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Crafting Tradition

Crafting Tradition
The Making and Marketing of Oaxacan Wood Carvings

The first in-depth look at the international trade in Oaxacan wood carvings, including their history, production, marketing, and cultural representations.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

April 2003
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304 pages | 6 x 9 | 24 color and 53 b&w photos, 3 maps, 3 tables |

Since the mid-1980s, whimsical, brightly colored wood carvings from the Mexican state of Oaxaca have found their way into gift shops and private homes across the United States and Europe, as Western consumers seek to connect with the authenticity and tradition represented by indigenous folk arts. Ironically, however, the Oaxacan wood carvings are not a traditional folk art. Invented in the mid-twentieth century by non-Indian Mexican artisans for the tourist market, their appeal flows as much from intercultural miscommunication as from their intrinsic artistic merit.

In this beautifully illustrated book, Michael Chibnik offers the first in-depth look at the international trade in Oaxacan wood carvings, including their history, production, marketing, and cultural representations. Drawing on interviews he conducted in the carving communities and among wholesalers, retailers, and consumers, he follows the entire production and consumption cycle, from the harvesting of copal wood to the final purchase of the finished piece. Along the way, he describes how and why this "invented tradition" has been promoted as a "Zapotec Indian" craft and explores its similarities with other local crafts with longer histories. He also fully discusses the effects on local communities of participating in the global market, concluding that the trade in Oaxacan wood carvings is an almost paradigmatic case study of globalization.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. History of Oaxacan Wood Carving (1940-1985)
  • Chapter 3. Contemporary Wood Carving
  • Chapter 4. Wood-Carving Communities
  • Chapter 5. Economic Strategies
  • Chapter 6. Making Wood Carvings
  • Chapter 7. Global Markets and Local Work Organization
  • Chapter 8. Specializations
  • Chapter 9. How Artisans Attain Success
  • Chapter 10. Popular Journalism, Artistic Styles, and Economic Success
  • Chapter 11. Sales in Oaxaca
  • Chapter 12. Sales in the United States
  • Chapter 13. Conclusion
  • Epilogue
  • References Cited

Michael Chibnik is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.


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On January 1, 1998, Jimmy Carter visited the small Mexican town of San Martín Tilcajete to look at brightly painted wood carvings. The ex-president of the United States was vacationing in the state of Oaxaca with his wife, Roslynn, their four children, six grandchildren, and ten other relatives and friends. The group was accompanied by bodyguards, government officials, and guides on their excursions to the colonial churches, archaeological sites, craft villages, and markets of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. They stayed in San Martín for half an hour, buying numerous pieces and chatting with artisans.

The Carters had decided to go to San Martín after seeing a display of carvings from the town in the zócalo (central square) of the city of Oaxaca. Although the residents of San Martín were honored by the visit of the former president, they were not surprised that such a famous man would spend part of New Year's day looking at Oaxacan wood carvings. Since the mid-1980s these whimsical pieces have adorned the shelves of gift shops and private homes in Mexico, the United States, and Europe and have been the subject of countless magazine and newspaper articles, museum exhibitions, and television programs. Oaxacan wood carvings appear on calendars, postcards, and T-shirts and are sold in catalogs and over the Internet. Artisans from the principal carving centers of San Martín Tilcajete, Arrazola, and La Unión Tejalapan have traveled throughout the United States giving exhibitions of their craft. Many families in these communities have prospered by selling their pieces to wholesalers, store owners, and tourists. Men and women who once eked out a living through farming and wage labor are now able to build concrete houses and purchase automobiles, satellite dishes, cell phones, and compact disk players.

Oaxacan wood carvings are part of a growing trade in what Nelson Graburn (1976) and others have called "ethnic and tourist arts." Crafts such as Otavalan weavings (Colloredo-Mansfeld 1999), Kuna molas (Tice 1995), Côte d'Ivoire carvings (Steiner 1994), and New Guinea masks (Silverman 1999) change hands in complex, multistranded commodity chains that usually link artisans from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania with consumers from the upper and middle classes of the United States, Canada, and Europe. The commercialization of crafts has improved the standard of living of many artisans in some communities but has enriched only a few merchants in others. This trade is part of an increasingly rapid flow of people, commodities, and images across national borders in recent years that has led some anthropologists (e.g., Kearney 1996; Marcus 1995; Roseberry 1989) to advocate a global perspective that entails multilocal fieldwork and a rethinking of long-established ideas about cultural boundaries.

This book examines the history, production, marketing, and cultural representations of Oaxacan wood carvings. These colorful pieces are an extraordinarily apt illustration of how the global demand for exotic "indigenous crafts" can lead to an invented tradition (Hobsbawm 1983). The origins of Oaxacan wood carvings differ from those of most other ethnic and tourist arts. Accounts of craft commercialization ordinarily describe how objects that were at one time integral parts of indigenous cultures become transformed as the result of a global marketplace. The hybrid nature of such crafts leads to heated debates about their artistic merit and "authenticity." The Oaxacan wood carvings, however, are late-twentieth-century creations made mostly by monolingual Spanish speakers. The pieces nonetheless are stylistically similar in some respects to other local crafts with longer histories and are often promoted as a symbol of "Zapotec Indian" identity by merchants dealing in ethnic arts.

Anthropological Approaches to Ethnic and Tourist Arts

The growth of tourism during the late nineteenth century in areas inhabited by non-Western peoples led to an increased production of art objects as souvenirs. Although some of these souvenirs were replications of objects with long-standing cultural significance, many others were innovative hybrid art forms. Despite the economic importance of the souvenir trade, anthropologists paid little attention to ethnic and tourist art until the 1970s. They focused instead on ways in which traditional arts were symbolically embedded in local ritual and politics. Because ethnic and tourist arts were produced in colonial or neocolonial trade contexts, they were of less analytic interest (Graburn 1999:345).

In the past three decades, anthropologists have written extensively about ethnic and tourist arts (e.g., García Canclini 1993; Graburn 1976; Marcus and Myers 1995; Nash 1993b; Phillips and Steiner 1999b). By 1970 many scholars recognized that a failure to emphasize political and economic ties between local communities and the wider world had been a shortcoming of most previous ethnographic research. Their efforts since then to understand these connections have led to numerous investigations of the cultural representations, economic structures, and sociopolitical relations associated with the flows and transformations of commodities as they move from producers in poor countries to consumers in rich countries. While ethnic and tourists arts did not fit easily into the functional studies and ethnohistorical reconstructions that most anthropologists carried out in the first half of the twentieth century, they have been fertile ground for more recent approaches focusing on economic and cultural connections between particular localities and the outside world.

Many anthropologists describing commodity flows (e.g., Mintz 1985; Wolf 1982) have been strongly influenced by world systems (e.g., Wallerstein 1974) and dependency (e.g., Gunder Frank 1969) theories that emphasize the ways in which individuals and institutions in the centers of economic power extract wealth from subordinate regions. Several studies of the trade in ethnic and tourist arts in Mexico (e.g., Littlefield 1979; Stephen 1993; Stromberg-Pellizzi 1993), for example, describe how putting-out systems (where merchants provide artisans with tools and supplies in return for delivery of goods at set piece-work wages) and factory-like workshops have developed as a response to national and international markets for particular crafts. Other researchers examining the spread of international capital (Cook and Binford 1990; Nash 1993a) note how the activities of intermediaries in global commodity chains affect the economic strategies and division of labor of craft-producing households. These anthropologists influenced by world systems and dependency theories often emphasize how indigenous arts are transformed in efforts to appeal to Western tastes.

In the 1980s and 1990s many scholars (e.g., Gupta 1998; Roseberry 1989; Scott 1985) argued that dependency and world systems approaches neglect local history and culture and underemphasize the activities subordinate peoples have taken to change their circumstances. Their critiques have influenced studies focusing on ways in which tourist art both "adheres to traditional aesthetic canons and cultural themes . . . [and] conveys messages about emergent notions of village, regional, and national ethnicity" (Silverman 1999:51). Most anthropologists looking at craft commercialization nowadays agree that commoditization is not an impersonal force. They think instead that Christopher Steiner's conclusion in his book about the trade in African art (1994:164) is relevant to many ethnic arts and crafts:

. . . [the] penetration of capitalism [in the African art trade is] a series of personal linkages, forged one at a time by different individuals each with their own motives, ambitions, and set of goals. At all levels of the trade, individuals are linked to one another by their vested interest in the commoditization and circulation of an object in the international economy. Yet, ironically, the very object that brings them together does not have the same meaning or value for all participants in the trade.

Contemporary research on ethnic and tourist arts is often placed in the context of "globalization." This ill-defined term sometimes refers to an alleged cultural homogeneity brought about by the spread of Western goods and images around the world. However, there is a growing recognition that the effects of improvements in transportation and communications have led to multidirectional cultural and economic flows rather than the one-way penetration from centers described by world systems theory (Appadurai 1996; Kearney 1995; Little 2000; Wood 2000a). The increasing flow of images and information from previously remote areas of Latin America, Africa, and Asia clearly influences the demand for non-Western crafts by consumers in Europe and the United States. Moreover, indigenous artisans are learning the values and categories of the intermediaries who control the market for ethnic crafts (Graburn 1993).

Ethnic and tourist arts and crafts are both cultural artifacts and commodities. Most anthropologists conducting research on these objects (e.g., Myers 1991; Price 1989) have taken a cultural approach, examining their multiple meanings and messages for producers and consumers. Economic anthropologists interested in the trade in ethnic and tourist, in contrast, have ordinarily studied how national and international markets for crafts have affected work organization and social stratification in particular villages and small towns. This focus reflects certain long-standing debates about the effects of increased production for sale on the social organization of rural economies.

Two of the most influential theoretical positions concerning the effects of the penetration of capital were put forth many years ago by V. I. Lenin (1964 [1899]) and A. V. Chayanov (1966 [1920s]). Lenin thought that as capitalism spreads in rural areas some farmers and artisans accumulate more land, tools, and machinery than others. The inevitable result is the destruction of the peasantry, rural-urban migration, and the creation of separate classes of entrepreneurial landowners (capitalists) and landless wage laborers (rural proletariat). Chayanov, in contrast, argued that the economic logic of peasant farming and craft production is fundamentally different from that of capitalistic enterprises. Because peasant farmers and artisans use unpaid family workers, they can often compete successfully with commercial businesses employing hired labor. The spread of capitalism therefore does not necessarily result in extensive rural stratification ("differentiation") and the breakup of the peasantry. The Lenin-Chayanov debate has taken diverse forms over the years depending on the particular situations being analyzed. Many modernization theorists who abhor Lenin's political views agree with his contention that large-scale production units are inevitable in rural areas under capitalism. Chayanov's ideas have been adopted by numerous quantitatively oriented scholars who reject both Marxist and modernization theory. Contemporary anthropologists (e.g., Nash 1994) often write about the extent to which rural peoples are able to retain autonomy as they become integrated into a global economy.

Artisans have played an important role in analyses of differentiation in rural areas in Mexico (e.g., Cook and Binford 1990; García Canclini 1993; Littlefield 1979; Novelo 1976; Turok 1988) and elsewhere (e.g., Goody 1982; Schmitz 1982; Tice 1995). Craft sales can enable households to meet subsistence needs and increase incomes even where land is scarce or unevenly divided. Chayanov-oriented scholars (called campesinistas in Mexico) have therefore encouraged artisan production as a way of maintaining small-scale family enterprises in the countryside and stemming migration to crowded cities. Leninist-oriented scholars (called proletaristas in Mexico) argue that much rural household production that appears to be autonomous is actually controlled by entrepreneurial subcontractors who specify what is to be made. Modernization theorists think that artisanal development requires capitalist systems of production such as workshops with hired laborers.

Economic anthropologists (e.g., Blim and Rothstein 1992; Collins 2000) examining work organization are increasingly finding "post-Fordist" systems of flexible accumulation that are said to be characteristic of late capitalism. Such systems allow enterprises to react quickly to new market niches by changing labor processes and creating innovative products. They are contrasted with older, more rigid, "Fordist" businesses that involve long-term, large-scale fixed capital investments in mass production systems (Harvey 1989:142-147; Wood 2000a). Flexible accumulation systems, which have developed since the 1970s, often rely on subcontracting, outsourcing, and dispersed sites of production. These arrangements, however, cannot always be attributed to the workings of late capitalism. Piece work and sharecropping, for example, have been found in many societies in the past.

Oaxacan Wood Carving: Art and Commodity

Oaxacan wood carvings are in some ways archetypal examples of a commoditized craft. They were invented recently and have always been sold to tourists, collectors, and merchants. Their sale in large volumes has been made possible by transportation and communication improvements linking Oaxaca, Mexico City, and the United States. Although artisans take pride in their work, they almost always say that they make pieces in order to make money and would abandon the craft if the market for carvings disappeared. Carvers change styles and develop specializations in response to the volume of sales of particular types of pieces. The overall demand for carvings ebbs and flows as the fluctuating exchange rate between the dollar and the peso affects the potential profits of U.S.-based intermediaries.

The socioeconomic effects of the trade in Oaxacan wood carvings have been somewhat different from those of most other commoditized crafts. Anthropologists writing about the commercialization of ethnic and tourist arts (e.g., Littlefield 1979; Waterbury 1989) have frequently told a Leninist story of how increased stratification develops as some artisans are more successful than others and local merchants establish themselves as intermediaries between producers and consumers. The less-successful artisans earn little from their crafts, which may not be as remunerative as agriculture and wage labor. While the Oaxacan wood-carving trade has certainly increased socioeconomic stratification in the principal artisan communities, class differences seem less than in many other places where crafts are exported. The extent of exploitation of artisans by store owners and wholesalers also seems rather limited. The relatively benign socioeconomic consequences of the wood-carving trade are the result of both production techniques and market factors. The low cost of materials allows families to make carvings without loans from intermediaries. The existence of a sizable high-end market enables large numbers of skilled carvers and painters to earn substantial incomes by selling commissioned individual pieces. The complex logistics of exporting wood carvings have prevented a substantial local merchant class from developing.

The history of the trade in Oaxacan wood carvings, however, is more than a microeconomic tale of supply, demand, cost-benefit analyses, and strategizing in a free market. The carvings did not develop in a vacuum. Villages and towns in the state of Oaxaca have long specialized in particular crafts. Since the Mexican Revolution in the first part of the twentieth century, successive governments have consistently promoted the production and sale of indigenous arts in order to increase income in rural areas and aid in the creation of a national identity that fuses Indian and Spanish heritages. The demand for Mexican crafts in the United States is driven by buyers' diverse cultural motives.

Crafts, Ideology, and Economics in Postrevolutionary Mexico

Certain states in Mexico (e.g., Michoacán, Oaxaca) have long been known for their crafts, especially those made by people identified by themselves or outsiders as "Indians." Although some "Indian" crafts have remained unchanged since pre-Columbian times, many others are complex mixtures of indigenous and Spanish technologies and artistic styles. For example, communities around Teotitlán del Valle in the state of Oaxaca wove cotton for local consumption prior to the Spanish conquest. After the Spanish introduced wool to the area in the 1500s, large numbers of blankets were made from that material during the colonial period (Stephen 1993:30). These wool blankets have been widely regarded since that time as an Indian (specifically Zapotec) craft.

Mexican elites in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries adopted European ideas about artistic merit and largely ignored indigenous crafts. After the Mexican Revolution in the first part of the twentieth century, however, intellectuals (e.g., Atl 1922) and politicians began to praise and publicize popular (usually Indian) arts and crafts (García Canclini 1993:43; Kaplan 1993:113; Novelo 1976:32-39; Wood 1997:107-112). Famous Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros extolled Indian themes in their paintings. State agencies were soon established to promote and preserve popular arts, and by the later part of the century there were more than fifty such governmental institutions (Novelo 1976:47).

The postrevolutionary state's interest in popular arts and crafts was initially ideological. The leaders of Mexico were seeking to unite a country divided along ethnic, linguistic, and political lines (Knight 1990). In particular, they sought to draw the indigenous population into the state by creating national symbols of identity that reflected the country's pre-Columbian past (Wood 2000b). Although the eventual goal was to integrate the Indians into a mestizo state, the first step was to make all Mexicans value aspects of indigenous cultures such as dance, music, painting, weaving, and pottery. The syncretic nature of many of these cultural features was rarely emphasized by the intellectuals and politicians who promoted this indigenismo and encouraged collectors such as Nelson Rockefeller (see Oettinger 1990) to purchase folk art.

By the mid-twentieth century the state's promotion of popular art was also motivated by economic concerns. An increase in tourism spurred by transportation improvements had brought many visitors willing to buy Mexican crafts. At same time, most rural residents were finding it ever more difficult to support their families through agriculture because of small plots, low crop prices, and poor soils. The economic situation of many peasant farmers had worsened as land became more scarce as a result of population growth and government policies that favored large-scale, capital-intensive agriculture. The state therefore encouraged craft production in order to foster rural development, reduce rural-urban migration, and attract tourists to regions where there are large indigenous populations. State agencies have engaged in diverse activities in their efforts to promote the production and sale of crafts. Government stores in major cities buy popular arts; banks give credit to artisans. The state puts on exhibits of crafts both in Mexico and abroad and sends artisans to demonstrate their work at such shows. Arts and crafts are displayed in state-run museums and featured extensively in brochures and videos put out by government tourist offices. State arts institutions sponsor craft contests about specific themes in which the winners receive significant amounts of money.

The state's goals of preserving "indigenous" art forms (notwithstanding their usual syncretic origins) and promoting craft sales have often been partly contradictory. Merchants sometimes find that "traditional" crafts sell better after they have been transformed in ways that appeal to foreign tastes. Many rugs from Teotitlán, for example, have designs taken from the work of European artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and M. C. Escher. Furthermore, tourists have been willing to buy entirely new crafts that do not have long-standing cultural significance, such as jewelry and wallets with pre-Columbian motifs. The transformation of "traditional" arts and the creation of new crafts conflict with the Mexican state's aim to promote popular arts as the symbol of the nation's indigenous heritage. Some scholars have noted that commercialization fundamentally changes the meaning of crafts (and presumably also their usefulness as symbols of national identity) even when they are not transformed. Néstor García Canclini argues (1993:61), for example, that when indigenous weavers sell their work to intermediaries:

. . . they lose, together with part of the value, the global conception of the process. Their loss is even greater if outside intervention causes a fissure within production itself by turning artisans into mere wage laborers (in a workshop or home) who limit themselves to doing designs imposed by others and stylings of a traditional Indian iconography that are not theirs . . . The distance that a capitalist organization of labor and the market establishes between artisans and their crafts parallels the rupture between the economic and the symbolic, between material (economic) and cultural (ethnic) meaning.

Craft commercialization, according to García Canclini (1993:63), actually divides the country by creating stratification and disrupting community solidarity:

Practices by both private intermediaries and certain state organizations that promote crafts encourage the separation of individuals from the community . . . they select the best artisans, they deal with them on an individual basis, and urge them to compete with one another.

The state's ideological and economic goals in promoting popular arts are most compatible when crafts (however transformed by market demands) have a long history of use by "Indians." Buyers both in Mexico and abroad also seem especially attracted to such crafts. As Arjun Appadurai has observed (1986a:47), in tourist arts, the status politics of consumers revolves around the group identity of producers. Both state organizations and merchants selling hybrid art forms aimed at the tourist and export market therefore emphasize their indigenous origins and downplay the transformations that have been made in attempts to appeal to buyers. It is difficult, however, to reconcile entirely new crafts made by people who are clearly not Indians—such as the papier-mâché sculptures of the Linares family of Mexico City (Masuoka 1994)—with an ideology that promotes popular arts as a symbol of national indigenous heritage. The state thus has had an ambivalent attitude to crafts such as the Linares' sculptures and Oaxacan wood carvings. Such crafts seem worthy of state support since they provide needed income for poor people and attract tourists. But they do not fit well into the national discourse about popular arts. Perhaps for this reason the state has promoted the Linares' sculptures and Oaxacan wood carvings less than many other crafts. Intermediaries in the wood-carving trade, aware of the appeal of the ideology linking crafts with the past, have often imputed an indigenous origin and long history to the pieces they sell.

Motivations for the Purchase of Ethnic and Tourist Arts

The Mexican state's effort to promote popular arts would not have succeeded without a demand for indigenous crafts among the middle and upper classes in the United States, Canada, and Europe. An examination of the trade in Oaxacan wood carvings and other ethnic arts thus requires some attention to customers' reasons for buying such items. Despite a paucity of empirical studies, scholars are in general agreement about why Westerners purchase indigenous crafts.

In a discussion of the burgeoning market for ethnic and tourist arts during the Victorian era, Ruth Phillips and Christopher Steiner say (1999a:9) that buyers were motivated by both admiration for the technical expertise and aesthetic sensibility of non-Western artists and a "romantic and nostalgic desire for the 'primitive' induced by the experience of modernization." Writers discussing the reasons behind the purchase of contemporary tourist and ethnic art (e.g., García Canclini 1993:40-41; Lee 1999; Little 1991:156-157) seem to think that customers' motivations resemble those that Phillips and Steiner attribute to the Victorian era. García Canclini remarks (1993:40), for example, that Mexican crafts "introduce . . . novel designs and a certain degree of variety and imperfection that offer the opportunity both to be different from the rest and to establish symbolic relations with simpler life-styles, a yearned-for nature, or the Indian artisans who represent that lost closeness." He cites the work of Gobi Stromberg (n.d.:16-17), who studied the reasons tourists give for purchasing silver in Taxco, Mexico. These included proof that a trip abroad had been taken (with the implied socioeconomic status associated with such travels), a demonstration of broad taste for exotic objects, and a rejection of the products of a mechanized society. Carol Hendrickson (1996:110) additionally notes that catalogs selling Guatemalan Mayan goods emphasize the makers of crafts and the "touch" between different peoples created by handmade objects.

The globalization at the end of the twentieth century appears to have stimulated the market for tourist and ethnic art. Steiner and Philips point out that the wider public acceptance of such arts can be seen in a series of publications (e.g., Barnard 1991; Hall 1992; Innes 1994) advocating the use of "natural" objects in interior design. These texts on interior decorating assume

  1. that "ethnic" art is closer to nature and therefore less artificial than its modern counterparts;
  2. that the "ethnic" arts of all regions share a common denominator, making them largely interchangeable and somehow comparable on a formal level; and
  3. (that "ethnic" art represents the final, fleeting testimony to the tenuous existence of rapidly vanishing worlds. (Phillips and Steiner 1999a:16-17)

In these texts, ethnic arts are regarded as a complement to modern design rather than a rejection of industry and capitalism.

Sales of Ethnic and Tourist Art in Contemporary Oaxaca

The trade in ethnic arts in Oaxaca has been greatly affected by the economic importance and cultural character of tourism in the state. In the early 1980s Mexico plunged into an economic crisis precipitated by declining oil prices. In their attempts to recover from the crisis, the political and economic elite of Oaxaca promoted tourism more than ever. Traffic was barred from the zócalo in the heart of the city, which became a lively square filled with cafes, musicians, and artisans. The government improved air connections, paved roads, subsidized museums, and sponsored public folkloric performances. Hotels, travel agencies, and schools teaching Spanish were established in efforts to attract tourists to the city. Oaxaca gained a reputation in guidebooks as a place with a good climate, impressive archaeological sites, and a variety of crafts.

Tourism is now one of the most important sources of income in the state of Oaxaca. Although most tourists to Oaxaca are Mexicans, many visitors come from other countries. Foreign tourism has been encouraged by a weakening peso. The peso/dollar exchange rate jumped from 25 to 1,380 between 1981 and 1987 (see Table 1.1). Although prices tourists had to pay for food and lodging rose during this period, the rate of inflation was considerably less than the rate of devaluation. A subsequent sizable peso devaluation in the mid-1990s has made it even cheaper for foreign tourists to visit Oaxaca.

There are two distinct types of tourism in Oaxaca. Most visitors to the Pacific Coast of the state are seeking beach vacations in places such as Huatulco, Puerto Angel, and Puerto Escondido. Their goal is to eat and drink well, soak up the sun, swim, and get away from the tensions of their everyday lives. Tourism in the city of Oaxaca and the surrounding Central Valleys focuses on culture and shopping. The principal attractions are archaeological sites, churches, museums, markets, fiestas, ethnic arts stores, and craft-producing villages. Many people also come to the city of Oaxaca to study Spanish and local culture or to participate in the lively contemporary art scene. The culture-seeking tourists in the city and Central Valleys (in marked contrast to the sun and surf seekers along the coast) are especially likely to be interested in ethnic and tourist art. Furthermore, the city's pleasant climate and comfortable hotels attract many older tourists who can afford to spend considerable sums of money on crafts. A sizable community of retired people from the United States who winter in Oaxaca provides another market for local art and culture.

The ways in which the cultural attractions of Oaxaca have been sold to the outside world over the past two decades are exemplified by a recent English-language book (Hancock Sandoval 1998) published by the government of the state. In Shopping in Oaxaca, Judith Hancock Sandoval writes (1998:15-16):

The eternal pastimes of visitors to exotic places are sightseeing, eating well, shopping, and taking it easy, four kinds of fun Oaxaca has perfected. You can climb magnificent archaeological ruins from civilizations unknown beyond these valley, cool down in tree-filled, fountain sprinkled parks, wander leisurely on cobblestone streets with patios blooming flowers, turned into shops, hotels, restaurants, and museums . . . Absorb the experience of time (going back into) and space (floating in an exotic culture); clean your cassette and let in the new music. Oaxaca is a safe, comfortable, and inexpensive place to delve into an ancient world where the traditions, handicrafts, costumes, festivals, and market places go back thousands of years and are still throbbing with life. And what a place to shop!

At the end of the twentieth century, popular ethnic and tourist crafts in the city of Oaxaca and the Central Valleys included rugs and sarapes, handmade textiles such as huipiles (blouses) and tablecloths, metalwork (especially tinware), and pottery (see Hernández-Díaz et al. 2001 for an excellent anthropological overview of local crafts). Because the brightness and whimsicality of wood carvings is similar to that of other regional expressive and plastic local arts, the new craft appeals to many tourists, wholesalers, and store owners already familiar with local textiles, pottery, and tinware. The wood carvings, moreover, have certain advantages in comparison to other crafts. They are cheaper than rugs and more portable than pottery. The carvings fit in well with a "southwestern" style of home design that has been popular in parts of the United States since the late 1980s. The range in prices of carvings makes them suitable purchases for tourists seeking inexpensive souvenirs, collectors looking for one-of-a-kind items, and merchants stocking shops. Perhaps because of the diversity of the carvings, local store owners sometimes say that they appeal to a wider variety of customers than any other craft.

The Social Life of Oaxacan Wood Carvings

As anthropologists have focused more on ties between local communities and the outside world, they have faced methodological problems in delimiting what they will study. There is now a consensus that multilocal fieldwork is necessary for many research questions related to global interdependence and cross-cultural exchange. For example, anthropological studies of the effects of temporary and permanent migration from Mexico to the United States (e.g., Kearney 1995; Rouse 1988) nowadays often involve research in both countries. But if fieldwork in one community is a difficult endeavor in which anthropologists must budget their time and money carefully, fieldwork involving people living in dispersed, connected groups is logistically and theoretically much more complicated. Researchers have limited resources and cannot possibly investigate everything of possible interest in several places.

Anthropologists studying transglobal trade (e.g., Roseberry 1989; Steiner 1994) have suggested following the "social life" of commodities as they move through time and space. The term "social life" (Appadurai 1986b) refers to changes in the value, meaning, and use of commodities as they move from hand to hand and place to place. Emphasis is placed on the socioeconomic relations among the various people involved in a trading network and the cultural representations of commodity in different contexts. Such an approach is especially well suited to analyses of the trade in ethnic and tourist arts, which often involves long commodity chains in which the participants are producers, merchants, and consumers scattered around the globe. Nevertheless, anthropologists taking this approach to study of a craft trade must think carefully about what will be examined at each node of the commodity chain. A too narrow focus on one commodity may ignore relevant history, culture, and economics in particular localities; a too broad study may result in superficial examination of important topics.

Much of my research took a follow-the-commodity approach to the trade in Oaxacan wood carvings. This was hardly a straightforward undertaking since the carvings can take quite different paths in their journey from a collection of raw materials to their final destination on someone's shelf. The following hypothetical examples show some of the trips that a carving might take:

(1) A man from San Pedro Taviche cuts wood from a copal tree in the forest surrounding his mountain village on a pleasant February morning. After taking the tree limbs home, he carves a small turtle. He makes a two-hour trip to San Martín Tilcajete in March, where he sells the unpainted piece for 10 pesos to a family living near the center of town. The wooden turtle is then painted by two teenage girls, one a member of the San Martín family and the other a hired laborer from a nearby village. The finished piece is sold in May for 20 pesos to a young man from Arrazola who works as an intermediary for a large-scale wholesaler from Arizona. The Arrazola intermediary ships the carving to the Arizona dealer, who has ordered fifty turtles from the family. At a gift show in San Francisco in August, the Arizona dealer sells three turtles at $5 apiece (about 50 pesos) to a store owner from Portland, Oregon. The carving made in San Pedro Taviche and painted in San Martín Tilcajete is sent from a warehouse in Arizona to Portland, where it is sold in November for $12 to a 30-year-old woman looking for a Christmas gift for a friend. The turtle is displayed on a counter in the friend's house for five years and then is sold in a yard sale for $1.

(2) A wealthy couple from California in their sixties on vacation in Oaxaca takes a cab to Arrazola to visit the workshop of 80-year-old Manuel Jiménez, a charismatic man generally recognized as the founder of contemporary Oaxacan wood carving. The bilingual driver interprets as they talk for fifteen minutes with Jiménez and two adult sons in a comfortable showroom, where all the carvings are priced in dollars. The couple eventually buys a wooden deer for $200 that has been made by the sons with cedar sent from Guatemala. The piece is signed by Jiménez and the sons. The couple takes the deer home, where it is prominently displayed in their living room.

(3) A man steps out of a truck filled with copal and knocks on the door of a wood-carving family in Arrazola. He is from a community about 20 kilometers from Arrazola where copal is abundant. The family members use the wood they buy to make elaborately curved, beautifully decorated lizards that can be hung on a wall. The decoration is done using house paint bought in a store in the city of Oaxaca. The husband and a teenage son carve the pieces; painting is done by the wife and a daughter in her early twenties. The cost of the wood and paint used in an iguana carving is about 4 pesos. The iguanas are bought by the owner of a store in the historic district of the city of Oaxaca for 150 pesos apiece. The price of the iguanas in the store is 200 pesos. Some iguanas are bought by tourists passing by the shop. Others are picked up by a wholesaler from California, who resells the pieces in the United States to store owners for $40 apiece. These iguanas cost $80 in U.S. shops.

(4) A woman from Minneapolis drives from the city of Oaxaca to La Unión in a rented car to buy a wooden angel for 100 pesos from a local family. The husband in the La Unión family gathered the wood and did the carving; his wife and a teenage son painted. The Minneapolis woman takes the carving home and sells it for $30 over a website she has created for ethnic arts from Mexico. The website includes photographs of the angel and the artisans at work as well as a brief text linking Oaxacan wood carvings to ancient Zapotec Indian religious ceremonies.

(5) A 30-year-old Arrazola woman runs a small business in which hired workers make wood carvings. She sells a brightly painted wooden rabbit for 60 pesos to a man from Teotitlán del Valle, who takes wood carvings and other Oaxacan crafts on a truck to Matamoros, a Mexican border town across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. He sells the rabbit for 90 pesos to a woman who has a stall with tourist crafts near the bridge that links Brownsville and Matamoros. A college student from Illinois on spring break in south Texas crosses the border for a few hours and buys the rabbit for 120 pesos as a gift for her mother.

Despite the diverse paths that Oaxacan wood carvings can take over their lifetimes, their journey from production to consumption can be generally outlined. After the raw materials (mostly wood and paint) are obtained, the carving is made by a work group living in a small community near the city of Oaxaca. Although some pieces are sold directly to tourists, more are bought by intermediaries in the wood-carving trade such as shop owners from Oaxaca and wholesalers from the United States. Some carvings are sold in stores in Oaxaca; others end up in markets and shops elsewhere in Mexico. Most Oaxacan wood carvings, however, are ultimately sold in ethnic arts and gift shops in the United States and Canada.

A strict follow-the-commodity approach would be insufficient to tell the story of the wood-carving trade. There are specific historical reasons why the craft became economically important in Arrazola, San Martín, and La Unión and why the impact of the wood-carving trade has been different in these three communities. The production strategies and organization of labor in wood-carving communities cannot be understood without an examination of local economic possibilities and sociopolitical organization. This book therefore begins with a history of Oaxacan wood carving and an ethnographic overview of Arrazola, San Martín, and La Unión. The obvious starting point is Manuel Jiménez, the colorful founder of the craft.



“It is hard for me to praise this book sufficiently. . . . It is a major contribution to the field of Oaxacan/Mexican studies, as well as economic anthropology and the study of tourism and crafts.”
Arthur Murphy, Georgia State University, coauthor of Social Inequality in Oaxaca: A History of Resistance and Change


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