Note: This posting was written by Stacey, but has been heavily edited by Andy for maxium interest and impact.
Take note, ladies. This blog post is going to make all of you incredibly jealous. I apologize in advance.
While on Facebook last night, I read a post on the Artisans of Mexico page about colorful, embroidered shirts made by women in the tiny village of Santa Cruz, Michoacan, a place so small it’s not even on our maps. I decided I needed to get me some, so I asked captain Andy to take me to Santa Cruz today for some shopping. I love Mexican embroidery, I love the vivid colors they use and I love the way the clothes tell the story of the indigenous people.
Andy, somewhat perpelexed, using only a brief online description of one Santa Cruz artisan, saw the town’s location as being described as at a junction not too far from Patzcuaro, where we are staying. But on maps, he saw it not. However, as fate would have it, we picked up a freebie, Xeroxed map of the region Thursday morning at the tourist office while having coffee on the main square, and lo and behold, there was tiny Santa Cruz, far off the beaten path.
So we hopped in the car, turned at the junction and went off on a small country through gorgeous pastures and farmland, cows a-grazing and majestic mountains in the background. We went past the tiny village of Las Cuevas (where, oddly enough, we had been for a party on Sunday, as some American couple who lives way out there invited us via a mutual friend). After about 7 or 8 miles, we hit Santa Cruz, only to run smack dab (well, not literally) into a herd of cattle being guided down the middle of the narrow country road. We’ve seen this several times now, as ranchers take their herds from their own property to a nearby pasture, then bring them back home again. We fell in behind the herd right as it was coming from the pasture, so going at about 1 mph, we spent the next 15 minutes enjoying the ambience (and the backsides of about 20 cattle) until the rancher finally turned his steer up his driveway.
By the by, as the cattle ambled past houses and a couple of small buildings, we saw no stores. We continued to drive to what was pretty much the end of the road, then up a perpendicular street that led to a dilapidated town square — more like a mound of dirt and a rusted basketball backboard, and one small tienda selling nothing but snacks and drinks. Still, we had a hunch clothes might be sold from peoples’ houses. We asked one woman sweeping the road in front of her casa (“Quieremes comprar,” I said, then grabbed a piece of my shirt). Her face revealed that she knew what we were after, and she pointed up the road and said “enfrente” and something else. But what? And in front of what? We didn’t catch it. Ahead about 100 meters, we pulled aside a man selling vegetables from a truck and asked him where I could purchase a shirt. “Aqui,” he said — right at the house he was in front of. A girl of about 20 who was buying vegetables and bananas led us up a rocky, cobbled car path.
Inside there were four or five rooms, and many, many kids running around, playing with dogs and a kitten inside (and chickens outside). In Spanish Andy asked if they had any shirts to sell, and they said “si.” They brought out three things for me to see, a shirt, a skirt, and a beautiful embroidered jacket.
One of the women told me she had another shirt at her house 15 minutes away, and asked if I wanted to see it. I said sure. We offered to drive her, but she didn’t seem interested, so she left and said she would soon come back.
As we tried to converse a little bit more, suddenly someone started translating for us in perfect English! It turned out that the daughter-in-law of the abuela — the grand dame of the family’s many embroiderers, the mother of 15 and the grandmother of 23 — was visiting from Austin, Texas. She had ventured on her own, with her three kids, to visit where her husband had grown up, and to meet his mother and many of his brothers and sisters for the first time; hubby had stayed back home in Austin to work.
Two chairs were brought out for us, and there was a little table already there, in what was basically a wide hallway in the front of the house, with no furniture. What appeared to be happening was indeed happening, as we were asked if we wanted some food. We stressed that we didn’t want to be any trouble, not once but twice. But Andy, never being one to turn down food, especially when it’s an opportunity to sample something so out-of-the-ordinary as this, of course relented (even though we had each eaten a sandwich about an hour prior).
Then, as if this family had planned for us to be there, a styrofoam plate stacked with corundas (triangle tamales) magically appeared, along with traditional Mexican sour cream and fresh tomato salsa to slather on top.
The corundas, a local treat, were homemade (of course) and were corn masa packed with carrots, peppers and cheese. Then came some homemade tortillas fresh from the griddle.
Then they foisted a huge bowl of chicken soup, complete with a drumstick in the middle, on Andy, even though he asked for only “un poco.” He ate it, of course, saying the only thing missing was a matzah ball! But then one of our dining companions suggested that the corundas go great in the soup … so he dunked a big piece in … instant matzah ball! Sort of. Anyway, he was a happy camper.
While he was packing it in, I tried on the clothes. The skirt was way too big, like by five sizes, but they told me that they could make it smaller for me. Which they did, right there while I waited. Fifteen minutes later, just like she said, the other lady (who turned out to be one of the abuela’s several daughters who are following in her artisan embroidery footsteps) came back with another shirt, which I also ended up buying. It’s a beautiful green color and I like the embroidery. Adding to the experience, the shirt wasn’t quite finished … so she took out needle and colorful thread and finished it right there in front of me! I think she added some hair to one of the shirt characters.
Each piece is handmade, of course. The abuela (freehand) draws each pattern on the fabric with a special white pencil, be it a drapery, a blouse, a skirt or a pillow cover.
The daughters then embroider each piece, meticulously. Each one tells a story, mostly of typical tasks that the people in that region have done for years on end, such as picking the fruit off a tree or tending to the chickens. If you look closely, you’ll see chickens and cows and other scenes of indigenous life in the patterns.
Two things struck me about our fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience: (1) Once again I was blown away by the hospitality we received by a family of strangers. They lived a very, very modest farm life. I would say that they were fairly poor, as their house was meager and the furnishings quite sparse, but they shared everything they had with two total strangers. (2) Through the intrepreter, we told the abuela that she should take her clothes to Zihuatanejo and sell them at a Saturday morning “eco” market frequented by tourists who LOVE this kind of clothing (and will pay good money for it). Neither the mother nor her eldest daughter had heard of Zihuatanejo — a pretty major city four hours away. I was somewhat surprised.
I can’t wait to wear my new clothes!