Arts and Crafts
Oaxaca abounds with attractive, reasonably priced handicrafts. A sizable fraction of Oaxacan families still depend upon homespun items—clothing, utensils, furniture, native herbal remedies, religious offerings, adornments, toys, musical instruments. Many such traditions reach back thousands of years, to the beginnings of Mesoamerican civilization. The accumulated knowledge of manifold generations of artisans has in many instances resulted in finery so prized that whole villages devote themselves to the manufacture of a certain class of goods.
Shops and markets in Oaxaca City and the Valley of Oaxaca towns of Teotitlán del Valle, Santa Ana del Valle, Tlacolula, Mitla, San Bartolo Coyotepec, San Martín Tilcajete, Santo Tomás Jalieza, Ocotlán, Arrazola, and Atzompa are Oaxaca’s most renowned sources of handicrafts. And, although most crafts are not made in the coastal resorts of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido, each has several good private handicrafts stores and a number of crafts markets where local folks maintain stalls stuffed with their homemade goods. Moreover, the rich cornucopia of crafts from other Mexican centers, such as the neighboring state of Guerrero, the Lake Pátzcuaro region of Michoacán, and around Guadalajara, spills over to Oaxaca.
Handicrafts (artesanías, ar-tay-sah-NEE-ahs) shoppers who venture away from the Oaxaca City center and the coastal tourist enclaves to the source villages and towns will most likely benefit from lower prices, wider choices, and, most importantly, the privilege of meeting the artisans themselves. There, perhaps in a patio shop on a dusty Teotitlán del Valle side street or an Arrazola family patio, you might encounter the people and perhaps view the painstaking processes by which they fashion humble materials—clay, wool, cotton, wood, metal, straw, leaves, bark, paper, leather—into irresistible works of art.
Bargaining comes with the territory in Mexico and needn’t be a hassle. On the contrary, if done with humor and moderation, bargaining can be an enjoyable path to encountering Mexican people and gaining their respect, and even friendship. The local crafts market is where bargaining is most intense. For starters, try offering half the asking price. From there on, it’s all psychology: You have to content yourself with not having to have the item. Otherwise, you’re sunk; the vendor will probably sense your need and stand fast. After a few minutes of good-humored bantering, ask for el último precio (the final price), in which, if it’s close, you may have a bargain.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition