SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Handicraft makers in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas are maintaining their identity in the 21st century but their ancestral knowledge and their work is being threatened because not many young people are gravitating to the industry despite the increase in tourism.
In the town of San Cristobal de las Casas, at 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) above sea level, hundreds of artisans are putting their knowledge, talent and expertise into making their handicrafts, but to prevent the tradition from being lost they are having to rethink how to preserve it from an academic and informative point of view.
As a result, they have set up workshops, classes and training sessions to help others learn how to produce their handicrafts.
But that has not worked for everyone, and some say that young people have almost zero interest in pursuing a livelihood in handicraft making, putting the industry into crisis, according to what wooden-toy maker Mario Jacinto Hernandez Lopez, who has 48 years of experience in the business, told EFE on Wednesday.
Mario recalls that when he was young his grandfather and father began making and selling carved wooden toys.
For several decades they ran a workshop employing dozens of workers making thousands of toys, but over time the number of workers and the sales declined.
At age 12, Mario began his apprenticeship in the business.
“My dad only left me his trade as an inheritance. Making little carts and vehicles, wooden parrots, carousels” and other items. “Earlier, they whittled and planed the wood by hand, all done with a knife. They pared it down and painted the wood,” he said.
In addition, the “jabanil” tree that is typical in the region and the wood which is used to make the toys, is dying out.
Since it was founded 491 years ago, San Cristobal de las Casas has been a center for trades of various sorts.
Every neighborhood has a trade that identifies it and gives it its identity. For example, the Guadalupe neighborhood is the one where toys have been made for many years.
But now, in that neighborhood, only Mario and his sons are actively making toys to sell.
“This free trade came into play and little by little that toymaking tradition has been lost. Sales are sparse because people buy more plastic toys, those coming from China. And that’s how the tradition is dying little by little,” Mario said.
Nowadays, many young people study for scientific or social careers, and that, too, has thrown the handicrafts industry into crisis, since there are virtually no pupils to whom to transmit the ancestral knowledge.
Francisco Alvarez Montoya, a 68-year-old textile artisan, says that he is facing the same situation.
“My sons don’t want to learn (this trade) because they are devoting themselves to studying. It’s evident that because of the poverty (that prevailed earlier) we had to learn the trades of our fathers because there was no money for studying,” he said.
The arrival of modern practices had led young people to lose the passion for pursuing a trade, said Francisco, who is an expert in dyeing cloth and yarn to make “naguas,” garments worn by indigenous women of the region, which is one of the poorest areas in Mexico.
“When I was a boy, there were many apprenticeships because the trade was very big here. One lady had 20 looms and her sister had 15, and we can say that the whole neighborhood was made up of textile workers,” he said.
However, nowadays, “I’m the only one left,” he said.
Young people don’t wear traditional clothing any longer. “It’s the older people who preserve the traditions,” he said.
In 2015, San Cristobal de Las Casas was recognized as one of the world’s six most creative cities by Unesco in terms of handicrafts and popular art.
But in the 21st century, the big challenge is to preserve and display to the world the different cultures that exist in this ancient colonial city, one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations.