Finally managed to visit a traditional Mexican Shoemakers workshop today. NDAVAA is a family run business who make traditional ‘Huaraches’ as well as other more modern sandals combining leather and woven cloth. They were particularly interesting to me because not only do they still make some of the original huarache designs, which I love, but also because they do the entire process themselves from tanning the leather all the way to making each pair of shoes, all in their own back yard. They take the raw hide and after soaking in lime put in a big barrel to be rotated and cleaned. Then they have to stretch it out by nailing it to blocks of wood and cure it in the sun. They even breed cochineal bugs in the cactus plant to use as a natural dye.
Much as it was wonderful to see the manual process of producing leather, it’s clearly an incredibly laborious, time consuming process and even with the huge amount of work is not the same quality or nearly as soft as chemically tanned leather you can buy. To me this only adds to the beauty of their shoes but understandably, when I asked if they would prefer to have machines which would take away some of the work in producing the leather, Clara took a long breath in and said yes of course, if they could afford it they would do it in an instant.
I feel so grateful to be invited into their world of making shoes and to learn more about their own techniques and skills as well as offering some of my own knowledge in exchange for their time and hopefully, in some way, help with some of their own challenges too.
NDAVAA make all their shoes by hand. They produce many pairs at a time, rather than made to measure so it was great to see this in motion for me as it is very different to my own way of working. It was especially interesting learning how they manage their business and have become successful despite the rapid decline of the shoe trade here, much like in the UK. Clara Garcia Antonio (one of the 8 people who run NDAVAA) explained that there used to be over 200 Shoemakers in Oaxaca alone so the core materials, machinery and hand tools were readily available. Now there are hardly any left and the Chinese are buying all the material supplies in Mexico which makes the prices too high for the local makers here.
“Here a lot of mexicans work with Artesania, but its very poorly paid. But we’re loosing a lot of the traditions, and a lot of trade aswell.
And what do you think the cause of this is? Devaluation primarily, and not just in Oaxaca but all over the country. Devaluation, plus a lot of people are emigrating. Before in Oaxaca in the 1980’s we were selling a lot of shoes. We had 16 people working with us, and we only sold in this area. Oaxaca is formed of 8 regions, we are in valles centrales (central valley), so we would sell in valles centrales and with the Mixes in the north mountains, but that was it. We can’t sell in other parts of the state, for example in the Istmo, we don’t sell, it’s a different style of huaraches.
We talked about the hardship of selling our work in a world where cheap imports supersede handcrafted shoes and about the importance of keeping our traditions alive despite the challenges we face.
So in this region we used to sell quite a lot. 80% of our production was sold, but people starting migrating north, so we sold less. And now of course the chinese huaraches are being imported, ours, like this one, we sell for 120 pesos, but a chinese one will sell for 30–40 pesos. They bring them here to Oaxaca and sell them.
And now the synthetic ones have been introduced aswell. Before, in Oaxaca there was a lot of leather production, they made trousers etc. But since synthetic leather imitation arrived it brought down the leather industry here. It disappeared. Now there are one or two who still survive, but it’s very difficult, it’s tough. There used to be a lot more demand for leather.
It was great feeling completely at home in their workshop, breathing in the familiar smell of leather and watching the clockwork process of steps which make up a pair of shoes. One of the men making the huarache uppers worked away with no hesitation, his fingers so familiar with the process, working the leather so expertly it was captivating to watch.
Clara insisted on giving us a pile of freshly made, warm tlayudas for our journey home and we left with a sense of wonder at the warmth and kindness shown despite the miles between our two worlds of making shoes.