The Empty Huarachero Workstation – Challenges and Opportunities For the Craft of Huarache Footwear

Luis’s huarache making workstation is empty and still. After 40 years making Huaraches Luis is ready to throw in the towel. He’s already two months behind on the rent for his workshop, so he says that he’ll terminate the lease and stop making Huaraches. But he hasn’t gone through with it yet, after years of increasing struggle as local suppliers continue to go out of business and the price of vegetable leather rises he’s still hanging in there hoping for something to change, working in the fields and doing odd jobs to make ends meet.

As I see it, although his workstation sits empty, its still there, just waiting to assist him in making another batch of Huaraches. Luis already has his valuable Huarache making skills, he just needs to find a way to sell his Huaraches at a fair price.

In a modernizing Mexico the traditional craft of Huaraches is undoubtedly facing its biggest challenges, but it is also at a dawn of a digital age that can offer big opportunities if only they can be grasped.

Huarachero Station

Luis was the second Huarachero I met in as many days who can no longer afford to make vegetable tanned leather Huaraches for the same low price of synthetic factory made sandals. He blames the retailers who aren’t willing to pay much more than 70Pesos ($6) per pair, but the bottom line is that the Mexican consumer isn’t interested in spending money on footwear that despite its unique design and naturally tanned leather also denotes a lower, farming, old world status (similar to cowboy boots in the USA).

Additionally the price of vegetable tanned leather in Mexico has been steeply rising for at least 20 years and although a few Huaracheros have reacted by learning to tan their own leathers, today they too find it hard to compete with the rock bottom prices of Mexican and Chinese factory footwear.

Over the years the two-sided supplier/retail price crunch has driven Huaracheros to make simpler designs faster with consequently less attention to detail. For a time the price advantage worked, but  in the long run the lower quality of low cost Huaraches has driven the Huaraches craft and its image into the ground.

Next time you’re haggling over a pair of 150 Pesos “Pihuamo” Huaraches at retail consider that the materials costs are between 75-100 Pesos. The retailer probably buys each pair for 80-100 pesos, earning the Huarachero 5-25 Pesos per pair of “Pihuamos” (which take about an 1 hour to make). Add other overheads like shipping and rent, and its clear that very little money is to be made weaving Huaraches, despite their unique designs.

So what is being done to empower Huaracheros and counter this decline?

The Co-op

In a few bigger towns with more Huaracheros, the local government has stepped in to help. Not for the first time government officials are holding town meetings to inform local Huaracheros on how to setup a co-operative. Over the years Huarachero co-ops have come and gone, I think mainly because the co-op stereotype also includes sharing facilities and making the same product. Because as soon as the Co-op becomes a large scale organization, it also becomes too complicated to follow by a group of highly individualistic artisans who are used to being their own bosses. Its interesting how these meetings usually begin with government officials explaining how a co-op is formed and each Huarachero leaving the meeting determined to set up his own.

Despite resistance from local materials retailers, I think that the co-op idea can work only if its developed as simply as possible, with the lowest investments and simplest function. For example limited to making bulk orders of raw materials at lower prices. And then once a community spirit has developed, the co-op can gradually be evolve as intended to providing shared facilities, production and sales.

But what of the hundreds of isolated, last remaining Huaracheros in the small towns, who cannot form co-ops? Huaracheros who’s last resort has become to drive around the small villages nearby, spending a day’s worth of time and fuel to sell only a few pairs and return home having sold none?

The Internet

I started Huarache Blog because I believe the internet offers a massive opportunity of sales and promotion for both remote Huaracheros and ones working in bigger Huarache making communities.

Unfortunately Huaracheros remain barely aware that the internet, let alone it’s commercial potential. They are mostly in their fifties, or older and have only ever dealt with customers by telephone, or in person by driving out to their stores. Additionally the Huarache making tradition is often strongest in the Mexican states with the least internet usage.

proporcion de usuarios de internet por grupo de edadproporcion de usuarios de internet por estado mexico

Source INEGI 2010

However because the children of Huaracheros all use Facebook very well, Huarache Blog has also started its Facebook page HERE to further encourage the growth of an online Huarache community and product exposure.

A Directory of Huaracheros

The idea began after I had spoken to Mexican owners of Huaracheria stores. They complained of traveling to buy Huaraches in important production towns like Sahuayo, and yet struggling to find even a few of the many workshops and different Huarache styles. Because although there are over 200 Huarache workshops in Sahuayo, ask a taxi driver and they’ll only take you to visit their relative Huarachero.

Also given that Huaracheros prefer telephones to computers, Huarache Blog hopes to soon introduce the bi-lingual Huarache Directory. A website that showcases the work of Huaracheros and provides their telephone numbers for national and international orders.

Because just adding a few photos and contact details to the internet takes only a few minutes, costs nothing if you know how to and can make a huge difference.

Stay tuned for The Huarache Directory coming soon.

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