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:

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Calabaza Confusion

Squash in various colors and shapes
Shopping is a big part of my work, so it's a good thing I like to do it. The fact is, I only really like it when I'm buying stuff I like myself. It's puzzling sometimes for me as a professional shopper for Mexico By Hand to predict how popular an item will be with customers. So when we started out, I was a bit unsure whether other folks would like what I like. It turns out that a lot of folks do. There have been some "mistakes" along the way, and of course the logical, best guess is to go by the sales history of similar product. But that doesn't always work.

Take the burnished calabazas (squash) of Zinapecuaro for example. The first year of Mexico By Hand's existence we couldn't get enough of them to meet the demand. With the exception of the giant ones, the small and medium size pieces flew off the table, people were SO excited for them.

The artist/owner of a gallery in Napa, California absolutely went nuts over our calabazas. He displayed them beautifully in the window, along with my photo of the artisan holding a giant one, similar to the one on the right. There are three families who make these, and they live on the same small street in the town of Zinapecuaro in Michoacán. We have bought the squash from all three.

The photo on the right was taken in the workshop of the Hernandez Cano family, just before the artisans packed up our order. This workshop is more known for their beautiful burnished pottery featuring Pre-Columbian designs and drawings inspired by Jose Guadalupe Posada such as La Catrina.

Our burnished squash at The Mexican Museum in San Francisco
The year we exhibited burnished clay squash at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, I think we sold more than 25 calabazas the first day of the show. After that, I had trouble getting them, so when I had the opportunity to buy some in the summer of 2013, I went for it. I got some gorgeous ones-- some of the best ever. And they have sat on the shelves for months.
Here we are at the end of 2014 and I still have 80% of that 2013 purchase. Go figure. They were beautiful, affordable, displayed nicely, and supposedly folks in the Bay Area should be into ceramics that celebrate the natural world, and vegetables in particular. I am confused. Where did I go wrong? The only thing I can think of is that customers are going for the more practical items, such as bowls and platters...stuff one can actually use. Maybe since the recession people are more careful about money, and maybe it's because folks are trying to reduce the clutter...something I often hear from folks as they get older. But we all need beautiful art in our loves, and an object created completely by hand out of clay and water, well that can inspire and delight the owner for years.
The calabaza experience has unfortunately caused me to doubt my ability to judge what will sell-- a skill I thought I was getting pretty good at lately. It's an important skill for my business, so I need to figure this one out. On the bright side, challenges like this keep the work interesting, and meanwhile I get to enjoy our beautiful collection of calabazas...until they find the right owner.

For more information about these or other Mexico By Hand crafts, please visit our website or contact us at

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Importing Crafts from Mexico

We're often asked how Mexico By Hand gets our artesania from Mexico to the United States. I'm currently writing a memoir about my glamorous life as a craft importer (note that tongue is firmly in the cheek) and will be posting various chapters here on my blog in the coming months. My working title is "Why Importing Crafts from Mexico is Not for Wimps". I have spent a lot of time devoted to the subject of shipping, because it is a big one and has been on my mind a lot, and as you will see, is very, very glamorous. The following is an abbreviated version of my answer to the FAQ: "How do you get your stuff here?"
The answer is pretty long, but here's the headline: I have my ways. Various ways. And it's constantly changing-- by necessity. The first couple of years we did a lot of crazy things to get our purchases home. A couple of times we drove from the Bay Area to meet our boxes in Tijuana. They were shipped on Mexican trucks that do not have permission to enter the U.S. In Tijuana (an adventure in itself) we would meet the truck, fill up our Honda Pilot and cross the border, going back and forth several times. We did that until we got it all and had filled up a U-Haul trailer parked on the U.S. side of the border (no, American companies will not let you take their trucks or trailers into Mexico) and then we'd drive it back north to Berkeley. Luckily we have some wonderful friends in the San Diego area who let us store our stuff at their place until we finished the job, and others who let us crash with them for a night. Exhausting way to go. Definitely not for wimps.
You see, there aren't a lot of transport companies that ship artesania from Mexico to the U.S. And the few that exist are either untrustworthy i.e. they break your stuff, or they are really expensive. And they also break your stuff.
A casualty of shipping.
   Fortunately we made some new friends in this business over the past ten years. Carlos, whose family's business is not too far from us, have trucks that deliver furniture and other large items from Guadalajara on a regular basis. Sometimes they had trucks leaving Mexico at the right time for me, and he and his associates were honest, careful, and didn't charge me too much. And it was definitely easier than going to Tijuana. Once I used a company with an office in Texas, and transporting artesania they say is their specialty. They were disorganized, took longer than the time they quoted me, were not cheap, and when I checked out their pricing this year, in 2014, they were charging for a pallet twice what they charged me two years before! The other way was through my business contact and former partner on the lead free pottery and cookware project called Cocina Sana. Dirceu has truckloads of clay items going from Michoacan to L.A. every 4-6 weeks. And Mexico By Hand has hitched a ride with him several times.
And then there was the summer of 2014...

After my friend Carlos told me that he was canceling his shipment for August and September (remember the Napa Valley earthquake?) I was desperate. Dirceu was the guy I called. He had a truck leaving Michoacán in a couple of days, which meant I had to get my packer guy, Rene, to rearrange his schedule and jump into high gear to deliver our 20 boxes to the warehouse to be loaded on the pallets in time. Rene was a hero and he did it, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Our artesania-- all of the wonderful pottery, and copper, and catrinas I bought in June and July for Dia de los Muertos-- was finally on its way to California the first week of September, definitely behind schedule, but it was on its way, yippee! Fingers were crossed, because we were shipping so many fragile pieces this year (including about 50 clay catrinas!) but things were looking up. Surprisingly the shipment cleared customs in El Paso on Sept. 11 pretty quickly, but then the real trouble began. The whole truck was held for over 4 weeks by the FDA. Most people don't know that the Food and Drug Administration inspects clay imports for lead and other toxic metals. They randomly open boxes and select pieces to test, and if they suspect there is a problem, they do more tests. So to make a VERY long story short, these were weeks of no information, misinformation, and actually false information that made me almost lose my mind. I had long phone calls and many emails to various folks, including several FDA agents, and in short the whole situation was a mess. To sum it up as briefly as possible, the holdup was that there were some clay pieces in Dirceu's shipment that after being analyzed were found to contain some lead. His mission is to support artisans in the production of lead free (sin plomo) pottery so they can sell it in the U.S. So finding lead was horrifying itself, but then it causes big problems for not only the entire shipment, but for future shipments he wants to bring in as well. Unfortunately, because the way the forms were filled out, my clay pieces were dragged into the whole mess and would not be released. The choice was to destroy the pieces, or write on them that they are "for decorative purposes only"... even though there was nothing wrong with my pieces which are, I assure you, sin plomo, i.e. lead-free.

Our pottery waiting to be released by FDA

The shipment was finally released and arrived in L.A. on October 14. A few days later I received my stuff (most, but not all) on Friday, Oct. 17, more than three months after we had departed Mexico and left our precious items to be packed and shipped home to us.

Boxes were opened randomly and then sealed up with tape.
1 of our 2 pallets arrives from L.A.

Clay catrinas at the Oakland Museum
 During all of this time I had customers writing and calling about items they had ordered months ago, and more importantly, wholesale clients (e.g. the Oakland Museum) who were counting on me to deliver orders in time for Dia de los Muertos. In addition to the anxiety and fear that I would never see my purchases, I worried that my customers would be so annoyed that they'd ask for their money back, and never order a thing from me again. Fortunately, we have wonderful customers who understand the perils of shipping internationally, and can be very zen in situations like this.
And we have our beautiful pottery, signed by the Mexican artist with handwritten notes ordered by our U.S. government on their bottoms to remind us of the nightmare of the summer of 2014. What did I tell you? Not for wimps.
Plates by Angelica Morales of Tzintzuntzan

Lead-free platter by Fernando Arroyo of Capula

Lead-free bowl
These and other beautiful handmade crafts from Michoacán can be purchased at Contact us at or (510) 526-6395.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Support the Arts AND the Artists

Rebozo weaver from Turícuaro
About 10 years ago Doug and I were in the final month of our year long stay in Michoacán. At that time we were putting the final touches on our documentary for La Casa de las Artesanias, and making sure that we had purchased all of the treasures we absolutely couldn't live without. We didn't know then that we were starting a business, that our love for Michoacán's artesania-- some might call it obsession-- would lead us to embark on something that a few months later would become what we now know as Mexico By Hand. We didn't know then that we would return every year to buy more handmade crafts-- not for ourselves-- but to sell to appreciative customers in the United States. 
And we never imagined that ten years later, in the year 2014, there would still be  Mexico By Hand.We have learned and experienced so much these past years, and our feelings and attachment for the people and the culture of Michoacán have grown even stronger. Many artisans eagerly look forward to our visits and depend on our yearly purchases in order to sustain their families. We of course enjoy  the relationships we have developed, and are always excited to meet new artisans and expand the circle. Every year we hope to discover or undertake something new that will either delight our customers or ourselves. 
Young embroiderer, near Erongaricuaro
Which brings me to a new project I'd like to tell you about. When Doug and I were having lunch last summer with some new friends in Erongaricuaro, a village about a half hour away from Patzcuaro, I heard about some women who run a health clinic for the indigenous women in the area. It intrigued me, but I never had a chance to visit or learn much more. And then, a few months ago, I received a group email from the clinic's director, asking for financial support for this very clinic. As I read the letter, tears began streaming down my cheeks. My strong reaction surprised me, but it didn't take long for me to realize that the intensity of my feelings was a sign that I needed to pay attention to this letter, to this organization called Mujeres Aliadas. I immediately wrote back and offered to donate a portion of Mexico By Hand's sales to their project. 
Artisan family in Cuanajo
 Mujeres Aliadas advances the lives of poor women and adolescent girls in the Lake Pátzcuaro area of Michoacán by providing women-centered sexual and reproductive health and educational services. Women in the area have unacceptably high rates of maternal, infant, and cervical cancer mortality due to poor access to affordable, dignified and quality health care. Common ailments often go untreated for years or even a lifetime. For many, particularly the indigenous women, the cost of travel to a clinic or even a small fee for care is simply unaffordable.  Mujeres Aliadas helps to empower women and adolescent girls to advocate for their health care rights.
The majority of the artisans from whom Mexico By Hand buys are indigenous Purepecha women. All but one has children, and most of the men have daughters. The women who create the beautiful art we buy and sell need the services provided by Mujeres Aliadas. They need to be educated so that they can take charge of their own health care and they need to be treated with respect and dignity. It makes so much sense for Mexico By Hand to support this project, and with your help, we can send some much needed dollars their way by the end of the year. All you need to do is purchase from and tell your friends and families to do the same.
Mil gracias!
-- Peggy
To find out more about Mujeres Aliadas, go to their website:

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ode to the Ollas of Huancito

Marta Espicio of Huancito

Martin Espicio, Huancito artisan
 The village of Huancito is definitely off the beaten track.  Even the folks who know Michoacán well and appreciate its spectacular artesania (crafts) have never been, and probably have no idea where it's located --in La Cañada de los Once Pueblos, several small indigenous villages about a half hour from Zamora. But if you visit Michoacán's most charming town of Patzcuaro, and spend any time at the Plaza Vasco de Quiroga (aka the Plaza Grande) on a Sunday afternoon, you will very likely encounter Marta Espicio and her family selling their wares. The whole family makes these gorgeous burnished and finely decorated clay pots, learning the traditional Purepecha craft from David Espicio who learned from his parents. The sons -- Martin, Jesus, and Ramon among them, and daughter Maria Guadalupe -- have far surpassed their father's skill, exhibiting extraordinary talent and creativity that has earned them honors in local competitions and the appreciation of customers who happen by. The problem is, there aren't enough of those customers. Mexico By Hand plays a major role sustaining the economy of the Espicio family, and they look forward to our yearly visit in the summer when we excitedly select our favorite pots to pack up and ship to the California. But as far as we can tell, except for a few tourists and expats who adorn their homes with these fabulous, affordable treasures, there is no real market beyond that for this art-- except for Mexico By Hand's customers.  These pots are decorative works of art, not as "useful" as say a glazed platter or embroidered blouse, which most customers can easily justify purchasing even in difficult economic times. But there is something so soulful, joyful, life-enriching about these ollas. Each pot is unique; flowers and birds are the common themes, painted free-hand with a squirrel hair brush, with paint made from ant excrement-- or so we've been told. We own two Huancito pots that my husband has repeatedly told me he will NEVER, EVER sell, he loves them so much. It would be like selling his children, that's how much he adores them. Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but they clearly give him a great deal of pleasure. And they don't talk back. But lucky for you, we have acquired some equally beautiful pieces in my opinion... that might make you fall in love too.

These are a few samples of the work of the Espicio family, available for purchase at the Mexican Museum of San Francisco's tiendita  and at the Mexico By Hand booth February 22 & 23 at the 2014 Art of the Americas show in San Rafael, California.

To see more fine artesania from Michoacán, please check out our website at
For more info. on how to purchase ollas from Huancito, please email us at:

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Magical or Dangerous?

Girls in Purepecha village of Ocumicho
I am often asked when I talk about an upcoming trip to Michoacán, "but isn't it dangerous there?" And now, with headlines screaming that Michoacán is a "failed state", a lawless region with "spiraling violence"-- even those who never heard of the place before feel a need to voice their opinion, or rather, something they've heard or read somewhere. I'd like to share a few comments here from some folks on the ground. My Mexican friends assure me that Morelia, Patzcuaro, and most other areas in Michoacán are unaffected by recent developments and are-- as they've been for the 10 years that I have been going-- STILL safe to visit. As someone pointed out recently, would you NOT visit Chicago, which is the murder capital of the U.S.? It is, by the way. Or San Francisco and the Napa Valley because Oakland (an hour away) is #3 for overall crime? It's also a very popular place to live, and home to many fine restaurants. By the way, have you checked the crime stats for New Orleans lately?

The comments below represent the feeling of gringos who travel frequently to the state of Michoacán (like yours truly) or ex-pats who have chosen to retire there. Here are just a few:

David Haun, American expat and moderator of The Michoacán Net, put it this way:

"The problems in Michoacan are awful, but I feel safer here than in the USA.  I might be sounding insensitive, but the cartel is not after us. If you want to know what is happening in the colonial highlands of Michoacan, ask someone who lives there or owns property there.  I do not have rentals, nor any financial ties in Michoacan. However,  I have the largest forum in Michoacan, The Michoacan Net  and there have been no reports of violence against tourists or expats anywhere in Michoacan. You never have to ask if gringos have been killed in a foreign country, because if they had, it would be all over the news.  Every blood-thirsty-news-media in the world would have headlines that tourists are being killed somewhere.  We are still hearing of the poor high school girl killed in Aruba nearly 10 years ago.  That is not happening in Michoacan."

David continues...writing about a bed and breakfast in Morelia that took 6 groups of tourists last week to see the butterflies:  "There have been no incidents, no roadblocks and no sightings of anything suspicious or dangerous. The tours saw many butterflies, but no cartels."  

Michoacan's "Dance of the Little Old Men"

"Michoacan is Magical."
-- David Haun

And from frequent travelers to Michoacán:

"When I go to Michoacán I drive, sometimes alone.  I have never encountered any trouble to date.  That doesn't mean it couldn't happen but bad things happen everywhere.  You can always be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But I prefer to live my life doing what I like to do as long as there is not unreasonable risk.  If I should suffer some unforeseen situation or even die, at least I'm enjoying my life and not living in fear."

"I am a Michoacán lover and travel there often.  I hate that such a beautiful state with so much to offer is painted with such a broad brush.  I see so many people suffering because of the lack of tourism--hotel and restaurant owners, tour operators… and (very close to my heart) artisans.  I hear artisans saying that they will have to give up their craft and find a job in Morelia.  This breaks my heart because, if allowed to disappear, we may never get those crafts back."
Mexico By Hand Art and Culture Tour in Cuanajo
It breaks our heart too. Before this year's "crisis", it was all too common to hear about increasing numbers of artisans giving up their craft and moving to El Norte. Not because they want to wash dishes in our city's restaurants or work as our gardeners, but because there aren't enough tourists to buy their products. 
Mexico By Hand struggles to provide work for some of the state's most talented artisans through our sales here in the U.S., and we will continue to do that. But now, even more than ever, it is difficult to sign up folks for our Art and Culture tour, even though many people have expressed great interest. During the past 7 years, a few brave souls (mostly women, I might add) have ignored the pleas and warnings of their friends and families and ventured to "dangerous" Michoacán-- and all have lived to tell the tale of their fabulous adventures. They've visited artisan villages, traveled through gorgeous countryside, enjoyed delicious food and drink, were enthralled by the amazing architecture and culture offerings of colonial Morelia, felt welcomed by the warm and friendly people...and so on. All of our tourists were so happy they hadn't listened to their fearful relatives, because they in fact had "a trip of a lifetime". It truly saddens me how many of us are so fearful that we deny ourselves such life-enriching experiences. Of course the lack of tourism did not create the narco violence that is plaguing parts of Mexico. But if the violence and the media's flawed reporting on it continues, the Mexican artisans and others who depend on tourism will continue to suffer, as collateral damage in a failed drug war. And then we will ALL lose.

To see or purchase fine Michoacán folk art and crafts, please visit our website:

If you're interested in visiting Michoacán with us, there are photos, testimonials, and more info. here: or email us at