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.