If you know about Thread Caravan, you know we’re fans of indigenous culture and we work towards promoting cultural diversity and preservation. We love when we meet other people on the same page. That’s just what happened when we connected with the team at Patrimonio Inmaterial (or “Intangible Heritage) Projects. Founders Ariana Lhomme and Jonathan Almanza have sought partnerships with some incredibly talented Mexican artisans in an effort to forge ethnic identity and resist cultural standardization.
During our recent trip to Oaxaca, they generously gave our travelers some of their handwoven Oaxacan Handbags (see photos in this post). These bags are created by former prisoners in an effort to help them retain professional stability and stay out of prison.
We caught up with Arianne and she told us a little bit more about indigenous Mexican artisan craft and how P.I. is working towards their mission of preserving intangible heritage.
Tell us a little bit about your background. What inspired you to work with artisans in Mexico?
I (Ariane) worked several years with Mexican NGO’s that seek to improve community development and defend human rights. From the very first time I visited Mexico I was fascinated by the cultural diversity of the country. My partner Jonathan is from Puebla, Mexico. He has a master’s degree in Heritage Teaching and worked in middle and high school raising awareness about cultural diversity in Mexico. We first met in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2014 that we had the idea to join forces and create a project selling Mexican handicrafts and promoting the community’s cultural diversity.
What is your favorite place in Mexico? Why is it your favorite?
It’s hard to choose only one place in Mexico. The country is so diverse both culturally and environmentally. If I had to highlight one, it would be Cuetzalan, a very special place worth a visit. Hidden in the mountains of Puebla, Cuetzalan looks like time stood still there. Totonacas and Nahuas people continue their traditions even as tourism becomes more present in the village. A lot of Cuetzalan women wear their stunning embroideries. Sundays you can just sit in the main square and enjoy the market and all the specialities of the region: coffee, bananas, squimos (corn shakes), tlayoyos (corn galettes), spices and bread. There are a lot of groups trying to promote their local knowledge so you can easily find great offer of handicrafts and organic products.
Not far from this amazing pueblo mágico (“magic town”) you’ll find some astonishing natural landscapes with waterfalls, and even an ancient Totonaco religious center with pyramids. The weather is usually more misty than other parts of Mexico. When darkness falls the community feels as if it’s high up in the mountains.
In brief, you need to see this place at least once in your life!
Tell us a little more about the bags you gave to our travelers. How are they made? Who makes them? Where are they made?
The idea of introducing Mixtec shapes in plastic handbags was born in Oaxacan prisons, as a way to provide professional reintegration of prisoners and to help them support their families. Artemio, the artisan we work with, noticed that the handmade bags were really appreciated and decided to create a workshop in his community helping the young people have jobs and avoid delinquency.
In addition to the bags, what other kinds of goods do you sell?
We are both fascinated by cultural diversity so we aim to support and promote the communities that we believe have unique handcrafted pieces. Sometimes their artistic skills are reinvented with new materials or new uses like Mimbres Mixtecos or Huichols Skulls. Sometimes this knowledge is taught the same way, year after year, generation after generation, like the Guajes (Mexican gourds) and Tenates de Palma (palm baskets). The most important thing for us is not only to honor the beauty of each craft, but also to talk show its history, how it’s made and used and what meaning is attached to it.
How many artisans do you work with? And in how many different towns do they live in?
We are now working with 50 artisans from the heart of the country: Oaxaca, Puebla, Hidalgo, Guerrero and Tlaxcala. We have the intention to expand our artisan network across the entire Mexican territory. We work with single artisans, families, young collectives and entire communities.
Can you share a story about how your work impacts the lives of the artisans you work with?
We fell in love with the history of the Tecomaque Collective (Colectivo Tecomaque). They’re from a tiny, remote village called San Martin Tecorrales tucked away in the mountains of Guerrero State. They work to revive and perpetuate regional knowledge of the lacquered, lidded gourd. San Martin Tecorrales is a very poor place facing a massive emigration issue. Martin, the founder of the collective, convinced the young nahuatecos to be part of a small collective in order to teach them how to make this incredible craft the same way his grand parents did, hand-manufacturing the whole process from beginning to end: growing gourds, emptying the fruit, creating colorful dyes (from plants, flowers, chia seed oil and minerals), cutting, designing and lacquering. Because of the geographic isolation of the village, it’s hard for them to sell their crafts. With our assistance, they are able to sell their gourds, investing their profits back into the project. They’ve actually just used some profits to open a workshop space!
How do you envision P.I.-Projects growing in the future?
We hope this project will raise awareness of the fragility of intangible heritage and the need to resist the globalized way of consumption. We’d like to ensure our artisans with consistent and small-scale orders and economic stability. As we grow, we would love to share new stories and develop the project in other countries!