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.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

It's What I Do

Buying burnished pots from Marta Espicio of Huancito
The woman who has been cutting my hair for at least 5 years knows I go to Mexico every summer. She just asked me what I will do there for a whole month, expressing real shock when I answered that in addition to eating, drinking and spending time with friends-- I would, of course, be working a lot. “Huh? No...wait...what do you mean?” I’m not surprised when strangers assume my yearly trips to Mexico are about relaxing at some beach resort, but when I get that from people who know what I do and should know better-- it’s a little weird. People don’t seem to believe that there’s actual work involved in what I do. Doug and I have a running joke after a stressful or exhausting experience with my business, e.g. a shipping issue (read my previous posts if you are curious about those experiences). “Just another day in the glamorous life of a Mexican crafts importer”, one of us will sigh.  “Wow, that’s my dream job”, a woman gushed recently.
Lady, you have no idea. 
In Cuanajo, buying fajas (woven sashes) from our friend and artesana, Natividad
 Yes, I do have a lot of fun when I’m there-- how could I not, it is Mexico after all--but when I go to Mexico I’m going mainly to work. Some of our merchandise can be ordered throughout the year by phone, and a few artisans actually use email and social media like Facebook. But one of a kind pieces such as clay catrinas and embroidered blouses, I must personally see and touch. You have to like shopping, which fortunately I do. And there’s a lot of shmoozing required, which I don't always like but can do, especially if there's some booze involved. This is part of being "culturally competent". You can't just go to an artist's home workshop, point to the stuff you want, pay, and walk out. You probably won’t be offered drink or food, but artisans in Michoacán will almost always get a chair for you when you arrive. If you're really lucky and it’s a fiesta day or if they know you pretty well, you might be passed a bottle and treated to a bowl of Churipo, a traditional Purepecha soup. Eating together is quite an honor, and is always a memorable experience.  But the chair is very important. I will try to sit on it, even if it's just for a minute and I have been driving for 4 hours to get there and hate the idea of sitting down on a small uncomfortable wooden chair fit for a 7 year old. It's what you do. And you chat for a bit about the family, the weather, tourist traffic, and of course admire the prize winning pieces they show you. You do this if you ever want to be considered an important customer who deserves attention and maybe a small discount.
That's another point…Mexican artisans generally don't understand wholesale pricing. Even people I’ve known for years and to whom I’ve paid thousands of dollars don't give me much of a price break. I usually pay what you would pay just walking in off the street. There is only one artisan among dozens with whom I work who automatically gives me a 25% discount. Everyone else only calculates the time involved in making each individual piece. They don't realize that it might make sense to sell 100 items to me all at once for less money per piece, rather than have to wait for a 100 customers to buy one piece at a time over 6 months. I don't usually push it because often the price they’re charging is so incredibly low for the talent and time involved, and I don’t want to be that kind of buyer. If I know that someone is trying to take advantage of me, charging more than they should-- that’s another story. That’s where experience comes in, because I am not just some tourist walking in off the street. 
Here I’m at Herlinda Morales’ workshop in Santa Fe de la Laguna where her famous black candelabras are molded and fired. In 2011 Herlinda spent a few nights with us in our home in Berkeley when she and Martina Navarro, a maque artisan, participated in a show I produced called En las Manos de las Mujeres. I showed her the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars, introduced her to chopsticks and Irish coffee, and most importantly made her feel en casa -- at home. And she and my daughter, Jenny, shared some special moments too. When Herlinda learned last year that Jenny was to be married, she created a special candelabra for her. In addition to her usual flowers and butterflies, it includes two lovebirds or doves of peace. That’s the clay piece drying on the table.

Sometimes we're the ones offering food and drink, like to one of the indigenous artesanas who’s been walking around the Patzcuaro plaza all day trying to sell her clay pots or woven napkins to tourists eating ice cream or sipping cappuccinos. We’ve also had Roberto-- our favorite copper artisan who is also an elementary school teacher-- over to our casita for comida and a long overdue conversation about education.  And three years ago when I turned 60 I invited him and a few other special artisan friends to join friends and family from California and Morelia for my birthday celebration in Patzcuaro. Martina, Felipe Horta and Teofila Servin were also able to be there and came bearing unexpected and extraordinary gifts: an exquisite hammered vase, a blouse, a woven rebozo, and this embroidered pillow made by Teo. I was deeply moved, and yes, at times like this, I'll admit it-- it is a dream job. Can't wait to go back!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Shipping and Handling Part III-- “Caras buenas”

January 2015
With the shipping nightmares of 2014 behind me, and almost all of the merchandise in that shipment now sold, I was starting to feel more positive and energized for the new year. I had some money in my bank account, and customers were clamoring for more product. That’s always a nice feeling. Plus, the exchange rate was amazing! In July of 2014 we were getting around 12.5 pesos to the dollar. At one point it went up to 13 and we were absolutely giddy. But then, in January and February of 2015 we saw the dollar surge and watched it go past 14 to 1. Holy Mole-- now’s the time to buy! Currently, at the moment I am writing this, the rate has been holding steady above 15 to 1. Think about it this way: a copper vase I bought in 2014 cost me 600 pesos, which was about $48. If I were to buy it now at 15 to 1, it would be around $40 US. If I buy ten of those vases, I will be saving $80. That’s a significant difference and some pretty strong motivation for me to start placing some orders. First though, I have to check on shipping possibilities. Always there’s that shipping issue. “Hey Carlos, got any trucks coming up in the next few months?” Affirmative, he tells me, probably end of February or beginning of March. Perfect, that will be plenty of time for the artisans to complete my orders before Domingo de Ramos. If you wait too long, they will be busy creating their pieces for the concurso and after that they’ll be kicking back, enjoying Semana Santa with their families. Of course I know from experience that “end of February” probably means the end of March, but even with a delay I figure we’ll be okay. So I place the orders, send money quickly (before the rate changes) and assure my customers that yes, I will be getting more of that beautiful pottery in a couple of months.
It was the 20th of March, officially Spring, and I was waiting to hear when I could expect to see my boxes. First I needed to check with Rene, my packer guy extraordinaire. Last time I checked he told me he still had a lot to do. So I was really surprised to receive his message telling me that he was just taking the boxes to the paqueteria to ship them to Tlaquepaque where they are to be put on Carlos’ truck. I write back, “Si? Que bien!” (yeah? that’s great!) But then his messages continued and I soon realized that this was no ordinary conversation. An accident had occurred with the boxes. “Una camioneta aplastó las cajas” (a truck had smashed the boxes) and he didn’t know how many pieces were broken. It took me a while to get the story straight, probably because I was in shock and unable to grasp what was happening. Apparently Rene had unloaded the boxes on to the pavement next to his pick-up truck and some guy in another truck drove into them. After seeing what he’d done, the driver immediately took off, and there was nothing Rene could do. They were really smashed.
True story... I am not making this shit up.
So there was my Spring shipment of pottery and that great deal (remember that fabulous exchange rate?) which is now another chapter in my book we’ll call “The great disaster of 2015”.  Maybe I’m getting used to the ups and downs of this business, or maybe I’m actually getting better in my efforts to “be more Mexican” and not complain so much (which is the norm in my Jewish culture) but as I awaited the news of just how bad the damage was, I am remarkably calm. I remember many years ago, before Mexico By Hand was even an idea, Doug and I were walking around Patzcuaro’s Plaza Grande during either the Semana Santa or Dia de los Muertos crafts event. We stopped to admire some stunningly beautiful pottery laid out on the sidewalk. It was the work of Manuel Morales, a well recognized artist who creates unusual (and pricey) painted platters, bowls and vases. We had seen his work in various galleries and at La Casa de las Artesanias and though we loved it, even at Mexico prices it was too expensive for us. Years later we became customers and friends, but this will always be my first memory of Manuel. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a big German Shepard came bounding onto the sidewalk and jumped right on top of the pottery. As we gasped in horror, Manuel calmly, without saying a word or showing any emotion, walked over and picked up the broken pieces-- including a large platter I would guess was priced at least a hundred dollars-- and threw them into the trash. There is a popular saying in Mexico that is passed down from parent to child:  “A tiempos malos, caras buenas”, which literally translates as “in bad times, good face”. In English we would probably say that one should “smile in the face of adversity” or “grin and bear it”. But we Americans, for the most part, don’t usually do that. We yell and throw things, rage and flip the bird at drivers who cut us off on the highway, and we look for someone to sue for damages and our pain and suffering. Manuel knew then that there was nothing he could do but pick up the pieces-- literally-- and keep on working. And now after many years of trying to understand both Mexico and the realities of doing this business, I have finally learned the same. Just pick up the pieces, throw them in the trash, and keep on working.

May 2, 2015 update: The shipment arrived and the pieces are beautiful!

The pottery above is hand painted by the talented husband and wife team, Demetrio and Raquel Gonzalez of Capula, Michoacán. These and others are imported by Mexico By Hand and can be purchased through
For wholesale purchases, please contact us at or 510.526.6395


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Lead: Bad for Children and Other Living Things

When Mexico By Hand displays a little sign or mentions the fact that our pottery is sin plomo (lead free) this is a very big deal. While most folks don't think much about it, the issue does concern some of our customers and is extremely important to us. It can get a bit complicated and difficult to explain, but here are some of the basics. Pottery that is intended for food use--which is a lot of Mexico By Hand's products -- has additional requirements for importing to the U.S. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) randomly inspects pottery imports crossing the border. They’re looking for toxic metals -- most importantly lead. Though it's the law in Mexico that all pottery intended for food use be lead-free, the Mexican government does not have an inspection system in place to enforce the law, and that's why 90% of Mexican pottery produced still contains lead. So when you tell me that you bought something like our bean pot at a mercado in Jalisco, or your mother has a cazuela she’s been using for years-- so she doesn’t really need a new one-- I want you to understand that I am 99.9% sure that pottery is contaminated with lead. If you tell me that you don’t believe it’s a big deal, “no pasa nada”, then I need to tell you that I don’t care so much about you and your health, but I DO care about the Mexican artisans who produce clay pots and dishes and are exposed to the stuff all day.
They dip their hands into the glazes, their kitchens and gardens are contaminated because the pottery is produced in home workshops, and artisan’s children can suffer learning disabilities as a result. It's also really bad for the environment surrounding the artisan communities. So even if you plan on using the pot for decoration and won't use it for cooking, that's why we inform you that our pottery is lead-free. We are trying to encourage artisans to convert to lead free glazes, but unfortunately if  Mexican consumers keep buying the pots with lead and resist paying more for the ones without lead (because they are more expensive) artisans will not feel motivated to make the change. We American consumers can make a difference and in the past decade we've happily seen a gradual movement towards more lead free production. It is illegal to import pottery intended for food use that is made with glazes containing lead, and the U.S. government can be very strict. Yes, folks cross the U.S.- Mexico border every day with leaded pottery-- in private cars and trucks, but if an importer like us is caught with even one piece of contaminated pottery, the whole truck will either be sent back or the product will be destroyed. And a black mark on the importer’s record may prevent him or her from ever importing to the U.S. again. It’s serious.
All that being said however, if someone asks us to show proof or evidence that our pottery is lead-free--like an official seal or some sort of certificate from the government, we can't. Because there isn't one. Really. If a box of ours is randomly inspected, we might be able to show you a piece of tape courtesy of the FDA.

So you have to trust us when we say that we know the artisans and are careful about who we buy from, not just because we care about this issue, but because we have to be careful-- if we want to stay in business. Fortunately for us all, there are some amazingly talented artisans who have been making beautiful lead free pottery for Mexico By Hand for years. Here are a few samples from the town of Capula, not far from Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. Lead free pottery can be purchased on our website at

Friday, April 10, 2015

Embroidery from Lake Patzcuaro

Near Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacán, indigenous women embroider 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 the women around Lake Patzcuaro began depicting traditional village dances such as the Dance of the Viejitos, and festivals such as Dia de los Muertos and Corpus Christi. The artisans also embroider scenes of women cooking, men fishing, and other scenes of daily life in a Purepecha village like this.

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 I produced about four master craftswomen of Michoacán. And I continue to see Teo and her family every year when we return to Michoacán.

Mexico By Hand carries embroidered pictures, pillow covers, and beautiful cotton blouses by Teo and other talented embroiderers of Michoacán.
See more on our website or contact us at

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Michoacán Masks

I am not a mask collector, but some of my best friends are, namely my husband Doug. I'll never forget  searching the Oaxaca main market with him many years ago, and after what seemed like hours of a wild goose chase, we turned a corner and miraculously came upon some amazing treasures-- old masks( men with big beards and some devils) from Guerrero--that were the first to adorn our walls. Doug kept his cool and bargained hard with the woman (who clearly was not the artisan but a vendor of random stuff in her stall) and after we had given her all of our pesos, we dug deep into our pockets to offer some dollars we'd been saving for an emergency. To Doug, this was obviously an emergency. I remember the joy Doug felt when we carried off those pieces. He was thinking how cool he was and that he had really scored. I on the other hand was thinking: How will we get these things home? Where the hell will we put them? How much money did we just spend? And finally-- did I marry a crazy man, because-- who does this??
Since then, that mask obsession has led to a few more purchases for our home, and has given me a bit of insight into some of my Mexico By Hand customers. Michoacán masks are completely different from other Mexican masks, and they are largely unknown by folks who have never been there. There are a few different styles of masks from different villages, e.g. Ocumicho, Sevina, and Uruapan, to name a few, but for now, I'm going to talk about the masks from Tocuaro, a small village on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro. I remember on my first trip to the state, I didn't much care for them. Frankly, they're pretty scary-- brightly painted devils with red tongues sticking out and lots of snakes and bats-- creepy stuff like that. I certainly wasn't going to buy any, even to sell to my customers. And I doubted they would want them either. But then I met Felipe. It was April, in  2005 or maybe 2006, and I flew to Michoacán by myself for the annual Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) crafts market and concurso (competition) in Uruapan. Doug and I had spent the previous year producing a documentary of the event for the Casa de las Artesanias and I was so excited to be back. But this time I was going as Mexico By Hand, and my purpose was to buy! I had gotten up very early--too excited to sleep and I wanted to shop early to get the best stuff. Turns out this was Mexico, where vendors don't show up bright and early, which is something I still forget so many years later. So realizing I had plenty of time, I ducked into a little hole in the wall breakfast place nearby and ordered some coffee and huevos a la Mexicana.
 Sitting at the counter a few stools away from me was Felipe Horta, a maskmaker from Tocuaro. I knew his name because his uncle was the famous Juan Horta, considered to be the best in the village. Felipe had a booth there in the market and of course was also hoping to win a prize for an elaborate dance mask and cape he entered for the concurso. We had a nice chat, and he let me know that he'd be interested in exhibiting in the U.S. if I could arrange something. To my surprise he told me that he has a visa and has been to San Francisco to show his work. I promised to stop by his booth and we shared contact information, and then he insisted on paying for my breakfast. A few years later I returned the favor when Mexico By Hand applied and was accepted to exhibit at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market and we sponsored Felipe as the guest artist in our booth. We spent 5 days together, and have been friends ever since.
Felipe Horta in his workshop

Felipe is very talented. He also has a big personality, which means he's not shy and loves to joke around, something that makes him a good salesman as well. So when Felipe tries to sell me something, I have a very hard time saying "no", in either language. By the way, it's the same word in English and Spanish--the word should be easy to master. Like a good Mexican, Felipe enjoys bargaining--hard. He is one of the few artisans with whom I do that, because we are friends, and I don't have to worry about offending him. Plus, he always starts it. So, as a result, over the years I have purchased masks that I initially didn't want to buy, but was convinced to do so. I have sold some of them, and others are currently part of our home collection-- until we sell them. So who are the folks who buy these devil masks? Well, first they are people with some money to spend on art, because Felipe's masks are not cheap. And though I have seen an equal number of men and women who show interest, I have to say that my last few purchases have been to middle-age women, of various backgrounds. Go figure. One woman of Armenian descent has bought two, and then there was a customer who bought one a couple of years ago who I was sure when she approached our booth was, for lack of a better or more PC word, a "bag lady". Obviously yanking my chain when she asked the price, this woman didn't even blink as she pulled out her credit card. Surprise…a strange person with a foreign accent who collects masks and has money to spend!  Hallelujah!
El Grandote
This year we were again exhibiting at that show, and we brought Felipe's masks, which happily got a lot of attention. Up walked this woman who looked very familiar, and got down to business right away. "How much for those masks?" she asked pointing to our medium size devil masks. After I answered her, she then pointed to the one I call "El Grandote"-- the big ass one. This is the giant mask that Doug convinced me to buy from Felipe two and a half years ago, and was getting to be part of the family, not because we couldn't part with it, but because we feared it was like a young adult who would never be able to leave home. It not only had a devil, but a skeleton and a scorpion too. Super creepy…and it was expensive. That was the piece I really, really wanted to sell that day, and if we did sell it, we could call the show a success. Hallelujah! Now what are we going to do with that bare wall? I'm missing El Grandote already. Felipe, amigo, how much for that big mask??
Skull w/angel

La Dualidad (Duality)

Felipe Horta's masks can be purchased at his workshop in Tocuaro, Michoacán and also are available in the U.S. through Mexico By Hand.
For more information, contact us at: or (510) 526-6395.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Trasteritos and Bateas

Some photos just can’t be improved upon--there’s no need. The picture I took of Antonio and have used all these years was from the day we met-- in 2003. I noticed him in front of his colorfully painted bateas and trasteritos, on the edge of the Plaza Grande in Patzcuaro, just outside of the official artisans booth area. It was like he had snuck in to the artisan market and didn’t really belong there. I had seen pieces like that before of course-- everyone has. The iconic painted chairs and flowery wood trays called bateas in Michoacán are well-known to Mexicans and their children, even those who’ve migrated to the U.S. There is even a demand among gringos for “vintage” bateas on websites like Ebay and among antique dealers. And I had seen some magnificent extra large bateas, like maybe a meter in diameter, in La Casa de las Artesanias in Morelia.
The bateas were made by Antonio Anita Mejia, a man with no art training but tremendous talent--the only real artisan in the town of Quiroga. Doug and I think of it as the Tijuana of Michoacán, with its dozens of shops lining the main street with all the same cheap souvenirs made somewhere else, it is a tourist trap to be sure. We can always tell when someone mentions Quiroga as a place to shop, that they don't know much about artesania. Until Doug and I moved to Michoacán and our guide Socorro took us around to film Michoacán’s artisans, we didn’t know what Quiroga really had to offer, and that was its famously delicious carnitas. From then on our workshop visits around that part of Lake Patzcuaro always include a stop at Carnitas Carmelo, across from a lovely park which is always empty. We often had trouble locating Antonio’s house, and were happy when he briefly had a shop right down the street from Carmelo. But there wasn’t enough business, weren’t enough tourists to pay the rent. Though I buy from him at least once a year, I don’t think Antonio actually knows my name. But he trusts me to pay him the right amount of money, casually looking at the numbers as I show him how I calculated the total. The soft spoken Antonio once told me he didn’t really know if the amount was correct, as he gratefully accepted the pesos I handed him. He doesn’t know much about math, but as my husband Doug says with great admiration-- no one loads a paintbrush like Antonio.

Antonio's work can be purchased in the U. S. from Mexico By Hand.
Please contact us at 510.526.6395
Trasterito with clay cups

Mini painted chairs