As I helped hang the incredible tapestries of Leo De Los Angeles in a recent exhibit at the Mexican Heritage Center in Stockton, I was struck by the incredible journey this art form has taken from its ancient Oaxacan- Zapotecan roots, from grandfather, to father, to son, of being peddled in plazas and tourist sites to buyers from Los Angeles, Las Vegas to Copenhagen, to an insignificant cultural center showcasing Mexican heritage in Central California.
The prices for his pieces range from $700. to $5000. for a spectaluar blanket 8'x10' in size! A giveaway when you compare this to what a Navajo blanket or Persian rug demands! Peanuts. Yet, people around here raise their brows at the prices. They don't know. In San Francisco, people would not blink twice.
For too long, American and European tourists have flocked to Mexico purchasing exquisite art and folk art for a song and a dance. They thrive on the rush of haggling with the local artists and craftsmen and sadly, the artisans have bought into it too. They expect it. Especially from their compatriots who are relentless at the art of "repelar", of being able to strip down any poor vendor to pennies on the dollar. Besides, most Mexicans see little value in folk art. That is for the tourists.
"Pido S500 pesos, senor." "I'll give you $250" "No se puede, senor. Es mucho el trabajo... deme $350? "I'll pay you $300, no mas." "Andele pues, Senor... $300" And we slink off with our treasure to brag about how we "stole it" to our friends back home. We're talking "pesos" here, say $12.50 for each American dollar! Cacahuates.
Meanwhile Mexican art galleries and high-end crafts outlets will sell the same piece for $300. "American", while the indian or indigenous artisans get peanuts again. Not only has the peso seen devaluation, but so has anything "Mexican".
In the popular imagination, genuine handcrafts are confused with tourist trinkets at "Tiajuana" market places. The plaster donkeys, and stereotypical figurines of a lazy Mexican leaning up against a cactus abound.
It's a sin which began with the European invasion of Mexico in the 1500's, when the Spaniards demolished all things representing the indigenous peoples, books, art, sculpture, paintings, and architecture. Dazzing gold masterpieces of jewelry and art, where melted into gold bricks and shipped to Europe.
Fine art was stripped from throughout Mexico and shipped to Europe, eventually finding its way to the homes of the rich and museums world wide. The actual Quetzal head dress of Moctezuma, the last king of the Aztecs, a showpiece of gold and irredecent emerald plumes, found its way to a museum in Vienna, a copy of it was left for the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City!
It has since betwen returned.
Now the art of collecting has moved to e-Bay, and specialized cites plying Mexican Folk Art at exhorbitant prices.
All but gone are exciting forays throughs deserts, mountains and jungles to villages and market places where the art is actually created.
And nearly extinct is the joy of buying it from the artisan himself, not from smug dealers or collectors.