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 is important to 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 the Mexican consumer keeps buying the pots with lead and resists 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

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Patzcuaro Textiles!

Anyone who has been to the town of Patzcuaro-- even for only a day-- notices the dozens of shops that surround the Plaza Grande (the main shopping area) displaying brightly colored tablecloths, bedspreads, and napkins. Every restaurant and cafe table and most of the hotel beds in Patzcuaro are covered with the hand loomed textiles. They are in fact-- pardon the pun-- part of the fabric of the town's charming landscape. All of the textiles seem to be made by the Adame family, but the cousins and in-laws involved in the industry are not necessarily working together; it seems that they actually don't even all know each other. It's kind of strange. But anyway…most tourists will buy something at one of the shops, at least a few napkins, because they're pretty easy to throw in one's suitcase. I have bought several pieces over the years, and regularly use them at my home in California. Cotton napkins and tablecloths that are affordable and can be machine washed and dried are a rarity here in the U.S. I have bought a few tablecloths for customers, and friends and family too, but that has been problematic; getting the right color and size for other folks can be challenging. So is finding a shop there that wants to ship an order to the U.S. After several years of discussions and attempts with various well-meaning and seemingly serious textile business owners, I was about to give up on the idea. I could never get anyone to tell me for starters 1)how much it would cost to ship to California and 2) how I could pay them. But then I received an email from a customer I've never met, with a very specific request for a Patzcuaro tablecloth, and I decided to give it one more try. I promptly sent Ron a message and a photo. Ron is an expat who I met the past summer, and like most of the expats in Patzcuaro, usually isn't super busy. So I asked Ron if by any chance, he was going to be walking down to Centro soon for coffee or groceries and if so could he please do me a big favor and see if any of the shops near there have a tablecloth like the one in the photo.  Ron said he'd be happy to help. Within a few hours I received a detailed account of his search for the tablecloth I requested (no luck) followed by more emails with notes about dimensions available, conversations about delivery times, photos of some styles, and even scans of some business cards. Ron was really into this! So I proposed we talk more about doing some business together, which we did a few days later. And then Ron and I put together a scheme and he went about buying some cotton napkins, and he proceeded to conduct an experiment to see how we could transport the textiles and what it would cost. Here's Ron's theory about Mexico: "Nothing, and I mean, NOTHING, is ever straightforward in Mexico. And that theory seems to apply to something as pedestrian as napkins."

Long story short, the private companies like FedEx are ridiculously expensive and therefore not cost effective for us, so the Mexican correos (the post office) which has long held a reputation for being slow and incompetent was really our only viable option. FedEx promised to deliver in 3 days but cost 4 times as much. Really? $58 to mail 15 cloth napkins? So, on three separate days, Ron sent three packages to me containing cloth napkins from the Patzcuaro post office. I received 2 out of 3, within two weeks, which I consider pretty good. The first one he sent on November 26, still hadn't arrived by Jan. 8th. According to the "track and trace" widget on the correos website, the box didn't arrive at the airport in Mexico City until Dec. 22, which is 26 days later. So, after 42 days, I decided to check the website again, and the information was the same. According to the site, the box was last seen on Dec. 22 in Mexico City. I noticed there was a place to contact them with a question, and knowing full well that it was a real long shot I'd get an answer, I sent a short email with my question: "Where is this box?" --followed by the tracking number. Amazingly, I received a note early the next morning from the Correos Mexicanos telling me that the box had arrived at the Richmond, CA facility on Jan. 9-- that very morning. No way! At this point I stopped thinking about my package for a moment and had to marvel at the customer service and technological capabilities just exhibited by a government entity I had assumed, like most people do, was totally and completely dysfunctional. A few hours later there was a knock at my door. There it was-- box #3, which actually was box #1, with the remaining napkins in our Patzcuaro textile experiment.
It was a Mexican miracle. 

Napkins and tablecloths imported from Mexico are now available in various styles and colors from Mexico By Hand. Our Patzcuaro textiles are 100% cotton and are made by hand on a traditional wooden foot loom. They can be machine washed and dried and little or no ironing is necessary. Check our website for size and price information and to place an order. 510.526.6395

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lovely Jewels

I don't think I've met a woman who doesn't like jewelry. She might be picky and insist on only wearing real gold, or on the other end of the spectrum be a hippie type who collects shiny baubles from all over the world. But no matter her fashion style and pocket book, she will almost always take a look at an earring stand. Everyone knows that most Mexican silver is of high quality and is made in Taxco. I said most. But there are a few other places where quality jewelry is made in Mexico, and one of them is Michoacán. They don't make silver bangles or turquoise rings there, but if you're looking for delicate silver necklaces and earrings with fish--you need look no further. Michoacán means "the land of the fishermen" so fish are an important theme in the region's traditional artesania. There are a couple of families who dedicate themselves to making beautiful traditional jewelry, including the silver and gold earrings often worn by Purepecha women like the one below.
Artesana of Cocucho, Michoacán

Girls in Ocumicho, Michoacán
 If you spend any time in Michoacán (and are paying attention) you will notice that all the women and girls wear silver or gold earrings in the shape of a half moon. I bought my first pair in 2003, but it took me a few years to finally meet the family in Cheran who makes them. Cheran is an interesting town with a lot of history, and in the past decade has become known for its indigenous activism and self-defense forces. It was an adventure trying to find them, but eventually we located their house and made our purchase from Rigoberto and his charming mother, la señora Benedicta. The following year we made an appointment for them to deliver some earrings to us in Patzcuaro and the whole family arrived at the house we were renting. They are such a lovely family and they do beautiful work. But doing business regularly, especially during the months we weren't in Mexico, was problematic. Even trying to inquire about the current prices of various earring sizes-- with the fluctuation of silver and gold in the world market prices were always changing-- that was always difficult for us. Making a purchase and arranging delivery was definitely a challenge.
Edith & Cesar of Kutzi Joyeros

Then by accident (and some very good luck) in 2013 our new friend, Joanna, introduced us to Edith and Cesar aka Kutzi Joyeros. After seeing the beautiful silver earrings she had just bought from them, I was excited to make an appointment to visit the Kutzi workshop in Patzcuaro. Doug and I immediately hit it off with the couple, and I found several styles of earrings I was sure my customers would appreciate. In addition, we could place future wholesale orders via Facebook and they would send packages to the U.S. We can do business! Last year (the summer of 2014) was even better. I messaged that I'd like to bring down some old jewelry that I received from my mother-in-law and my own mother who had passed away the previous year. I asked if they could remake some of mom's earrings for pierced ears so either I or my daughters could wear them, and to also use the gold from a necklace to make into a pair of gold filigree earrings I could have for my daughter Jenny's wedding. They were happy to help with the re-purposing of our family heirlooms, and also made beautiful new silver half moon shaped arracadas or hoops for me to sell to Mexico By Hand customers. When Edith and Cesar delivered the order, we passed several wonderful hours with them chatting about art and politics as we drank quite a bit of mezcal. Now this is the way to do business!

Kutzi's silver earrings can be purchased online from Mexico By Hand at
Many thanks to Florence Leyret Jeune for the use of her photo of Edith and Cesar. You can see more of her beautiful photographs at:

Friday, December 26, 2014

Faith, Friendship, and Fajas

Natividad weaving. Cuanajo 2004
Natividad Romero Casimiro makes each of her weavings with love, generosity, and gratitude, and the faith that tomorrow will be better. For that reason, I call them "spirit sashes". We first got to know Nati when we were shooting our video documentary for La Casa de las Artesanias (the Michoacán Folk Art 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 this photo-- her crippled feet tucked under and her wooden crutches nearby-- with that big warm smile--I 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 of course 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 $70 (my reduced price) is not a lot of money for this work. So I end up selling what I buy from Nati at my cost...which gives her a few more pesos for food or bus tickets or yarn, so that she might keep doing what she knows until she can't any do it any longer.
We hadn't seen Nati for a couple of years, and we were anxiously hoping to find her at home when we brought our tour group there in August of 2011. As soon as we turned into Cuanajo, there she was, walking down the dirt road towards her house. We stopped and offered to pick her up, and after kisses and happy exclamations of "que milagro", we quickly noticed how the diabetes has taken its toll on this woman who has already suffered so much. We all treasured that visit... our tourists also found Nati and her family special, and they enthusiastically bought numerous weavings to take back home. Below Nati proudly posed with one of her cotton fajas and her mother, Maria Guadalupe (right) is holds a certificate Nati received in recognition of a weaving course she had given recently. Maria, also an excellent weaver, has had to stop weaving due to the arthritis in her hands.

In 2013, we arrived without a tour group, just a couple of friends. We didn't intend to buy anything, because we still had pieces by Nati that we hadn't sold yet and buying fajas or morrales (woven bags) wasn't a priority for my buying trip. We just wanted to say hello. The family had obviously been suffering because the Casa de las Artesanias was no longer buying their work. The new management was not going to buy artesania that didn't sell in their stores. Nati implored me to take three fajas, and told me, "pay me when you sell them...I trust you." We were touched by that trust, reflecting on what this gesture said about our relationships with artisans we have developed over the years. And more sadly, it speaks to the desperation of the these talented artists who are without a market and have few options. I paid Nati a few months later, not because I sold her fajas, but when 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 needed money to buy medicine. I wired the money (the amount we agreed to charge for the fajas) figuring we would eventually sell them. They are stunning as you can see, and are as of yet, still unsold. They are not only "spirit sashes", but I believe could be called "friendship fajas" as well.

To see or purchase these beautiful fajas please go to our website: