Tuesday, August 21, 2018

How Much Does the Artist Get?

A clerk at Trader Joe’s just asked me if the artisan who made my blouse was paid a “fair wage”. A couple of weeks ago someone on our Facebook page asked if our workers are paid fairly. Leaving aside for the moment the question of what exactly is a “fair” wage (is it the minimum wage in Mexico which is currently about $5 US per day?) and how many workers in the U.S. or other countries actually receive a fair wage (are teachers paid a fair wage? how about the cooks in the restaurant you patronize?) let’s address the issue of exploitation, which is what I think people are really asking. It’s a good thing that more and more consumers seem to care that the workers who produce the things they buy are treated well and paid fairly. But I need to ask you, when you’re traveling and you buy an object, an article of clothing or a rug from a vendor, do you make sure you are paying a fair wage? Do you ever bargain for a better price? Do you ask the artisan if what you’re paying her is fair? Would you pay her more-- even if she didn’t ask you to? There is a movement in Mexico now to discourage buyers from bargaining, and it’s aimed mainly at Mexican tourists, who to be honest, are the worst offenders. That’s a first step-- accept the price asked by artisans and don’t coerce them into lowering it in order to make a sale. If you don’t want to or can’t pay their price, then you should politely say “no gracias,” and walk away. I often have to assure artisans that their price is fair or “justo”, I don’t expect them to lower it-- I just can’t afford it.

So here are my answers to the above question regarding our business and fair wages. The artisans/artists we buy from work independently and we are their customers. They do not work for us. They set the price of their products (art) and we pay what they ask, just like you would if you were to walk into their workshops-- which are in their homes. Occasionally they offer us a special discount for being loyal customers for ten years, but we do not bargain or haggle, and believe it or not, we pay the same price per item, no matter whether we're buying 1 platter or 10, i.e. we get no wholesale break.

A few years ago, when I wrote a dozen chapters of my memoir entitled “Why Importing Crafts from Mexico is Not for Wimps”, I wrote the following in response to a similar frequently asked question.

“How much does the artist get?”

We've been asked that a lot over the years, most often at large crafts events where attendees seem to feel comfortable wandering into one's booth and giving their opinions. I can’t imagine the same people going into a Bloomingdales or Tiffany's and questioning the sales clerk about the working conditions of the people who make their jewelry or leather goods. For some reason people have the idea that someone like me who is spending her weekend in a 10X10 space trying to entice strangers to buy handmade goods from Mexico must be exploiting the artisans. These well-intentioned folks have most likely never owned a business, and they most certainly have never tried to import crafts from Mexico. They know nothing about it or me, especially that my motivation for starting this business and for continuing it in spite of all the hassles and annoyances, was because I'm actually trying to help the artisans support themselves and maintain their families through the sale of their art.

As with any business, there are costs and expenses involved. The truth is there is very little profit in importing crafts if you choose not to exploit your providers and gauge your customers, i.e. if your only concern is the bottom line. In case you’re wondering, here's an example of how my business gets a piece of artesania you might see on my website delivered to your home. Let's take the clay candleholder which I am sending out to a customer right now. I paid Herlinda Morales about $5 for the piece. I had to fly to Michoacan (approximately $500 round trip if you go on a low-cost airline), pay for hotels & food, plus hire a driver to take me to Herlinda's workshop in Santa Fe de la Laguna, which is about a 40 minute drive from where I'm staying. The piece wasn't actually finished that day, so I had to pay my assistant to pick it up a month later, and then pack and ship it to California. I've related some of difficulties with that before, but that all costs money. It's hard to figure out the expenses for each individual item I bought on that trip, but there are a lot of costs in just bringing the product to the U.S. Here I have to pay for utilities, phone, internet, my website, packing materials, and my car so I can take the box that took me at least 20 minutes to carefully pack over to FedEx. They will charge $18 to ship it a hundred or so miles to your home, and you will pay it. I have to pay a commission to Paypal or Square on my credit card sales. If I sell the piece on consignment, the gallery will take 25-50%. If I take it to a crafts festival, I will have to pay a booth fee to the organizers which will cut into my profit margin. And I am just talking about my costs, not MY labor. I am figuring that like Herlinda, I probably received $5 from that sale as well. But of course, she has expenses also included in her price. But it is the price she set. Except in rare situations, I do not bargain with the artisans from whom I buy-- they set the price. So all in all, if the artisan receives $5 of the $48 plus tax you paid for that candelabra, I believe she has received a fair price. I estimate that I earned about $1.50 per hour-- so is that a fair wage here in the U.S.? If I paid her more, I would have to charge my customers more, because I can't reduce my expenses, and there’s a good chance I won’t be able to sell her pieces. If I don’t raise my price, I might lose money, and my business would not be sustainable. If my business is not sustainable, then I’d have to stop buying artesania from Michoacán's artisans, and that would be a loss for them. So as you can see, the answer to your well-intentioned question is quite complicated. Sorry you asked?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Handmade-- Endangered Species?

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 (see photo below) 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 find quality traditional handmade textiles made by artisans in Michoacán. It's extremely common in Mexico’s touristy 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 weavers and embroiderers--like the blouses from Cocucho in the photo to your left-- endangered.

Textiles from outside Michoacán. Plaza Grande, 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 Michoacán's markets 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.

Cotton rebozo made on a back strap loom in Turicuaro, Michoacán
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.
Handmade blouse from Arocutin, Michoacán
Handmade blouse from Uricho, Michoacán

Handmade dress from Cocucho, Michoacán

To purchase handmade textiles from Michoacán, go to www.mexicobyhand.com.
To find out about our tours and how you can visit artisans in Michoacán, email us at: mexicobyhand@gmail.com.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Art of Embroidered Stories

Near Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacán, indigenous women embroider colorful pictures that can be framed or made into decorative pillows and clothing. The themes of these embroidered “stories” originally came from ancient mythology of the Tarascan or Purepecha Indians, drawn from seals found in Tzintzuntzan. Gradually many women  there began depicting traditional village dances such as the Dance of the Viejitos and festivals such as Dia de los Muertos. The artisans also embroider scenes of women cooking, men fishing, and other scenes of daily life in a Purepecha village.

Teofila Servin Barriga is one of the most well-known of the Santa Cruz embroiderers.
She lives and works with her husband, Julio, in Sanabria-- on the road between Patzcuaro and Quiroga-- with stunning views from her home and garden of green pastures, corn fields and Lake Patzcuaro that inspire her art. The first time I saw her embroidery was almost 20 years ago, when Doug and I were on vacation, our first time in Michoacán. Julio and one of their sons were working at a table they'd set up on a Patzcuaro sidewalk. Julio was drawing as well as teaching the boy how to create the scenes that Teo would later embroider. We chatted with them for quite a while, and I must have asked at least five times for the price of a small embroidered piece on the table that had caught my eye. Julio was so engrossed in giving us the history and stories of the area and culture represented by the pieces, that he seemed to be completely disinterested in selling them to us. Finally I was able to buy it, and as we said goodbye, he told us that we could find Teo on the road to Tzintzuntzan. But it was many years later when were living in Michoacan, we found ourselves on that road, that I put two and two together and realized that the handmade sign that read "Artesanias de Teo" might very well be the same family. We stopped the car and found Teo working in her little shop. Julio later walked up from the nearby fields he was tending, and we knew that this was indeed the place. Their young son had grown up and was attending university, and Teo had begun to make a name for herself.

Teo in Mexico By Hand's booth, Santa Fe, NM
Teofila has sold her pieces to collectors in Mexico, Europe, the United States, and Japan. Before being selected to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market with Mexico By Hand, she was invited to represent the embroiderers of Michoacan at a special exhibition in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and to participate in the Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art exhibit in 2004.
 In 2011 Teofila was featured in the video, En las Manos de las Mujeres, a video produced by Mexico By Hand about four master craftswomen of Michoacán.

Roselia Barriga
Two other talented embroiderers of the same style we've come to know are Roselia and Cristina Barriga-- of Artesanias Textiles deSanta Cruz. If you get to visit Patzcuaro, their work can be found at the Casa de los Once Patios.

Mexico By Hand sells a small selection of embroidered pictures, pillow covers, and beautiful cotton blouses by these talented artisans to U.S. customers on our website: www.mexicobyhand.com.
Contact us if you would like to make a special order at info@mexicobyhand.com

Friday, January 29, 2016

Copper Art and Cazos- A Handmade Tradition

Gorgeous copper vases like this one are produced every day in small workshops scattered around one small town in Mexico -- Santa Clara del Cobre in the state of Michoacán--one of the places the U.S. State Dept. says we shouldn't visit. Every year I'm asked if I still go there, or someone tells me that they'd love to go back, but they sadly can't do that anymore, because, "well, you know--it isn't safe anymore". While I can't deny the reality of violence experienced by Mexican citizens due to the drug cartels, I can tell you that the only sounds interrupting the quiet on my visits to this charming town are the chirping of birds and the rhythmic ping-pinging of copper artisans hammering as one wanders down the cobblestone streets.  

Roberto Castro Hernandez and I have been doing business for years. Some things have changed in his small family workshop, located several blocks off the main drag. The "showroom" next to the workshop now has a tile floor. And he now regularly communicates with me via email and Facebook on a computer there-- which make placing orders incredibly more efficient. But the pieces he produces and the deep passion and love he has for this traditional craft-- has not.
From simple, elegantly-shaped 14 inch tall vases to finely etched pieces (called cincelado) with animals, one never knows what you'll find coming out of his tiny smoke-filled workshop. 

Roberto Castro Hernandez of Santa Clara del Cobre

Roberto and his brother in their family workshop

Hammered copper cazo-14 inches diameter
While we've been selling copper vases from Santa Clara for over a decade now, just this past year Mexico By Hand has been asked to import copper cazos like this one for folks who are, to be honest, not our usual customer. In case you aren't familiar, cazos are essentially cooking pots, very traditional in Mexico for cooking a variety of foods over an open fire. Huge cazos are used for making carnitas and heavy ones like this are especially good for making candy and jam because copper conducts heat so well. [Search copper cooking pan on the internet and you'll find some from France that are marketed for just that purpose.] While we've been exploring the idea of competing with those expensive European pots, it turns out that some organic goat farmers have discovered that Mexican cazos are just the tool they need for making artisanal cajeta! Cajeta, for the uninitiated (and you really must try some) is a delicious caramel-like creamy delicacy made from milk, sometimes called dulce de leche. First a farmer in Australia reached out to us, and then two different farmers in Maine (females, I might add) ordered cazos. These are caucasian folks who seem to have no Mexican ancestry, so I find the whole thing fascinating.
And I really want some of that cajeta they're making too.

For more information about any of our hammered copper products, contact us at:
(510) 526-6395
Vessel with fish

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"You're not Santa Claus."

Small bowl by Manuel Morales of Tzintzuntzan

Why does that little bowl cost so much more than your larger bowls? 
This is kind of like comparing paintings in an art gallery. Sometimes small paintings, because of the artist's talent and renown, might command a high price. And we all know that just because a painting is large, it doesn't mean it's of greater value. The same can be said for folk art and crafts. I know artisans whose small pieces cost four times what other artisans in the same village charge for pieces that are twice as big. And they will get that price because their work either shows great skill and talent, or because the artist has won numerous awards. Or sometimes the artist has been recognized by an American collector or gallery that has a good publicist. But there are also big differences in the amount of time and skill involved in making a simple clay pot that is mass produced, and a finely decorated pot with intricate original designs from a skilled artist. The artisans in Capula make both. You might think that the large cazuela below on the left is "beautiful", but if you've ever seen pieces like the blue cazuelita below made by the talented Raquel and Demetrio Gonzales, you'll realize that one is clearly worth more, no matter the size.
Large cazuela from Capula, Michoacan
Cazuelita from Capula, Michoacán

A machine made rebozo you find in Mexican market stalls can't compare with a rebozo woven on a backstrap loom that took the artisan an entire month to make. The first might cost you $30 or less, and the second one could set you back $300 or more. Most Americans don't understand what's involved in making a rebozo, which is why they are reluctant to pay that much-- even if they might consider actually wearing one. 
Master of Mexican Folk Art weaver, Cecilia Bautista with one of her rebozos.

When we were living in Morelia ten years ago, some friends took us to a small town in the countryside for a Sunday comida (dinner) at their friend’s home. One of the family members had some rebozos from La Piedad; they're the shiny, silk-like rebozos that come in bright colors. She assured us they were a good price, but at $20 I wasn't sure and thought they were expensive. I bought one anyway (it was a beautiful bright red) however I realized at that moment I actually had no idea how to distinguish a quality rebozo from a corriente (cheap commercial) one, and what in fact would be a fair price. But now after several years of seeing lots of rebozos and how a good one is actually made--trust me, it’s a lot of work-- I know a little more. It doesn't hurt to ask why something costs so much-- that's how you learn.So I am not offended by the question, as long as there is a sincere desire to understand. However, if someone asks about the price as if to challenge my right to charge so much, in a judgmental or disapproving way, then I might get annoyed. No, I will definitely get annoyed.The artisan sets the price, and then I have to charge for the expense of bringing it to you the customer. (There’s a lot involved in that story, but if you really want to know more-- you’ll just have to buy my book.) If you find that something I'm selling is too expensive for you, then you shouldn't buy it. It feels bad when you really like an object or work of art but just can't afford it-- it happens to me all the time. Most of us who are not part of the 1% often experience that longing for material things we can’t afford. But for some reason a lot of folks expect things from Mexico to be cheap. That of course includes not only art, but food. The concept of a high-end Mexican restaurant is confusing for many who are accustomed only to eating burritos at a taqueria. The same can be said for Mexican crafts which in the minds of many folks are supposed to be "a deal". This is especially true for Americans who have traveled in Mexico and fail to understand not only the time it took the artisan to make the item, but the cost involved in getting artesania here to the U.S. But on the other hand, I sometimes hear customers surprised that a large clay pot or serving dish is so inexpensive. "Really? That's all?". And then I contemplate telling them how little the piece cost in Mexico and how I would be a thief if I charged more. I’m happy when customers feel like they're getting a great deal, as I try to keep the prices down in order to make our merchandise affordable. On the other side, I do feel bad sometimes having to charge so much for a cup or a bowl, but the reality is if I charged any less I would practically be giving it away. Which would mean that I’d be a super nice person, but a terrible business woman. And this little business would not be sustainable. I want to do good and help the artisans, but if I want to continue buying their art, it's got to work financially for me too, meaning I can't be losing money. I am a socially responsible family-run business, not a charity. Or as my husband sometimes reminds me, “ You aren’t Santa Claus, you know.” You're right, Santa doesn't have to deal with FedEx.

For more information about Mexico By Hand, our products, or artisans of Michoacán, check out our website at www.mexicobyhand.com or contact us at: info@mexicobyhand.com

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Never thought about boxes very much before I got into this business. But boxes seem to come up a lot for me. Just yesterday I was at a restaurant eating dinner with Doug and began to receive multiple messages on my phone from Rene, the guy in Michoacan who does my packing, wanting to know what size boxes should he buy for the next shipment. He gave me many choices, supplying the measurements for me (in centimeters which I needed to quickly convert) to make the decision. The boxes were important enough to him that he felt it was necessary to disturb my Saturday night. Hmm, I'm not sure about that.

Just a few days before this I was searching for just the right box to ship a large platter to a customer. For some reason I didn't have one in the size I needed it, though I have a pretty large collection of boxes because I'm always looking for free ones and rarely throw anything away. You probably don't think about boxes very much but when UPS charges eight bucks for a medium size box, that cost cuts into one's profits, so it becomes extremely important to a small business owner like me. In case you're interested, the US Post Office charges half that.

I was also thinking about boxes yesterday while filling out an online application for Amazon's new Handmade marketplace. My answers (and really my business model and practice) do not fit into one of their boxes-- so it was really, really hard. Never thought much about the origin of the popular expression "to think outside the box", but I guess that's where it comes from. Makes sense. I like to believe that I do that kind of thinking a lot.

Today as I anticipate the next delivery of the beautiful crafts and folk art that I purchased in Mexico this past summer --I expect I'll do a happy dance when I see those boxes on my driveway. At that moment, I will definitely be thinking INSIDE the box.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Muertos and Memories

Michoacán burnished pottery at Reuben Godinez's Lolita in Napa, CA

I am not a business woman. I have been a social worker, a journalist, and a teacher. I never took a business course, or an economics class for that matter. Despite the pressure from Michoacán's La Casa de las Artesanias to open a gallery in the Bay Area, we never did. To be honest, I am risk-averse, not a big fan of extreme sports and I've always been afraid of heights. In the beginning, back in 2004 when I officially started DBA Mexico By Hand, I sold to some galleries and small shops, and often became friends with the owners. Unfortunately most of them are no longer in business. It was sad to see good folks forced to close their doors, and though we lost them as wholesale customers, Mexico By Hand never went under, even during the economic crisis of the last few years. Not paying rent, utilities, and employees saves a lot of money. I made the choice to operate from home, and after hearing all the sad stories of so many-- I am very, very glad I made that decision. One store owner was Patricia, who is an artist and the former girlfriend of a friend of a former boyfriend from my college days (got that?) who sunk her inheritance into a cute gallery/store in a terrible location and carried some of our folk art on consignment. Another friend that comes to mind often, because of the tremendous impact he had and still has on me, is Reuben.

Burnished pottery by Hernandez Cano workshop
It was October 2004, our first Day of the Dead after returning from our year in Mexico and we were collaborating on a show at a San Francisco gallery. Reuben also knew the gallery owners-- three gay men from three different Latin American countries--and at their request he created a beautiful altar/art installation for the event. We provided our folk art from Michoacán. We also showed some video we had taken of indigenous Dia de los Muertos celebrations at cemeteries on islands in Lake Patzcuaro. When I saw Reuben out of the corner of my eye moving to the music in the unique way they do in Michoacán, I gradually approached him and commented, “You look like you’ve been to Michoacán”. He smiled, “I am from Michoacán.” Excited to be able to put quality artesania from Michoacán in his Napa gallery, our relationship with Reuben began with consignment sales and moved on to us collaborating on several special events. It also resulted in connecting us with a few terrific wholesale customers and Carlos, his friend from high school, who still helps us sometimes with our shipping from Mexico.

Sadly, Reuben lost his gallery, but our networking relationship continued and culminated with the very important connection he made for us in 2009 with the Petaluma Arts Center and their annual Dia de los Muertos celebration. Sadly, our friend Reuben never enjoyed the fruits of his labor on that extraordinary show, and will never know about the relationship that continued for several years after he tragically died-- a few days after that first exhibit opened. I owe our generous Michoacano friend so much, feel his strong presence every Day of the Dead, and miss his creative genius whenever I am setting up our folk art for a show, asking myself-- what would Reuben do? That time is coming soon, and I hope he'll be there by my side. Something tells me he will be. 

Petaluma Dia de los Muertos 2013

In 2015 Mexico By Hand will again be exhibiting at the Dia de los Muertos show in Petaluma, CA.
For more info.https://www.facebook.com/El-D%C3%ADa-de-los-Muertos-Petaluma-154451587898565/timeline/
or contact info@mexicobyhand.com.