CIUDAD JUAREZ — Vicente Ruiz touched the handmade bracelets he carried on a display board as he walked up and down Avenida Juárez.
“My grandmother used to sew by hand,” Ruiz said. “I would ask her, ‘How do you do that, Grandmother?’ I would watch her and she would teach me all of this work. These customs are something that we carry in our blood.”
Ruiz was born in Santiago Mexquititlán, an Indigenous community in the southern Mexican state of Querétaro, and is a member of the Otomí ethnic group. He has lived in Juárez for 22 years and earns a living as a street vendor and sells handmade bracelets and dolls near the international bridge.
Ruiz said that in the past, he and other Indigenous vendors faced harassment from authorities who told them they were not allowed to sell his goods on the street even though they had the necessary permits.
“They would not let us work, because they would take away our merchandise,” Ruiz said. “We have asked (the government) to give us respect and tolerance, so that we can show our culture.”
Now Ruiz, like many other Indigenous artisans in Juárez, is fighting to make a living and keep his family’s traditional craftsmanship alive. He sees progress in developments such as Juárez’s recent creation of a municipal Commission for Attention to Indigenous Peoples and Communities and more support and tolerance for Indigenous craftsmanship and vending. However, he still fears that the customs he inherited are being lost.
While there is official support from the local and state governments for the promotion of Indigenous culture and arts, a simple lack of economic support from consumers is one of the biggest obstacles for Ruiz and other vendors.
“What I want is for people to see us, for people to buy our merchandise, to recognize us as Mexicans and as Indigenous artists,” Ruiz said. “(I want them to not) buy the stuff from China that’s copied from us, but that they come and buy from us.”
“We left our roots, we left our lands, so that we could look for a good life for our children,” Ruiz said. “I wanted to teach people the culture here, where we can earn better money. We want to grow our culture and lift up our story, our history. We live outside our territory now in the city, but it is the same blood that we have. That’s what we want to preserve.”
Julián Moreno, a Rarámuri musician from the village of Narárachi in the Sierra de Chihuahua, is staying in Juárez with his sons, Santiago, 22, and Genaro, 10, to participate in several of the fall festivals that celebrate Indigenous cultures. Genaro even received special permission from his teachers to leave school and complete his assignments independently so that he could play in the Juárez festivals.
Like Ruiz, Moreno has seen fewer customers buying his family’s artisan goods.
“We used to sell crafts but now it’s just music,” Moreno said. “We were artisans but we did not have a chance to sell (our goods).”
When they are not playing official functions, the family performs for donations in the street.
“We play the Indigenous dances like pascol and matachines,” Moreno said. “These are the dances we do in my village so that we don’t lose our traditions.”
Moreno learned to play the violin at a young age by watching his older brother. He has in turn taught his children to play and also makes his own violins, which he marks with the name of his mountain home.
“(Tourists) from other countries would always ask,” Moreno said. “So I put the words on my violin so they would know where we are from.”
José Martinez is also a Rarámuri from the Sierra de Chihuahua. He, his wife, and his brothers-in-law craft items that include woven grass baskets, wooden platters, dolls, bracelets and even food items that they sell. They spend most of their time in Juárez but return periodically to their town of Guachochi, southwest of Chihuahua City, where they learned their skills from parents and grandparents.
Martinez mans his booth behind the cathedral in downtown Juárez for 12 hours a day, but said that he makes few sales. “People ask, but they don’t buy,” he said. He hopes that people will support the traditional Rarámuri crafts by purchasing the items that they make.
“All of (these products) are made by hand, but we are losing the traditions because people don’t buy our crafts,” Martinez said. “All of this is being forgotten because we sell very little.”
Juárez has some organized events intended to educate the public about Indigenous cultures. The Festival Umuki, in which Moreno and his sons participated, was held at the end of October. This weekend, the Festival de la Radio Indígena will again fill Juárez’s downtown with Indigenous performances, crafts and food.
Approximately 18,000 people in Juárez identify as Indigenous, according to a statement that Pedro Rojas, coordinator of Juárez’s Instituto Municipal de la Mujer, gave to ADN on Nov. 11. This number is largely made up of members of the Rarámuri (Tarahumara) ethnic group from the Sierra of Chihuahua, but other Indigenous people have migrated to Juárez from different parts of Mexico.
Chihuahua’s State Commission for Indigenous Peoples (COEPI), for example, named 11 different ethnic groups in its Directory of Organized Indigenous Communities in Juárez, many of them originally from states such as Oaxaca, Veracruz and Querétaro.
Ruiz serves as an official representative and as a legal interpreter for members of the Otomí community in Juárez, but he is concerned with the rights and cultural preservation for all Indigenous Mexican groups.
“As Indigenous people, we are the root of Mexico. We have many cultures, but we have already lost many cultures,” Ruiz said. “Many of us, unfortunately, don’t dress in our traditional clothes anymore, because we are not recognized. We want (the government) to recognize us. It’s the Indigenous people who raised our voices and our hands so that we would also have rights. We are the original people.”
Martinez, too, emphasizes the significance of Indigenous peoples in Mexican culture, not just in their traditional communities and homelands, but also in urban areas like Juárez.
“The Rarámuri are also the origin of Chihuahua,” he said. “The Sierra is a brother to Juárez and the Rarámuri are brothers to the people in Juárez.”
The Festival de la Radio Indígena will take place in downtown Juárez on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 27 and 28.
Cover photo: José Martinez displays wooden bowls that were handmade by Rarámuri craftspeople in the Sierra de Chihuahua. Martinez and his family make most of the items that they sell in downtown Juárez but also bring wares back from their hometown of Guachochi. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)