Saturday, April 18, 2015

Lead: Bad for Children and Other Living Things

When Mexico By Hand displays a little sign or mentions the fact that our pottery is sin plomo (lead free) this is a very big deal. While most folks don't think much about it, the issue does concern some of our customers and is extremely important to us. It can get a bit complicated and difficult to explain, but here are some of the basics. Pottery that is intended for food use--which is a lot of Mexico By Hand's products -- has additional requirements for importing to the U.S. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) randomly inspects pottery imports crossing the border. They’re looking for toxic metals -- most importantly lead. Though it's the law in Mexico that all pottery intended for food use be lead-free, the Mexican government does not have an inspection system in place to enforce the law, and that's why 90% of Mexican pottery produced still contains lead. So when you tell me that you bought something like our bean pot at a mercado in Jalisco, or your mother has a cazuela she’s been using for years-- so she doesn’t really need a new one-- I want you to understand that I am 99.9% sure that pottery is contaminated with lead. If you tell me that you don’t believe it’s a big deal, “no pasa nada”, then I need to tell you that I don’t care so much about you and your health, but I DO care about the Mexican artisans who produce clay pots and dishes and are exposed to the stuff all day.
They dip their hands into the glazes, their kitchens and gardens are contaminated because the pottery is produced in home workshops, and artisan’s children can suffer learning disabilities as a result. It's also really bad for the environment surrounding the artisan communities. So even if you plan on using the pot for decoration and won't use it for cooking, that's why we inform you that our pottery is lead-free. We are trying to encourage artisans to convert to lead free glazes, but unfortunately if  Mexican consumers keep buying the pots with lead and resist paying more for the ones without lead (because they are more expensive) artisans will not feel motivated to make the change. We American consumers can make a difference and in the past decade we've happily seen a gradual movement towards more lead free production. It is illegal to import pottery intended for food use that is made with glazes containing lead, and the U.S. government can be very strict. Yes, folks cross the U.S.- Mexico border every day with leaded pottery-- in private cars and trucks, but if an importer like us is caught with even one piece of contaminated pottery, the whole truck will either be sent back or the product will be destroyed. And a black mark on the importer’s record may prevent him or her from ever importing to the U.S. again. It’s serious.
All that being said however, if someone asks us to show proof or evidence that our pottery is lead-free--like an official seal or some sort of certificate from the government, we can't. Because there isn't one. Really. If a box of ours is randomly inspected, we might be able to show you a piece of tape courtesy of the FDA.

So you have to trust us when we say that we know the artisans and are careful about who we buy from, not just because we care about this issue, but because we have to be careful-- if we want to stay in business. Fortunately for us all, there are some amazingly talented artisans who have been making beautiful lead free pottery for Mexico By Hand for years. Here are a few samples from the town of Capula, not far from Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. Lead free pottery can be purchased on our website at

Friday, April 10, 2015

Embroidery from Lake Patzcuaro

Near Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacán, indigenous women embroider pictures that can be framed or made into decorative pillows and clothing. The themes of these embroidered “stories” originally came from ancient mythology of the Tarascan or Purepecha Indians, drawn from seals found in Tzintzuntzan. Gradually the women around Lake Patzcuaro began depicting traditional village dances such as the Dance of the Viejitos, and festivals such as Dia de los Muertos and Corpus Christi. The artisans also embroider scenes of women cooking, men fishing, and other scenes of daily life in a Purepecha village like this.

Teofila Servin Barriga is one of the most well-known of the Santa Cruz embroiderers.
She lives and works with her husband, Julio, in Sanabria-- on the road between Patzcuaro and Quiroga-- with stunning views from her home and garden of green pastures, corn fields and Lake Patzcuaro that inspire her art. The first time I saw her embroidery was almost 20 years ago, when Doug and I were on vacation, our first time in Michoacán. Julio and one of their sons were working at a table they'd set up on a Patzcuaro sidewalk. Julio was drawing as well as teaching the boy how to create the scenes that Teo would later embroider. We chatted with them for quite a while, and I must have asked at least five times for the price of a small embroidered piece on the table that had caught my eye. Julio was so engrossed in giving us the history and stories of the area and culture represented by the pieces, that he seemed to be completely disinterested in selling them to us. Finally I was able to buy it, and as we said goodbye, he told us that we could find Teo on the road to Tzintzuntzan. But it was many years later when were living in Michoacan, we found ourselves on that road, that I put two and two together and realized that the handmade sign that read "Artesanias de Teo" might very well be the same family. We stopped the car and found Teo working in her little shop. Julio later walked up from the nearby fields he was tending, and we knew that this was indeed the place. Their young son had grown up and was attending university, and Teo had begun to make a name for herself.

Teo in Mexico By Hand's booth, Santa Fe, NM
Teofila has sold her pieces to collectors in Mexico, Europe, the United States, and Japan. Before being selected to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market with Mexico By Hand, she was invited to represent the embroiderers of Michoacan at a special exhibition in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and to participate in the Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art exhibit in 2004.
 In 2011 Teofila was featured in the video, En las Manos de las Mujeres, a video I produced about four master craftswomen of Michoacán. And I continue to see Teo and her family every year when we return to Michoacán.

Mexico By Hand carries embroidered pictures, pillow covers, and beautiful cotton blouses by Teo and other talented embroiderers of Michoacán.
See more on our website or contact us at

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Michoacán Masks

I am not a mask collector, but some of my best friends are, namely my husband Doug. I'll never forget  searching the Oaxaca main market with him many years ago, and after what seemed like hours of a wild goose chase, we turned a corner and miraculously came upon some amazing treasures-- old masks( men with big beards and some devils) from Guerrero--that were the first to adorn our walls. Doug kept his cool and bargained hard with the woman (who clearly was not the artisan but a vendor of random stuff in her stall) and after we had given her all of our pesos, we dug deep into our pockets to offer some dollars we'd been saving for an emergency. To Doug, this was obviously an emergency. I remember the joy Doug felt when we carried off those pieces. He was thinking how cool he was and that he had really scored. I on the other hand was thinking: How will we get these things home? Where the hell will we put them? How much money did we just spend? And finally-- did I marry a crazy man, because-- who does this??
Since then, that mask obsession has led to a few more purchases for our home, and has given me a bit of insight into some of my Mexico By Hand customers. Michoacán masks are completely different from other Mexican masks, and they are largely unknown by folks who have never been there. There are a few different styles of masks from different villages, e.g. Ocumicho, Sevina, and Uruapan, to name a few, but for now, I'm going to talk about the masks from Tocuaro, a small village on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro. I remember on my first trip to the state, I didn't much care for them. Frankly, they're pretty scary-- brightly painted devils with red tongues sticking out and lots of snakes and bats-- creepy stuff like that. I certainly wasn't going to buy any, even to sell to my customers. And I doubted they would want them either. But then I met Felipe. It was April, in  2005 or maybe 2006, and I flew to Michoacán by myself for the annual Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) crafts market and concurso (competition) in Uruapan. Doug and I had spent the previous year producing a documentary of the event for the Casa de las Artesanias and I was so excited to be back. But this time I was going as Mexico By Hand, and my purpose was to buy! I had gotten up very early--too excited to sleep and I wanted to shop early to get the best stuff. Turns out this was Mexico, where vendors don't show up bright and early, which is something I still forget so many years later. So realizing I had plenty of time, I ducked into a little hole in the wall breakfast place nearby and ordered some coffee and huevos a la Mexicana.
 Sitting at the counter a few stools away from me was Felipe Horta, a maskmaker from Tocuaro. I knew his name because his uncle was the famous Juan Horta, considered to be the best in the village. Felipe had a booth there in the market and of course was also hoping to win a prize for an elaborate dance mask and cape he entered for the concurso. We had a nice chat, and he let me know that he'd be interested in exhibiting in the U.S. if I could arrange something. To my surprise he told me that he has a visa and has been to San Francisco to show his work. I promised to stop by his booth and we shared contact information, and then he insisted on paying for my breakfast. A few years later I returned the favor when Mexico By Hand applied and was accepted to exhibit at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market and we sponsored Felipe as the guest artist in our booth. We spent 5 days together, and have been friends ever since.
Felipe Horta in his workshop

Felipe is very talented. He also has a big personality, which means he's not shy and loves to joke around, something that makes him a good salesman as well. So when Felipe tries to sell me something, I have a very hard time saying "no", in either language. By the way, it's the same word in English and Spanish--the word should be easy to master. Like a good Mexican, Felipe enjoys bargaining--hard. He is one of the few artisans with whom I do that, because we are friends, and I don't have to worry about offending him. Plus, he always starts it. So, as a result, over the years I have purchased masks that I initially didn't want to buy, but was convinced to do so. I have sold some of them, and others are currently part of our home collection-- until we sell them. So who are the folks who buy these devil masks? Well, first they are people with some money to spend on art, because Felipe's masks are not cheap. And though I have seen an equal number of men and women who show interest, I have to say that my last few purchases have been to middle-age women, of various backgrounds. Go figure. One woman of Armenian descent has bought two, and then there was a customer who bought one a couple of years ago who I was sure when she approached our booth was, for lack of a better or more PC word, a "bag lady". Obviously yanking my chain when she asked the price, this woman didn't even blink as she pulled out her credit card. Surprise…a strange person with a foreign accent who collects masks and has money to spend!  Hallelujah!
El Grandote
This year we were again exhibiting at that show, and we brought Felipe's masks, which happily got a lot of attention. Up walked this woman who looked very familiar, and got down to business right away. "How much for those masks?" she asked pointing to our medium size devil masks. After I answered her, she then pointed to the one I call "El Grandote"-- the big ass one. This is the giant mask that Doug convinced me to buy from Felipe two and a half years ago, and was getting to be part of the family, not because we couldn't part with it, but because we feared it was like a young adult who would never be able to leave home. It not only had a devil, but a skeleton and a scorpion too. Super creepy…and it was expensive. That was the piece I really, really wanted to sell that day, and if we did sell it, we could call the show a success. Hallelujah! Now what are we going to do with that bare wall? I'm missing El Grandote already. Felipe, amigo, how much for that big mask??
Skull w/angel

La Dualidad (Duality)

Felipe Horta's masks can be purchased at his workshop in Tocuaro, Michoacán and also are available in the U.S. through Mexico By Hand.
For more information, contact us at: or (510) 526-6395.