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Art that Makes a Difference

Women Helping Women in Mexico 

Woman making jewelry
Photo courtesy of Huichol Center for Cultural Survival.

In Sayulita, Mexico, a Pacific beach community best known for its full moon parties and surfing, former anthropologist turned jewelry designer Susana Valadez is busy raising funds for indigenous Huichol women through her non-profit project, The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts. For travelers interested in high fashion jewelry and community development, the project site (in Huejuquilla el Alto, Jalisco) and Galeria Tanana (in Sayulita an hour north of Puerto Vallarta) offer excellent opportunities to assist in empowering local indigenous women.

Rich Cultural History

Mexico’s Huichol people are members of an autonomous and resilient culture that dates back to pre-Columbia times. It is a culture rich in art, symbolism, folklore, plant knowledge ,and spirituality. Many anthropologists consider the population—whose 15,000 people inhabit the remote mountain canyons of Jalisco and Nayarit—to be one of the most intact tribes in the Western Hemisphere.

When Valadez arrived in the region from California in the 1970’s to study Huichol culture and customs, she found the ancient heritage on the verge of extinction. Many Huichol were abandoning their villages in search of jobs and with the breakdown of family and community, many children were losing their oral traditions, language and ceremonial life. Valadez decided to stay in Mexico and do what she could to help.

Since 1981, her grassroots non-profit project has been actively working on ways to preserve the traditional Huichol way of life. An important part of the project is the revival of their arts. The Huichol are known for their beautifully intricate yarn paintings and bead work. When producing a yarn painting, artisans may ingest peyote so that they can travel and talk with the spirits. Reindeer often figure in Huichol designs signifying contact with the Gods and that such communication is sacred. Huichol beadwork is very laborious and is created with tiny beads woven in complex designs. Much is museum quality.

But economic self-sufficiency through the sale of such artwork was slow to materialize.  

“I realized that although women were spending hours or even days creating their pieces, sales remained slow,” says Valadez. “The community was still struggling.”

So she decided to do something controversial.

“I decided to experiment with different colors,” she says “Although the traditional primary colors had a long legacy in Huichol history, the color palette wasn’t popular among purchasers outside the community.”

So the artisans began to experiment and diversified into more muted pastel shades.

High Fashion Helps Out  

The modified jewelry was a hit in the fashion world. High quality Huichol necklaces, earrings and bracelets began appearing in fashion pages around the world. Today, the gallery in Sayulita has several magazine covers from Vogue, Elle and other major publications featuring models wearing the redesigned Huichol jewelry. The gallery continues to sell a selection of both traditional and modern designs.

Galeria Tanana
Photo by Michele Peterson.

“Some people have been critical of the community’s choice to modify the designs,” she says “but all I have to do is remember the children’s hungry swollen bellies from the past and I don’t regret it for a minute.”

Although economic circumstances have improved, Valadez continues to assist the community in its efforts to preserve its culture. One new focus is on youth. Innovative projects such as computer-aided design are popular among teens who are at particular risk of losing interest in traditional arts. Boxes of note cards featuring designs by this next generation of artists are also available for purchase in the gallery.  

Whether you choose to volunteer in the community project or show your support by making a purchase of a Huichol work of art, you can be sure you are helping to preserve a valuable part of our collective global culture.  

For more information on getting to Sayulita, accommodation, and activities:

The Huichol project welcomes volunteers who are fluent in Spanish. Skills needed include teaching English as a Second Language as well as advanced computer skills in programs like photoshop or website design and creation. All volunteers must be willing to contribute to their own transportation, food, and accommodation expenses.

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