In the picturesque mountain city of San Cristobel de las Casas, Chiapas State, Mexico, a visit to the Mercado Artesanal, the Artisans Market, is a must.
Mexico is famous for beautiful textiles. From intricate embroidery adorning decorative clothing, to colourful woven cotton blankets, this is one of the best markets in the country to see examples of fine hand-made craftsmanship; it’s like walking through a breathing Mexican museum.
Also on display are stalls crammed with hand-made leather goods, delicate beadwork, exquisite amber and turquoise jewellery, paperbark artwork and of course the painted ceramic skulls one sees for sale all over Mexico.
Many stall holders come from indigenous Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages surrounding San Cristobel. Some sit quietly, deep in concentration going about their work, embroidering, sewing or making jewellery. Others pass the day alongside family; parents manning stalls with sons and daughters. In a memorable encounter, an old woman, her long black hair plaited down her back, looked me in the eye and told me, “Mucho trabajo, mucho trabajo”, (much work, much work), while she showed me table runners covered entirely with embroidery.
Artisans pass traditional knowledge and skills down the generations, so when the time comes grown children inherit the family’s market stall and as such secure their livelihood. For those souls not lucky to be born into a family of craftspeople life is very different. In the streets outside, women tailed by numerous children approach every few minutes trying to sell wares others have made. It’s common to see boys as young as seven or eight working to shine shoes or sell candies for a few pesos. In the historic cobblestoned centre of San Cristobel de las Casas, where preserved colonial facades now house hotels and hip shops, the contrast between the city’s riches and immense poverty is impossible to ignore.