When I learned my aerialist classmate Sarah Dickerson studied Otomí Embroidery in college, I asked her to contribute as a guest author to my blog.
Otomí embroidery has recently made news headlines as indigenous rights activists protest furniture company Pottery Barn’s cultural appropriation of this embroidery in their Chinese-made products. I originally wrote about this embroidery and its appropriation by Texas-based artist Margarita Cabrera. Cabrera once noted, “Crafting is the heart of any country, when that is at risk the culture is at risk.” The fact that the craft and work of women and indigenous people are not taken seriously is an indication that women and indigenous people are not valued or taken seriously.
The Otomí region which produces this embroidery was largely isolated from not only Spanish colonization, but from the Maya and Aztec empires that influenced most of the Mexico. Although the Otomí embroidery evolved, it is still relatively true to its original art form. The way in which Otomí cultures weave and embroider their clothing is especially unique to the region and its heritage. The colorful flora, fauna, and daily scenes embroidered on muslin, named manteles in San Pablito, and elsewhere as tenangos, originate from small Hñañhú towns between San Pablito and Tenango de Doria. The history of these embroidered designs is not sure, but they may be derived from paintings in a cave called Nzest’ni near San Nicolás.
The commercialization and forgery of traditional indigenous craft is rising in our
globalized economy. Initially, much of the colorful Otomí embroidery technique was created using beadwork. The Otomí also severed the spikes of indigenous agave plants, dried and stiffened the fibers, then combed, spun, and eventually wove the agave fibers into clothing. As the cost of beads, chaquira, increased in Mexico, women artisans switched to cotton and then synthetic thread. Additionally, as regions of Otomí population were exposed to tourism and trade, their intricate and laborious method of embroidery was commercialized. Many artisans considered prices too low for their meticulous work, but many answered to market demands by utilizing cheaper materials and designing more desirable fantastical scenes. Starting in the mid-twentieth century, women in San Pablito and surrounding towns such as Tenango de Doria of Hidalgo, felt the effects of Mexico’s declining economy and struggled to survive financially. Consequently, many women began to embroider on white commercial cotton fabric and adopted traditional indigenous symbolic themes to sell to an outside market.
As of my writing this, Pottery Barn, which is owned by Williams-Sonoma, Inc., continues to sell these textiles cheaply made in China but no longer labels them as Otomí. The heart of this issue is in cultural appropriation, but this cultural appropriation has greater implications: The Otomí cultural tradition of embroidery is being mocked while being mimicked, and the very real indigenous people who practice this art form are losing money through the exploitation of their culture. There is a petition to dissuade Pottery Barn from selling these forgeries here. If you want to purchase authentic Otomí embroidery products, check out this Etsy shop: https://www.etsy.com/shop/arteotomi. If ever in doubt, shop through local, authentic, indigenous artisans.