Sunday, November 22, 2015

"You're not Santa Claus."

Small bowl by Manuel Morales of Tzintzuntzan

Why does that little bowl cost so much more than your larger bowls? 
This is kind of like comparing paintings in an art gallery. Sometimes small paintings, because of the artist's talent and renown, might command a high price. And we all know that just because a painting is large, it doesn't mean it's of greater value. The same can be said for folk art and crafts. I know artisans whose small pieces cost four times what other artisans in the same village charge for pieces that are twice as big. And they will get that price because their work either shows great skill and talent, or because the artist has won numerous awards. Or sometimes the artist has been recognized by an American collector or gallery that has a good publicist. But there are also big differences in the amount of time and skill involved in making a simple clay pot that is mass produced, and a finely decorated pot with intricate original designs from a skilled artist. The artisans in Capula make both. You might think that the large cazuela below on the left is "beautiful", but if you've ever seen pieces like the blue cazuelita below made by the talented Raquel and Demetrio Gonzales, you'll realize that one is clearly worth more, no matter the size.
Large cazuela from Capula, Michoacan
Cazuelita from Capula, Michoacán

A machine made rebozo you find in Mexican market stalls can't compare with a rebozo woven on a backstrap loom that took the artisan an entire month to make. The first might cost you $30 or less, and the second one could set you back $300 or more. Most Americans don't understand what's involved in making a rebozo, which is why they are reluctant to pay that much-- even if they might consider actually wearing one. 
Master of Mexican Folk Art weaver, Cecilia Bautista with one of her rebozos.

When we were living in Morelia ten years ago, some friends took us to a small town in the countryside for a Sunday comida (dinner) at their friend’s home. One of the family members had some rebozos from La Piedad; they're the shiny, silk-like rebozos that come in bright colors. She assured us they were a good price, but at $20 I wasn't sure and thought they were expensive. I bought one anyway (it was a beautiful bright red) however I realized at that moment I actually had no idea how to distinguish a quality rebozo from a corriente (cheap commercial) one, and what in fact would be a fair price. But now after several years of seeing lots of rebozos and how a good one is actually made--trust me, it’s a lot of work-- I know a little more. It doesn't hurt to ask why something costs so much-- that's how you learn.So I am not offended by the question, as long as there is a sincere desire to understand. However, if someone asks about the price as if to challenge my right to charge so much, in a judgmental or disapproving way, then I might get annoyed. No, I will definitely get annoyed.The artisan sets the price, and then I have to charge for the expense of bringing it to you the customer. (There’s a lot involved in that story, but if you really want to know more-- you’ll just have to buy my book.) If you find that something I'm selling is too expensive for you, then you shouldn't buy it. It feels bad when you really like an object or work of art but just can't afford it-- it happens to me all the time. Most of us who are not part of the 1% often experience that longing for material things we can’t afford. But for some reason a lot of folks expect things from Mexico to be cheap. That of course includes not only art, but food. The concept of a high-end Mexican restaurant is confusing for many who are accustomed only to eating burritos at a taqueria. The same can be said for Mexican crafts which in the minds of many folks are supposed to be "a deal". This is especially true for Americans who have traveled in Mexico and fail to understand not only the time it took the artisan to make the item, but the cost involved in getting artesania here to the U.S. But on the other hand, I sometimes hear customers surprised that a large clay pot or serving dish is so inexpensive. "Really? That's all?". And then I contemplate telling them how little the piece cost in Mexico and how I would be a thief if I charged more. I’m happy when customers feel like they're getting a great deal, as I try to keep the prices down in order to make our merchandise affordable. On the other side, I do feel bad sometimes having to charge so much for a cup or a bowl, but the reality is if I charged any less I would practically be giving it away. Which would mean that I’d be a super nice person, but a terrible business woman. And this little business would not be sustainable. I want to do good and help the artisans, but if I want to continue buying their art, it's got to work financially for me too, meaning I can't be losing money. I am a socially responsible family-run business, not a charity. Or as my husband sometimes reminds me, “ You aren’t Santa Claus, you know.” You're right, Santa doesn't have to deal with FedEx.

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