By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
The statue of Mayahuel, the Mexican indigenous goddess of agave—the succulent used to make mezcal and pulque—sits regally. It is fashioned by hand out of clay, it is fully coloured and it is two-feet tall. There is a four-yard long blue and white cotton table runner which is handcrafted on a backstrap loom with the Stars of David sewn into the fabric. It is a custom design, and it is a very suitable gift when attending a Passover Seder or Hanukkah party. In Oaxaca talented craftspeople make to order virtually anything you want, made out of anything you want—cotton, clay, glass, hammered metal, wood, wool, iron or stone. We’ve had a myriad of custom work done while living in Oaxaca—and yes all affordable; here the stories of two of them, along with some tips for arranging your own.
If you’ve visiting the state of Oaxaca for a week or less, it may not be possible to commission someone to make you that something special and have it ready for you to take home; but you never know. A few years ago while travelling through Michoacán on a whim, my wife and I asked a stone worker if he could make a large heavy plaque for us. He took out a pencil and sheet of paper, drew what I had described to him. His sketch was exactly what I had in mind. Eighteen hours later we had our 17” X 26” X 2” piece of custom-made artwork. It was a scene of a campesino cutting a majestic agave out of the field, hewn out of cantera (limestone.)
But certainly if you’re vacationing in Oaxaca for at least a couple of weeks, or if you are a resident or a snowbird, then anything is doable—even designs you might think too sexually explicit for conservative southern Mexico. And what about the cost? We rarely ask when placing an order. For the limestone piece we bought, we thought we’d better ask, and then when he told us it would cost 600 pesos, we said YES without blinking.
But you have to think outside the box, you have to have an inventive mind to fathom something different, that doesn’t yet exist, anywhere. Something that is unique. Once your mindset has been altered, there is a myriad of possibilities.
Finally, give artisans their artistic license—allow them to do their thing the way they do it. It usually makes the end result that much better. Don’t haggle about the price, but my advice is to give a modest deposit, say 50%. I recommend not counting on it getting done when promised. The worst case scenario would be you pick it up next visit, or next year. You are probably wondering about the sexually explicit designs. For our 25th wedding anniversary we asked someone to make 20 yard lengths of tissue paper banners with two doves on each piece. You probably think the doves must have been beside one another with a heart in the middle as is customary for anniversaries. But no, we had them design our tissue banners with one dove mounting the other, with the words “frequently for 25 years” translated into Spanish next to them.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).