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 or contact us at:

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.
or contact

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Fernando Arroyo-- Capula, Michoacán

We learned the hard way that Fernando Arroyo is actually called Buddha by those who really know him. Capula is a Michoacán town about a half hour away from the state capital Morelia and is known for its pottery -- dishes and bean pots that are used for cooking and serving food-- and also for clay catrinas. 
Doug and I spend a lot of time shopping in Capula every summer, and we've left a lot of our dollars there over the years, many with the talented Fernando and his wife Belen who produce magnificent handpainted, lead free pottery. Many years ago we were attempting to find him, couldn’t remember which street he lived on and figured we would just ask around, like we often do in Michoacán towns and villages. But this time it wasn’t that easy, because it turns out, believe or not, there are two Fernando Arroyos in this small town. And one of them, the guy we were looking for, is called Buddha. Now we know that, in addition to knowing exactly where his house is, as well as the names of his three children. They know us as well. And after attending his goddaughter’s wedding a couple of years ago, we also know that half of the artisans in Capula are related to Buddha in some way or other. That invitation from Fernando meant that we had finally crossed over the line from being just customers to being friends. It was a big deal.

Fernando was the first artisan we ever videotaped, even before we had moved to Morelia. We found
Our first Arroyo plate
gorgeous plate we wanted to buy at the Casa de Artesanias cooperative, and asked the two folks at the front desk if they knew the artist and could they possibly help us find his  workshop -- the plate had a signature on the back. “Claro que si. Soy yo, Fernando Arroyo.” “Of course,” he said, “that’s me.” He hopped on his bicycle and we followed him in our car to his workshop, which was a tiny room in the back of his house, just a couple of blocks away. We watched and filmed how he skillfully molded the clay into a large platter (Michoacan potters actually do use a mold, as opposed to a wheel) using a piece of wire held in his teeth to cut it to size. That step I'll always remember, and that first plate we purchased is one of the best pieces I have ever seen-- by Buddha or by anyone. It hangs on the wall of our kitchen and continues to bring me joy.

A couple of years later we were living in Michoacán and placed an order for platters by Fernando. They were very detailed-- with the traditional punteado (pointillist designs) and what I assume were  hallucinogenic- inspired flower and fish motifs. An amazing amount of work went into them and they were absolutely stunning. We arranged for the platters to be packed by folks at the Casa de las Artesanias and they arrived in our first big shipment from Mexico. It was a thrilling moment to finally see the boxes sitting on our driveway...until we opened the box. We found eight 16 inch round platters packed tightly into one cardboard box with zero bubblewrap or foam protection. And no surprise here-- we found eight broken platters. As we pulled out the pottery shards from the boxes, with our emotions ranging from fury, to disappointment to utter despair as we witnessed this huge loss (of course there was lots of bilingual swearing too) our thoughts inevitably went to the hours and weeks Fernando spends creating just one of these pieces. Now what do we do? We can’t possibly sell them, but we can’t just throw them away! How do you throw away art?

You have to get pretty close to see the cracks on the pieces Doug managed to repair. The broken platters hang on our living room wall above the piano, and as is often the case with home decor, weeks can pass without us even noticing them. We don’t play the piano anymore and we don’t usually hang out in that room-- unless we have visitors. If folks are interested in Mexican crafts they’re invited to take a close look, and in addition to hearing a bit about Fernando and seeing some remarkable examples of Capula art (which is rarely being done anymore, by the way) they also hear the story of how the pieces came to be a permanent part of our personal collection. Doug receives compliments on his repair job: “Wow, I didn’t even notice that they were broken until you mentioned it”, and we again are reminded of our great luck in finding this artist-- and all the other artists we’ve come to discover in Michoacan. Those platters also serve as a stark reminder of the many trials and tribulations of this crazy business. We’ve learned a lot over the years, and the platter disaster of 2005 taught us that it’s not enough to find amazing artists, you’ve also got to find superior packers to get the art home safely. And that, I repeat, is why importing crafts from Mexico is not for wimps.

Fernando Arroyo's food safe plates and platters are imported to the U.S. by Mexico By Hand and are often sold at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, The Gardener in Healdsburg and Berkeley, CA, Leslie Flynt in Santa Fe, NM and online at
Contact us at:
 or (510) 526-6395

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Selling Happiness

“I'm so happy Mexico By Hand exists. Always a joy to visit your site and your product quality and the love that goes into them touches my Mexican heart. I've loved everything I have from you. Thank you!” This feedback arrived from Maria who bought some embroidered blouses from me again this year. After ten years of selling artesania, I cannot tell you what kind of person will be a Mexican art consumer. Sometimes it's a Mexican-American like Maria, or someone of another ethnic background who travels to and loves Mexico. But sometimes my best customers speak no Spanish, have very little understanding of the culture, and have only ventured to Mexico to vacation at a beach resort or maybe a town like San Miguel de Allende-- which is charming, but not "real Mexico" in my book-- and that was many years ago. They don't necessarily talk about wanting to go to Mexico, but they definitely want these charming expressions of Mexican culture in their homes. Or on their backs. A lot of my merchandise is housewares and decorative items, but we also carry woven rebozos and embroidered blouses, which some women are absolutely crazy for. Not everyone feels comfortable wearing an "ethnic" piece of wearable folk art, but there are some women, and again I can't predict who they will be, who embrace the style enthusiastically. Customers like Beth in London, who orders blouses from me while I'm still in Mexico-- minutes after I post photos to my Facebook page.  Then there's Carlina, a lovely woman in San Francisco who bought several blouses and rebozos recently, including this gorgeous embroidered dress I found for her.

After receiving the photo I emailed her Carlina wrote: "I have fallen madly in love with the dress! I had such a terrible day with a series of bad medical news and to open this coming home-- wow and thank you!"

I believe that making people happy is what art is all about-- isn’t it?
And it's the art that makes me happy too. I could never sell widgets, whatever they are. Plumbing or office supplies do not turn me on, although I know they're necessary and I appreciate the men and women who do sell them. I buy artesania that I like-- sometimes love-- and therefore it's a pleasure for me to sell it to others. I want to share the beauty, and am excited when a piece I purchased in Michoacán goes home with a happy customer in the United States. 
Sometimes I feel like I'm in the happiness business. 

Embroidered blouses and other items that bring happiness are available on our website:

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Friendship Fajas

 Cuanajo, Michoacán 2004
Natividad Casimiro Romero makes each of her weavings with love, generosity, and gratitude, and with faith that tomorrow will be better. For that reason, I call her fajas "spirit sashes". We first got to know Nati when we were shooting our video documentary for La Casa de las Artesanias (the Michoacán Handcrafts Center) and right away we knew that she was special. How many people can endure so much illness and hardship, and manage to smile like that? Polio as a child, and barely surviving cancer shortly before we met, Nati has always inspired Doug and me. Looking at the photo of her weaving on her backstrap loom, her crippled feet tucked under her skirt and her wooden crutches nearby--I remember her remarkable smile and feel this gentle woman's strong spirit and determination.
 When we exhibit our artesania and people notice the fajas, which is not that often, they usually want to know what these woven pieces are for. I explain that the women who make them use them as belts, but one could make a camera or guitar strap out of them, or simply hang them for decoration. But I also need to explain so much more...that all of Nati's woven belts, bags, and table runners carry the same designs used by her ancestors, the Purepecha women who came before her and who taught the next generation, as she is now doing. When I look at her weavings I am reminded of all the poor Mexican campesinos who struggle to hold on to their indigenous traditions. Weavings from Cuanajo-- even from this master artisan-- have never been commercially successful. Mexicans and Americans alike usually fail to understand that $150 is not too much money for this work. So I end up selling what I buy from Nati at my cost...on the average $80, which gives her a few more pesos for food or bus tickets or yarn, so that she might keep doing this work until she can't do it any longer.

We hadn't seen Nati for a couple of years, when we brought our tour group to her house in August of 2011. As soon as we turned into Cuanajo, there she was, walking down the dirt road towards her house. Nati stands out from all the other Purepecha women in the village, because of her crutches. We stopped and offered her a ride, and after kisses and happy exclamations of "que milagro", we soon notice how the diabetes has taken its toll on this woman who has already suffered so much. Though we were sad to see her health failing, we treasured that visit and were happy to see that our group also found Nati and her family special, as they enthusiastically bought weavings to take back home.
In 2013, we arrived without a tour group, with just a couple of friends. We didn't intend to buy anything, as we still had pieces by Nati that hadn't sold yet and buying fajas or morrales (woven bags) wasn't a priority for my buying trip. We really just wanted to say hello. The family had obviously been suffering financially, telling us that the Casa de las Artesanias was no longer buying fajas. Apparently the new management decided to stop investing in artesania that didn't sell well in their stores. Nati implored me to take three fajas, telling me, "pay me when you sell them... I trust you." We were touched by that trust, reflecting on what this gesture said about the relationships with artisans we've developed over the years. And more sadly, it speaks to the desperation of these talented artists who are without a market and have few options. I paid Nati just a few months later-- not because I sold her fajas-- but because I received an email from our packer/helper Rene telling me that Nati had called him at the Casa de las Artesanias and asked that he contact us. Her mother was sick in the hospital and they needed money to buy medicine. I wired the money (the amount we agreed to charge for the fajas) which was a bit risky, but I did it because we’re friends, we trust each other, and I had faith in Nati’s work. I believed I would eventually sell them, and clearly the family needed the money now.
Upon returning from Michoacán I posted photos of Nati’s stunning pieces on Facebook and my website. And the fajas were displayed in the Tienda at The Mexican Museum in San Francisco, where I thought they would have an opportunity to be seen by folks who appreciate Mexican indigenous art and culture. While the clay pots and dishes from Michoacan were quickly purchased by happy customers, the fajas were definitely admired, but still after five months hadn’t sold. I was beginning to worry that summer would arrive and we’d be on our way to Mexico again, and they would still be there on the shelves. Not only could I use the money, but how could we face Nati again with her fajas still unsold? I couldn’t afford to take more from her again, so I told Doug that if I don’t sell them before we go, we just won’t be able visit her this year.

Then came February and the Art of the Americas in Marin, a show where we’ve exhibited for several years and did pretty well. I remember selling a faja at the first show we did -- might have been 2006. Folks who attend this show have good taste and also spend their money on unusual indigenous art. So this looked like our last hope for Nati’s fajas. As I carefully arranged them on the wall of our booth so they would not be missed by customers passing by, I thought of Nati and her spirit and the positive energy her pieces evoke. Though the show officially opens on Friday night, few people attend then and rarely do we have sales that night. But about an hour after the doors open, Ross and Nancy, a couple who attend the show every year, came by our table and spent some time with us. They bought two fajas after hearing our stories about Nati, and at the end of that Friday night we were amazed when they returned to buy two more. Excited and grateful, this sale was not only an affirmation of Nati’s talent, but our faith and trust in each other and the way I have chosen to run my business. It turned out to be not only a good night, but overall was a successful show for us as well.

A couple of weeks later I received an email from Beth, my wonderful customer in London,  wanting to order some earrings she saw on my Facebook page. She also wanted to know if I had any fajas available. Are you kidding me? You want to buy fajas? I wrote her that I’m all sold out except for a small one that I bought a few years ago, plus a very large wool table-runner that I thought we might use ourselves one day, but could let go. After seeing the photos I sent, she bought the two pieces and asked me to please buy more fajas on my next trip to Mexico.
I also received a brief note from Nancy--the angel who bought the four fajas at the Marin show-- “Peggy- please let Natividad know how much we treasure her weavings and let us know if you bring more back.”

It's July 2015, and I'm in Michoacán buying. As we approach the entrance to Nati's house, I wondered what we would find this time. It had been two years since our last visit, and it turns out, Nati was well aware of it. As we cried out "buenos dias", and upon realizing that it was us and we had indeed returned, Nati immediately burst into tears. We had never seen her so sad, and as I hugged her as she wept, she began to untypically share her troubles with us. Her foot had become infected and they had to remove a toe. It was obviously very painful and scary for her. Nati's mother was sick with lung cancer, apparently from all the wood smoke she had breathed in their traditional Purepecha cocina. It was a hard visit, one I won't easily forget. We listened a lot and we of course bought some of her work. Actually, the money we spent there should sustain the family for several months. And generous as always, the women insisted on serving us corundas, proudly explaining that they were made entirely from the corn grown there in their small family parcel.
My daughter Jenny, who is a chef and had accompanied us on this visit, clearly appreciated watching and learning about the process of making corundas. She had heard us talk about Nati before, had seen photos we had taken of her twelve years ago, and knew that her courage and strength was an inspiration to Doug and me. Jenny is now seeing that the once beautiful, smiling woman in our photos who has endured so much over the years--is still teaching us important life lessons. The time we spent with Nati and her family reminded us to be grateful for all that we have, and for me especially, it was affirmation that my yearly purchases of this endangered work is making a difference, at least for a few families. Though I'm filled with sadness about this last visit, I'm glad that we were able to show Nati that she has not been forgotten, and that we and our customers will continue to value her beautiful creations.

Woven fajas and morrales by Natividad are available for purchase on

Monday, June 15, 2015

Falling for Artesania

Shopping for unique artesania in Mexico is one of my favorite things to do. And when a customer really appreciates a piece of art I’ve chosen, falls in love with it, and then commits to taking that piece home --well, that's what it's all about. Calling it love might sound strange, but the attraction that people feel to a piece of artesania that was handmade by someone they've never met who is from a completely different culture and lives thousands of miles away--that can be a mysterious thing. I find it fascinating when it happens to others-- not just me. After all these years I am still trying to understand the men and women who've fallen under the folk art spell. In certain cases I think it might be an addiction. The desire to add to one's collection of ceramic serving bowls and platters is understandable, as we can always use one more of those. But how many hammered copper vases does one person need? I have a few wonderful customers who apparently feel they must have more copper vases in their lives, and they just keep buying them, year after year. I often tell people (and I really believe this) that you will get extremely attached to your first copper vase, and your affection for it will deepen the more time you spend together. I've heard back from a few smitten folks who excitedly tell me about their first copper vase love experience..."Peggy, it's just like you said!" Told you so.

As for me, after all these years I am still amazed by the beauty of this first vase I bought, with or without flowers. I found it at the annual Copper Fair in Santa Clara del Cobre in 2003, the year we lived in Morelia.The piece was a prize winner in the youth division of the concurso (competition) and was made by an eleven year old boy. As a former teacher of kids that age, I especially appreciated that fact, and I really, really like the vase. I would absolutely call it love. Many have admired it and some have even begged me to sell it to them, but this is one piece I will definitely be hanging onto.  Though I doubt it loves me back, this vase, like it or not, is a member of the family now. 
Crazy love.