells us in Tzotzil —the language spoken in the area—, with the help of an interpreter.
Compared to machine-made textiles, these artisan women know the value of their hand-made pieces, as well as their quality and originality that make them unrepeatable.
Guadalupe Hernández explains they can spend from eight hours a day up to several months in the creation of bags, napkins, blouses and other pieces. It all depends on the complexity of the designs which have evolved based on the new materials available and customers’ taste.
Living off the Land
In Los Reyes Metzontla, a community located about three hours south of the capital of Puebla, Pascuala Valderas and her family have lived off the land for generations. Like many other people in this town, she learned how to work with clay from her mother, and now she shares the art of creating vases, jugs, pots and other pieces of clay with her daughter and grandchildren.
Pascuala and her family work with clay not only as a way of remaining connected with their ancestors’s traditions, but also as their main source of income. “This is where we get everything we need from: food, clothing, and sometimes even medical expenses,” she explains in her workshop, “we are the ones who support our family through this job.”
Pascuala spends several days working on the creation of a textile since everything is handmade. She extracts the mud from the hill, and then works it guided by what her imagination dictates.
The artisans of Los Reyes Metzontla work hand in hand with nature, which provides them with raw materials and inspiration, but also with great satisfaction. “Our clay has no lead, it has no enamel. They can use it as they please without having to worry about harmful side effects, because it is a natural clay ”, says Verónica Díaz Pacheco, who started working with clay with her parents when she was eight years old.
At age 41, Verónica appreciates her job more than ever. It does not only give her the opportunity to make her community known, but it also allows her to earn her income without leaving home and getting away from her family.
“A lot of people do not do this kind of job anymore because it is very complicated, but for me, it is important to preserve it…it makes me feel proud because it is one hundred percent natural that has been preserved for many years.”
Keeping the Legacy Alive
The relevance of the artisans in Oaxaca is undeniable. Oaxaca is one of the states with the most diverse artisanal techniques in Mexico. Out of the 5,244 registered artisans with the Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Artesanías, 75% are women.
“They fight to excel every day. We always hear stories about successful women, not only in our community, but in different parts of the state. For me, a Oaxacan woman is an example of strength, ”says Frida Samara Ortega, a student and artisan who shares with her family the tradition of creating amazing wood carvings and whom we meet in San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca.
When teaching their sons and daughters, artisan women are key to keeping knowledge alive and creating a local identity.
Nadia Clímaco Ortega, director of the Instituto Oaxaqueño de las Artesanías explains that even long before the pandemic—which has seriously impacted artisans and many other members of the tourism industry—, new generations are looking for better opportunities in other areas and outside of their communities.
In this context, she assures that the Institute seeks to create opportunities through alternatives such as sales through digital platforms with special emphasis on fair trade: “By promoting the artisans work, we are dignifying their work so they feel proud of it; proud of what they do and proud of being artisans. And at the same time, all that work should provide better living conditions for them. ”.