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!

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