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Bending Tradition: How Mexican Artisans Craft Los Angeles

Artesanos web banner with title
Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans"
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans."

The highly skilled labor of artisans migrating from Mexico and Latin America are the backbone of high-end design and retail in Los Angeles, producing exquisite furniture, textiles, and design goods. But they represent a creative force that seems invisible to the city. Artbound uncovers their stories and their role in making Los Angeles and Southern California the creative capital of the world in a new documentary "Artesanos."

The history of traditional crafts in Los Angeles goes back to before the city was founded, to the woven baskets and soapstone carvings of the Tongva, and to the lavish Mexica markets of Tenochtitlan described in "The True History of the Conquest of New Spain" by Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz. The craftspeople of the Los Angeles of today, while representing many immigrant communities from across the globe, still have strong representation from the population that holds the largest majority, Mexican immigrants. Today, Mexican artisans are not only families who carry on traditional crafts like embroidery within and for their own communities, but are also laborers who produce high-end goods for stores selling luxury home décor, ranging from a perfectly hand-upholstered couch to a unique glass blown light fixture. They inhabit a part of the creative industry still invisible to many. These cultural practices represent survival that is both economic, but also social, and based in identity.

Xochitl Flores-Marcial, an assistant professor of history at Cal State Northridge, and the daughter of Oaxacan immigrants, says that many of the Mexican artisans in Los Angeles today emigrated as a result of the Mexican peso crisis of 1982. The inability to survive within their own home country pushed many people, often from rural areas, to places like Los Angeles, bringing with them their cultures and traditions. Those that are able to continue their craft and artisanal practice as a source of livelihood are few, perhaps based on the reality of having to survive in a system that is unfamiliar and not set up in their favor. Flores-Marcial says that in some cases “craftspeople themselves don’t even recognize that they have a special skill. They just think it’s something they know or it’s just like a job. They don’t necessarily see it as an art.” While this might be the case for some artisans who grew up in towns that specialized in a traditional form, say pottery or weaving, and then lose that practice once they move outside of their home, others manage to keep these traditions alive in their everyday. The reality is that many immigrant families are maintaining a traditional craft whether it be culinary, textile based, or some other form amongst their families and immediate communities, even if not for a market.

Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans"
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans."

Quetzal Flores of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA), an organization that supports and promotes traditional artists, and himself a traditional artist, remarks that families practicing their culture in this way demonstrates that they consider it important, even if it’s not visible or valued in the mainstream. “The fact that they do it, tells you that they do value it.” Flores mentions that the communities he has worked with, including indigenous Purépecha communities in the eastern Coachella Valley, many of them now farmworkers, express a sense of pride and value in having learned a craft through tradition, one that was passed down by one family member to another, and eventually to them. “There’s this trajectory they demonstrate without asking. It’s telling of who these people are and what they value -- the importance of lineage, of understanding your place as a piece to a larger whole.”

Another characteristic Flores-Marcial observes within immigrant artisans in particular, is a kind of dedication that comes from being a person who has both been pushed to leave their home, but has also chosen hope and desire to improve their life. “People who already have a sensibility for creating things with their hands, but then who also have the driving energy that comes from being migrants, and hoping to succeed in a place that is not their home, in a place that sometimes is not welcoming to them,” sets them apart Flores-Marcial asserts. On the other hand, practicing a craft can also come with the challenges of entering into a dominant context that may or may not appreciate these forms or the people who are producing them. Flores of ACTA describes a kind of trauma that people carry with them from being shunned both in their home contexts and as immigrants in the U.S. “There is harm that has been committed against these folks back home because they’re indigenous but also here, coming here and being made fun of for wearing these clothes in the fields for example, or speaking their language in the fields.” The decision to continue practicing tradition then also becomes a sign of resilience and a clear belief in preserving one’s identity and sense of self.

Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans"
Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans."

The connection between tradition, identity, indigenous cultures, and craft is an important one. For curator Bill Kelley Jr., it can also pose a challenge in how we perceive the craft objects and the communities who produce them. He says the objects are “always expected to be frozen in the past” and “our concept of that indigenous person has to be frozen in the past." It limits our thinking on craft as a form, as well as what the artists can do with it. It's “a hindrance for thinking about it, but it’s also a hindrance for the producers,” he shares. The solution is based in people letting go of an idea of a pure cultural form, and understanding how craft has always changed over time for many factors, including markets. “At some point, these things have to be allowed to change and adapt themselves to realities,” Kelley says. Flores agrees that tradition does not mean forever static. “These practices are constantly being innovated upon. Though you have these practitioners and they function as important parts of these communities, they will undoubtedly come across people outside the community, and like any artists, will borrow influences from outside of [those] traditions. That’s how we innovate.”

Encountering master embroider Natividad Gonzalez in the eastern Coachella Valley was fulfilling for Flores. He witnessed how Gonzalez's work of creating spaces to share her gifts had other effects beyond the transfer of the craft itself. She led a series of workshops for women in town, which inevitably became safe spaces that permitted this group of women to learn and bond with each other. According to Flores, while these practices are economically viable, the strength of the social networks that are reestablished and made more powerful through their practice calls into question the role of the market. “In many ways they subvert capitalism; they subvert the market system. It’s not that they don’t sell stuff and that they can’t use the money, but it’s not the primary focus of what they do.” For Kelley Jr., the selling of crafts has been a part of the form since the beginning of time, and not a thing to shy away from. “Crafts have generally been used as a means of survival and that is also a cultural manifestation of those communities."

 Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans"
Image: Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans."
Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans"
Still from Artbound episode "Artesanos/Artisans."

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