Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Selling Happiness

“I'm so happy Mexico By Hand exists. Always a joy to visit your site and your product quality and the love that goes into them touches my Mexican heart. I've loved everything I have from you. Thank you!” This feedback arrived from Maria who bought some embroidered blouses from me again this year. After ten years of selling artesania, I cannot tell you what kind of person will be a Mexican art consumer. Sometimes it's a Mexican-American like Maria, or someone of another ethnic background who travels to and loves Mexico. But sometimes my best customers speak no Spanish, have very little understanding of the culture, and have only ventured to Mexico to vacation at a beach resort or maybe a town like San Miguel de Allende-- which is charming, but not "real Mexico" in my book-- and that was many years ago. They don't necessarily talk about wanting to go to Mexico, but they definitely want these charming expressions of Mexican culture in their homes. Or on their backs. A lot of my merchandise is housewares and decorative items, but we also carry woven rebozos and embroidered blouses, which some women are absolutely crazy for. Not everyone feels comfortable wearing an "ethnic" piece of wearable folk art, but there are some women, and again I can't predict who they will be, who embrace the style enthusiastically. Customers like Beth in London, who orders blouses from me while I'm still in Mexico-- minutes after I post photos to my Facebook page.  Then there's Carlina, a lovely woman in San Francisco who bought several blouses and rebozos recently, including this gorgeous embroidered dress I found for her.

After receiving the photo I emailed her Carlina wrote: "I have fallen madly in love with the dress! I had such a terrible day with a series of bad medical news and to open this coming home-- wow and thank you!"

I believe that making people happy is what art is all about-- isn’t it?
And it's the art that makes me happy too. I could never sell widgets, whatever they are. Plumbing or office supplies do not turn me on, although I know they're necessary and I appreciate the men and women who do sell them. I buy artesania that I like-- sometimes love-- and therefore it's a pleasure for me to sell it to others. I want to share the beauty, and am excited when a piece I purchased in Michoacán goes home with a happy customer in the United States. 
Sometimes I feel like I'm in the happiness business. 

Embroidered blouses and other items that bring happiness are available on our website:

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Friendship Fajas

 Cuanajo, Michoacán 2004
Natividad Casimiro Romero makes each of her weavings with love, generosity, and gratitude, and with faith that tomorrow will be better. For that reason, I call her fajas "spirit sashes". We first got to know Nati when we were shooting our video documentary for La Casa de las Artesanias (the Michoacán Handcrafts 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 the photo of her weaving on her backstrap loom, her crippled feet tucked under her skirt and her wooden crutches nearby--I remember her remarkable smile and 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 usually 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 $150 is not too much money for this work. So I end up selling what I buy from Nati at my cost...on the average $80, which gives her a few more pesos for food or bus tickets or yarn, so that she might keep doing this work until she can't do it any longer.

We hadn't seen Nati for a couple of years, when we brought our tour group to her house in August of 2011. As soon as we turned into Cuanajo, there she was, walking down the dirt road towards her house. Nati stands out from all the other Purepecha women in the village, because of her crutches. We stopped and offered her a ride, and after kisses and happy exclamations of "que milagro", we soon notice how the diabetes has taken its toll on this woman who has already suffered so much. Though we were sad to see her health failing, we treasured that visit and were happy to see that our group also found Nati and her family special, as they enthusiastically bought weavings to take back home.
In 2013, we arrived without a tour group, with just a couple of friends. We didn't intend to buy anything, as we still had pieces by Nati that hadn't sold yet and buying fajas or morrales (woven bags) wasn't a priority for my buying trip. We really just wanted to say hello. The family had obviously been suffering financially, telling us that the Casa de las Artesanias was no longer buying fajas. Apparently the new management decided to stop investing in artesania that didn't sell well in their stores. Nati implored me to take three fajas, telling me, "pay me when you sell them... I trust you." We were touched by that trust, reflecting on what this gesture said about the relationships with artisans we've developed over the years. And more sadly, it speaks to the desperation of these talented artists who are without a market and have few options. I paid Nati just a few months later-- not because I sold her fajas-- but because 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 they needed money to buy medicine. I wired the money (the amount we agreed to charge for the fajas) which was a bit risky, but I did it because we’re friends, we trust each other, and I had faith in Nati’s work. I believed I would eventually sell them, and clearly the family needed the money now.
Upon returning from Michoacán I posted photos of Nati’s stunning pieces on Facebook and my website. And the fajas were displayed in the Tienda at The Mexican Museum in San Francisco, where I thought they would have an opportunity to be seen by folks who appreciate Mexican indigenous art and culture. While the clay pots and dishes from Michoacan were quickly purchased by happy customers, the fajas were definitely admired, but still after five months hadn’t sold. I was beginning to worry that summer would arrive and we’d be on our way to Mexico again, and they would still be there on the shelves. Not only could I use the money, but how could we face Nati again with her fajas still unsold? I couldn’t afford to take more from her again, so I told Doug that if I don’t sell them before we go, we just won’t be able visit her this year.

Then came February and the Art of the Americas in Marin, a show where we’ve exhibited for several years and did pretty well. I remember selling a faja at the first show we did -- might have been 2006. Folks who attend this show have good taste and also spend their money on unusual indigenous art. So this looked like our last hope for Nati’s fajas. As I carefully arranged them on the wall of our booth so they would not be missed by customers passing by, I thought of Nati and her spirit and the positive energy her pieces evoke. Though the show officially opens on Friday night, few people attend then and rarely do we have sales that night. But about an hour after the doors open, Ross and Nancy, a couple who attend the show every year, came by our table and spent some time with us. They bought two fajas after hearing our stories about Nati, and at the end of that Friday night we were amazed when they returned to buy two more. Excited and grateful, this sale was not only an affirmation of Nati’s talent, but our faith and trust in each other and the way I have chosen to run my business. It turned out to be not only a good night, but overall was a successful show for us as well.

A couple of weeks later I received an email from Beth, my wonderful customer in London,  wanting to order some earrings she saw on my Facebook page. She also wanted to know if I had any fajas available. Are you kidding me? You want to buy fajas? I wrote her that I’m all sold out except for a small one that I bought a few years ago, plus a very large wool table-runner that I thought we might use ourselves one day, but could let go. After seeing the photos I sent, she bought the two pieces and asked me to please buy more fajas on my next trip to Mexico.
I also received a brief note from Nancy--the angel who bought the four fajas at the Marin show-- “Peggy- please let Natividad know how much we treasure her weavings and let us know if you bring more back.”

It's July 2015, and I'm in Michoacán buying. As we approach the entrance to Nati's house, I wondered what we would find this time. It had been two years since our last visit, and it turns out, Nati was well aware of it. As we cried out "buenos dias", and upon realizing that it was us and we had indeed returned, Nati immediately burst into tears. We had never seen her so sad, and as I hugged her as she wept, she began to untypically share her troubles with us. Her foot had become infected and they had to remove a toe. It was obviously very painful and scary for her. Nati's mother was sick with lung cancer, apparently from all the wood smoke she had breathed in their traditional Purepecha cocina. It was a hard visit, one I won't easily forget. We listened a lot and we of course bought some of her work. Actually, the money we spent there should sustain the family for several months. And generous as always, the women insisted on serving us corundas, proudly explaining that they were made entirely from the corn grown there in their small family parcel.
My daughter Jenny, who is a chef and had accompanied us on this visit, clearly appreciated watching and learning about the process of making corundas. She had heard us talk about Nati before, had seen photos we had taken of her twelve years ago, and knew that her courage and strength was an inspiration to Doug and me. Jenny is now seeing that the once beautiful, smiling woman in our photos who has endured so much over the years--is still teaching us important life lessons. The time we spent with Nati and her family reminded us to be grateful for all that we have, and for me especially, it was affirmation that my yearly purchases of this endangered work is making a difference, at least for a few families. Though I'm filled with sadness about this last visit, I'm glad that we were able to show Nati that she has not been forgotten, and that we and our customers will continue to value her beautiful creations.

Woven fajas and morrales by Natividad are available for purchase on www.mexicobyhand.com