Artisans in Mexico struggle to make it

Times Staff Writer

Keeping Christmas tradition alive is a serious commitment for Rosario Nolasco Gonzalez, a maker of wreaths and nativity figures.

Her nimble fingers transform dried corn leaves into angels, Magi and Madonnas. It's a skill she learned as a girl in the countryside far from this gritty working-class enclave on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Nolasco labors two hours on a winged seraph that she sells for $2.30. Raw material costs have shot up 40% this year. Still, she won't raise prices.

"The people won't pay more," said Nolasco, 42, who estimates her Christmas sales will total about $750. "I'm proud of this work. But every year it's less profitable."

With Christmas rapidly approaching, these should be the best of times for artisans such as Nolasco. But some are finding that changing consumer tastes and fierce competition from imports are cutting into their trade.

Mexico's winter holidays begin with the feast day of the nation's patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe, on Dec. 12 and run through the traditional gift-giving day known as Three Kings Day on Jan. 6. Year-end worker bonuses known as aguinaldo pump billions into the economy.

For artisans and entrepreneurs the season is a chance to grab a chunk of that windfall, which for many represents the biggest part of their yearly sales. Vendors throughout the region throng to the historic center of Mexico City, transforming its streets into a massive market.

But increasingly their wares are mass-produced novelties and knockoffs that are bedeviling makers of traditional crafts.

In Chignahuapan, about 120 miles northeast of the capital, ornament makers say Chinese-made Christmas tree decorations are crushing their livelihood. Dozens of family workshops dot the area. Owners take pride in the workmanship that goes into their delicate glass bulbs, which can take as long as 10 hours to produce.

Augustin Lopez Martinez has spent most of his life in the trade. Lopez, 55, learned the craft from his father. He in turn taught his children. Nearly two dozen extended family members work in the business, but Lopez isn't sure that it will survive another generation.

He said this year's sales were off 50% from 2005, as consumers snapped up imports that sold for as little as half of the $6.50 he charged for a dozen standard bulbs. Lopez said he had tried to explain to shoppers that his ornaments were real glass -- not cheap plastic. But he said many cared more about price than quality.

"Each day the family is more disheartened because we're left with less money," he said. "Already some nephews have said they won't pursue" his line of work.

To be sure, Mexico's artistic heritage is far from extinct. With rug weavers in Oaxaca, pottery makers in Puebla and wood carvers in Morelos, some 12 million Mexicans, many of them indigenous people, earn at least part of their living making traditional art and crafts, according to government estimates.

Their talents have had a significant effect on this nation's vibrant culture. But leveraging those artistic skills to escape poverty is tough. The sheer profusion of all this creativity has led to its devaluation.

At a recent Christmas craft fair in Toluca, about 40 miles west of the capital, Rosa Ambrocio Nava had lots of lookers but few buyers for her elaborately embroidered bedspreads and ponchos. The poinsettia-pattern stitching on one particularly fine wool poncho took Ambrocio four days to complete. But she said the $18.50 price tag was too steep for many holiday shoppers in a nation where the minimum wage is about $4.30 a day.

"They'll tell me it's pretty but that they can find something cheaper in the tianguis," said Ambrocio, referring to the popular Mexican street markets that have become synonymous with cut-rate clothing, plastic kitchen utensils and bootleg CDs.

Mexico's federal government and state agencies have attempted to help artisans by providing them with small loans and training, and by organizing contests and expositions for their wares, such as the recent show in Toluca.

The National Fund for the Promotion of Handicrafts operates nine retail stores mainly in tourist spots around the country. The shops are stocked with crafts purchased from artisans across the nation.

But artists say what they really need help with is exporting to developed countries, where buyers are willing to pay more than in Mexico.

"It's sad, but foreigners appreciate our work more than our countrymen do," said Nolasco, putting the finishing touches on an angel in her Ecatepec workshop. She said some Mexicans had disparaged her primitive corn-leaf art as "tamale wrappers."

Raised in a hamlet in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, Nolasco remembers villagers using the simple materials gathered from nearby fields to make homemade nativity scenes. She said the unadorned figures were rustic but deeply moving because they were made for no other reason than to honor the birth of Jesus.

The idea of selling this folk art never occurred to the family until Nolasco's father died in 1992, leaving her mother with no source of income. Pitching in to help her mom get started, Nolasco fell in love with the work and the idea of earning extra income to help her own growing family.

Although the craft goes back more generations than Nolasco can recall, she hasn't hesitated to add some modern touches. Elders in her village used only knots and folds to fasten the corn leaves. Nolasco uses a glue gun to save time. She dyes the bleached corn stalks bold blues, reds and purples worthy of the regal raiment of her wise men.

Angels get sparkly hems and halos to boost their bling appeal to buyers. She has expanded her product offerings to include flowers, dolls and religious figures that can be sold year-round.

Government-sponsored artisan trips have given her a chance to see the world beyond her own potholed street. Nolasco has traveled to Texas, California, Florida and Illinois to teach classes and show her wares. In January, she'll be going to Laredo, Texas, where she is looking forward to meeting American buyers with deeper pockets.

But she said it was love, not money, that kept her going. The homemaker has flexible hours, time with her two daughters, a devoted husband who supports her creative endeavors and a deep sense of connection to Christ when she exalts his birth with her art.

"This work will never make me rich," said Nolasco, her beatific smile outshining the single bulb that illuminates her cluttered workbench. "But it has made me happy. God has been very good to me."


Times staff writer Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.

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