Artisans of Mexico: Big Ideas, Small Beginnings

Big Ideas, Small Beginnings

Her idea for a new business started simply enough. Wouldn’t it be interesting and maybe even fun to import some stuff from Mexico and try to sell it here in the U.S? My wife is originally from Mexico and her family has lots of connections in the small business community there, so this little idea seemed like a viable alternative for an attorney with her family background looking for a significant career change. In any case, all of this was quite interesting, and when we were in Mexico this summer, she took the plunge: she visited her contacts in the artisan community —typically with me in tow—and began to explore what it was, exactly, that it might make sense for her to import to the U.S.

And then something curious happened. . . We witnessed over and over again the amazing workmanship of Mexico’s artisan community. In small factories, one-room workshops, and even family rooms, incredibly skilled craftsmen and women were working away, utilizing techniques that in many cases reach back generations, if not centuries, to produce an immense variety of stunningly beautiful objects . . . She ending up buying far more than we had ever imagined, a reflection of the wealth and diversity of artisan talent in this country just beyond our southern border.

But trouble is brewing under the surface of all this cultural abundance: Over and over again, we also saw signs that the artisan community in Mexico is in crisis. The old ways of making things are under incredible pressure from the rise of globalization, so much so that these artisans with their special skills are themselves, in many cases, at risk of disappearing. From the weavers with their hand-loomed textiles, to highly skilled metalworkers, to pottery masters like Nicasio Pajarito, whose burnished “canelo” pottery is one of the secret treasures of Mexico, there was a sense of uncertainty about the future.

One of the biggest problems for many artisans, especially for those that produce in limited quantities, is the difficulty of finding a market for their goods. On the one hand, the local Mexican market has been flooded by cheap imports, while the country’s endemic poverty—upwards of 50% of the country lives on less than $10 a day—and the recent economic crisis have all but crippled domestic consumption. At the same time, many artisans have very little ability to distribute their products abroad, that is, to those markets in the developed world where they might, in fact, find an audience able to support their work. Mexico’s own distribution infrastructure is terribly dysfunctional and many artisans don’t have the financial means to travel on their own to promote their wares—and even if they do, the difficulty of obtaining a visa to come to the U.S. presents additional, and often insurmountable difficulties.

To witness a hand-operated loom is to enter a world where the relationship between people who make things and the things they make is still organic. We were told that bedspreads take a day to make, and that “special” bedspreads take a day and the effort of three weavers. The very notion of spending that kind of time to produce one object suggests an investment of human energy that cannot help but change our relationship to those objects. And I should know. Before my wife started this venture, our home was filled with the lowest cost, mass-produced stuff that I could find. Indeed, the relentless cost-cutting of the big box retailers with their cavernous warehouse outlets bursting with inexpensive imports truly constitutes a paradigm shift in how we live, and more importantly, in how we consume. But having met many of the artisans with whom my wife works, as it were, face to face, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a very different vision of commerce.

What does this mean? It means, in the simplest term, that sometimes our suppliers cannot finish an order until we pay them. It means understanding how important even our small-scale purchases can be for many family businesses. And above all, it means a way of doing business that recognizes the special skills of individual artisans for what they truly are: an irreplaceable cultural legacy.

Artisans of Mexico

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