Luthiers struggle to save their art Guitars: Artisans in Mexico must adjust to a changing global economy and technological advances to preserve the folk craft of making stringed instruments.

Sun Journal

April 14, 1998|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARACHO, MEXICO -- A few months ago, Sacramento Equihua, after eight years of making guitars at home, rented a small store on the main street in this town known for guitars.

Then he began hoping someone would pass by. That hope is essentially his business plan.

Passing tourists are about the only sources of sales for Paracho's independent luthiers like Equihua.

"This is our big problem. We don't sell over there [in the United States]. That's why I put this store here, because people sometimes pass by," says Equihua, 23. "I just put in a telephone to receive phone calls."

Before opening his store, Equihua sold to other vendors on Paracho's main street, but at a big markdown. The vendors, in turn, made the real profit.

Paracho (pop. 16,000) is one of the world's guitar-making centers; about a third of the town's families make their living from the classical six-string. Instruments hang in shop after shop lining the town's main street.

But these days, sales, which were never robust, have withered. Meanwhile, battalions of cheaper, factory-made guitars are marching in from Asia. "There aren't many people my age making guitars any more," says Equihua.

Like him, thousands of Mexico's artisans are in trouble. They face a global economy, open borders, rising raw material costs. And they are unprepared -- economically, technically and culturally -- to compete.

The question facing Paracho befuddles Mexico's craft industry: How do artisans maintain the quality and tradition of their folk craft, and avoid starving to death, in an era of free trade and mass production?

Artisans have been relatively protected for years by Mexico's high tariffs, used to government help and getting by on what they sold to tourists. But the government these days is talking a distinctly neo-liberal line, which no longer involves, say, providing artisans their raw materials at below-market prices.

"It's very difficult," says Leo Valdovinos, spokesman for the Casa de las Artesanias, a government agency promoting the handcraft industry and based in Morelia, the state capital. "Most of them are poor and without education."

Quality control, advertising and balance sheets are inscrutable mysteries. Many craftsmen are too poor to get credit and some do not trust banks.

Since artisans here do not export much, their access to markets with money and an appreciation for fine crafts -- New York, Paris or Tokyo -- is virtually nil.

This has given rise to a phenomenon known as "intermediarismo," or "middlemen."

"The lack of marketing of their handcrafts is taken advantage of by these people, who buy from them really cheap," says Valdovinos. "And they export and sell to large stores at double or triple the price."

Frequently, artisans can only be glad the middlemen come by. Equihua sells to two middlemen near the border, whom he

charges 1,500 pesos (roughly $180) per guitar. However, they end up tripling or quadrupling the price when they sell his guitars to U.S. vendors. Still, they account for the lion's share of his monthly sales.

In September, the Casa de las Artesanias began granting small-business loans to Michoacan artisans for the purchase of tools and raw materials. So far, they've lent 5 million pesos (roughly $600,000) to about 20 groups. Recently, the agency has been giving seminars on such rudimentary topics as packaging and shipping within Mexico.

Still, progress in the region is slow.

In Michoacan, resolving the artisans' predicament is of paramount importance. Handcrafts are a bedrock of the state's culture, a major tourist attraction and provide livelihoods for 120,000 people.

Paracho lies in the Purepecha Highlands, named for the Indians who pre-date the Spanish Conquest. It is a poor area, and many people speak Spanish only as a second language.

Its craft industries came to the region not long after the Spaniards. In the 1530s, the state's first bishop, Vasco de Quiroga, saw Indians dying by the thousands in Spanish-owned copper mines. Inspired by the teachings of Thomas More's "Utopia," Quiroga ordered each village to take up a craft that could support it, based often on what people were already making: pottery, woodcarving, leather, copper. Paracho got the stringed instruments: guitars, mandolins, upright basses, requintos, bajo sextos.

Crafts have sustained these villages ever since. But now that quaint, one-product sustenance is what makes them vulnerable.

Many villages are so dependent on tourist sales that about all it takes to cripple them is for the federal government to build a highway around the town.

On Paracho's main street is Jesus Zalapa's guitar workshop. Zalapa, 38, is the latest in a long line of family luthiers.

His tools include knives he's made himself and manual calipers, but nothing electric. Sometimes he needs the precision that only calipers with a digital micrometer can provide. They cost $150, beyond his range.

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