To everyone’s delight and relief, I’ve discovered tremendous satisfaction working in the Taller Leñateros store. The walk-ins are such fascinating people who are intelligent, well-traveled, and engaging conversation. Japanese. Italian. German. Canadian. Argentines. Most have their own rich stories to share, or their own projects of what they do here. Therefore, at the point-of-sale dealing with worldly sophisticates, it helps to relate. As a traveler myself, literally, and on this journey of life, I find myself teaching this process of learning, this alloy of personal experiences to the clients who walk into Taller Leñateros. The moment they enter, it is as if I were a guide into another world, another civilization, another legendary time, a laborious process of love. First, we start with the machines…

Of course, deep behind closed doors of a social cooperative, there are all sorts of migraines when creating sustainable and ecological business to provide jobs for a marginalized indigenous group. Locals don’t show much insight in promoting business and simply let important things slide. (Like replying to customer emails and taking promising prototypes to the level of a lucrative product. There are struggles with the commercialization side of art. We barely talk about customer engagement or building long term relationships with the aficionados.) Some of the associates see me as a rookie who brings in successful sales, who brings in fresh faces. A few thousand pesos when I’m there. They see the transaction and the generated revenue, but sometimes, I don’t know. It surprises me that most people aren’t as enthused. Maybe I’m naively romanticizing it, but I think that attitude misses the point: I never sell to anybody.

For me, Taller Leñateros is an exceedingly rare opportunity to learn how to take artisan handicraft skill from a developing region, reinvent it with advanced industrial techniques and medium-sized mass production, and present it on the international stage as a quality piece of art that embodies the Mayan core and philosophy. It’s special in the sense that on some days we go to Cecati machine shop to make plaster and aluminum molds, on other days we learn perforation techniques, and still on others I spend my afternoons in the darkroom learning how to make positive acetate films. If I had ever wanted to work to combine “Third World” and “First World” sensibilities, and create beautiful treasures out of poverty, then this is it. Along the way, there is an unfolding journey of exploration and discovery. We are in Mayan territory, our weekend excursions include visits to Tzetzal street markets and stories with Mesoamerican families, and inside these corridors begin the expedition in Tsotsil, Spanish and English.

And when they come to the back with me, it’s an indulging satisfaction to show them how each piece is painstakingly made by hand… block printing illustrations, reliefs, serigraphs, the cut-outs, the traditional letterpress, the printing, the book binding process, and even introducing them to the Mayan authors and poets that have expressed themselves so intimately in writing, for instance, Loxa who came today, with her weave braids in tow. In the corner someone handpaints little intricate details onto a page, someone else irons the binding. The experimentation process is the most delightful, and so is the storage of papers. Marvelous shelves stocked full of fibrous and gossamer papers, sometimes in rolled sheets, sometimes braided in texture, in candy-apple green to indian orange to sarsaparilla cocoa to sun-kissed yellow to saffron red, and it’s a rich multi-sensory experience just to smell the fresh petals and touch the bales of corn husk. So many things have their origins in legends or stories or poems, and when you see how much skill and expertise it takes to create something so beautiful, the admiration is palpable.

I like to observe people and make little “detours” that I see fit. In every area of your life, you have to be authentic. You have to show things you genuinely believe in. It can’t be a sham, you can’t pretend to be passionate and fake out the clients! That insults people’s integrity and intelligence.

I revel in the priceless sparkle in their eyes. The sense of surprise. Ducking beneath the banana leaves to see the drying racks. The refreshing questions. The rooted sense of Mayan heritage that they feel, impregnated every thing that is laboriously made in the communal sense. You know you are giving travelers an evocative experience and a personalized memory of Chiapas that they’ll remember intensely, like a first romance of the Mayan literature and arts world. Take their hands and let them touch the wet papers still glistening with petals. Nobody is obligated to do anything, people take photos, people have fun. If the curiosity and the “aha” moments results in purchases, then fine, so let that be. I’m not selling. I do not sell.

So you know what makes me really feel good about these tours? That walk-ins often become my dear friends and leave their email for me to write back and keep in touch! One invited me to her gallery, another sets up a coffee date, or maybe I’ll visit their place. It demonstrates a deeper confidence and engagement than a typical store-customer relationship. It’s so much more! But yes, it often also results in sales. But it’s not bland consumerism. Our things symbolize the finest souvenirs of a civilization, of an endearing memory of Chiapas that people want as a keepsake. As art. One dollar can buy a detailed thing that evokes the memory of San Cristobal, but many clients spend several hundred dollars apiece too.

Personally, I like creations that have character, things that are quirky, or have a curious detail that others may have missed. Those are the things I like to show. Of the hundreds of things made here, not all the creations are interesting, not all of them resonate with me. In fact, the things that really become “mine” are not the fibrous papers or the picture frames…rather, for example: 1) the serigraph postcard featuring Mother Earth in her gilded brocade and the intricate floral lattice… 2) the carved coconut shell of a cheshire cat lounging beneath the etched solstice sun… 3) The little poetry book in several different languages… I tend to commit to the things I adore, the ones that illuminate real artisan quality and the reference to something special, either because of the process, or the design graphics, or a particular detail that makes something singularly interesting. And then you weave these into the greater context of Chiapas.

But it is so engaging to make that connection, to also make references to the world they come from. If they are from Asia, I seek out the things that are particularly attractive to Asians. If they are from North America, I joke about North American things. And if they’re Western European, I show them things of a particularly European aesthetic. If they are Mexican, I focus on the surreal and indigenous. If they are feminist, I use my femininity to speak to them.

To flesh out the pieces that describe a common human experience, and make it relevant and personal, as it is to me. To give people a variety of starting pieces for inspiration, and let them come up with their own creations that makes it so wonderful. I take it as a good sign that they say they are astonished to find a person like me here, and an enormous privilege that I can steal a few moments of their day… and help them enter into my Mayan world.

Spanish Words of the Day:
suajes” cut-outs | “la bata” apron | “lamino” roll of plastic sheet | “tripticos” leaflets, pamphlets

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