So, you have bought a number of really cool looking objects from street vendors and tourist markets in Mexico. But what exactly have you bought? Was it made by the person you bought it from? By someone else? Or (gasp!) made in China? I’m going to tell you how to buy authentic Mexican handcrafts.
Even the most knowledgeable collectors have started off making very basic mistakes, like assuming the person in indigenous dress is the artisan. (Hint: if they are at the market every day, they are not the artisan).
There is no easy way to distinguish handcrafts sold at tourist markets except to be extremely suspicious of any mercado de artesanías. However, there are some relatively easy ways to start finding authentic stuff.
The first is to read one or two books that generally talk about Mexican handcrafts. One classic is “Arts and Crafts of Mexico” by Chloe Sayer and another is “Crafts of Mexico” by Marian Harvey. There are also newer books, but they tend to specialize by region and/or type of craft. Normally, I would not recommend Wikipedia as a resource, but I worked on Mexican handcraft articles in English there for 10+ years, I can vouch for almost all the information there. The general Mexican handcrafts and folk-art article has a table of links at the bottom of the page to related articles for more information.
The main takeaway from these publications is that Mexican handcrafts are specialized by location. For example, the valleys surrounding the city of Oaxaca are dotted with small towns with handcraft specialties like wool rugs in Teotitlan del Valle and barro negro pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
Another important resource in Mexico is handcraft museums, such as MEAPO in Oaxaca and the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. Regional or city museums also often have displays related to local crafts.
One option for buying is reputable shops and galleries that are found in most large cities and tourist areas. Those belonging to museums will have authentic crafts, as well as stores run by government entities such as FONART and state agencies.
If you live in an area like San Miguel de Allende, you can also ask around for reputable private galleries. The drawback to such outlets is they almost never note who the artisan is and sometimes fail to let you know where the handcraft is from. Sales staff often do not know, even in government-run stores. In some cases, they do know, but will not divulge the artisans’ names.
There is one other caveat to museum and government-run stores. Many artisans have complained that there have been problems with artisans receiving low prices for their work and long waiting times to receive money for pieces sold on consignment.
Another option is events held to help artisans sell their wares. FONART sponsors a number of these each year, but have been bad about publicizing them online. Two events are run by private organizations: the Rosarito Art Fest in Baja California Norte, which is held in August/September, and the Feria Maestros de Arte in Chapala, Jalisco in November. Both invite artisans from all over Mexico to participate. These are very popular with expats and foreign collectors.
Two entirely Mexican events that I recommend are the Feria de Domingo de Ramos in Uruapan – held during Holy Week each year – to see the best of Michoacán handcrafts, and the Feria National de Cultura Rural at Chapingo University just outside of Mexico City. All of these fairs restrict vendors to actual producers, no resellers.
Mexico’s handcrafts are a never-ending source of wonder and enjoyment. As beautiful as the objects are superficially, they become even more valuable and wondrous after you begin to appreciate the people and culture behind what you buy.