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.

1 comment:

  1. The plates are wonderful love the designs w love Janice