The Decline of a Craft: Basket Making in San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca

By Cohen, Jeffrey H.; Browning, Anjali | Human Organization, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Decline of a Craft: Basket Making in San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca


Cohen, Jeffrey H., Browning, Anjali, Human Organization


Oaxacan crafts producers are celebrated for the quality of their work, their business success, and the ability of their goods to transcend space and time. Weavers of cotton and woolen textiles, potters of a wide variety of pottery styles, and most recently wood carvers who make alebrijes (painted wooden animals) produce goods that are bought and sold on the international market and appear in museum collections world-wide. Nevertheless, there are crafts in Oaxaca that are not viable in the current market and that do not show up in international collections. In this paper, we examine one such craft: basket making in the community of San Juan Guelavia. We argue that the decline in the market for these goods reflects several changes: first, a decline in local use; second, a rise in the costs of production; and third, a lack of support by exporters and an inability to engage the export or tourist markets. In response, local producers have moved into wage labor (locally and through migration) to secure their incomes.

Key words: crafts, markets, basketry, Mexico, economics, globalization

The Problem

Studies of craft makers in Oaxaca, Mexico typically look at successes and focus largely on the ways in which indigenous and peasant producers engage with and create new niches for the goods they produce (Chibnik 2003; Clements 1990; Stephen 1987; Wood 1996; Wood 2000). But what about communities of craft producers who do not succeed, and what happens when crafts people fail to find a market for their wares? This paper examines such a situation. San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca is a Zapotec community in the eastern branch of the central valley of the state (see map) and home to basket makers whose local market for their wares has disappeared even as the costs of production have risen. In response, Guelavian basket makers have largely left their craft, seeking wage work in Oaxaca City or more typically migrating to other regions of Mexico or to the United States.

Examining the decline of basketry and the response of Guelavians to the collapse of the market for their finished wares helps us to better understand the challenges that face local producers as they engage the market and global patterns of consumption and taste. The example of San Juan Guelavia also tells us about the role that patronage (that is the support of a craft by middlemen and women and wealthy buyers) plays for craft producers. Most tourists to Oaxaca know about the rich craft traditions in the central valleys and visit the rug weavers in Teotitlán del Valle (Stephen 1993; Wood 2000) and wood carvers in Arrazolo and San Martin Tilcajete (Chibnik 2003) among other places (see, for example, Cook 1993). Nevertheless, those very same tourists often miss and fail to patronize rug weavers in Santa Ana del Valle, Villa Diaz Ordaz and San Miguel del Valle or, for our purposes here, the basket makers who call San Juan Guelavia home (see Cohen 1998).'

San Juan Guelavia

San Juan Guelavia is a Zapotec community of 2,914 individuals (INEGI 2000); and nearly 90 percent of the community is bilingual (DIGEPO 1999). In other words, most Guelavians speak a local dialect of valley Zapotec as well as Spanish and learned their Spanish as a second language. Furthermore, they follow practices and traditions that are unique (or at least assumed to be unique and exceptional by villagers) and include a complex cargo system (religious and political hierarchy of civil control within the village) and the practice of tequio (communal labor) for managing the community (Acevedo and Restrepo 1991; Reals 1970; Cohen 1999).

Atypical indigenous village, San Juan Guelavia dates back many hundreds of years and remains distinct despite centuries of acculturation (Cook 2006; Monaghan and Edmonson 2000). Founded by maize farmers who moved from the regional center of Macuilxóchitl (García 1990), the village was previously known for salt production. It first appears in Spanish documents in August of 1580 with the name San Juan Quelaa (Mendieta y Nuñez 1960:215). …

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