Mexican handicrafts come in all types and styles. In our Photo of the Week, Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende show the wonderful sense of color, the embroidery tradition and the hand-sewing skills of their Otomi Indian creators. This is Mexican folk art at its most authentic.
Otomi women can regularly be seen selling these beautiful and creative handmade dolls, as well as other Mexican handicrafts, all over San Miguel, especially in the streets around the Jardín, or central plaza. These sales represent a significant addition to their families’ cash flow.
The Otomi Indians were here on the land where San Miguel now sits long before the Spanish came, saw and conquered. They are one of the oldest and largest indigenous groups in central Mexico and have inhabited the area for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The ancient Cañada de la Virgen pyramid and burial site near San Miguel was constructed by Otomis. This recently excavated archaeological treasure is the northernmost pre-Columbian site ever found. It dates from approximately 530 AD and was abandoned around 900 AD.
Many of the rancho villages around San Miguel in the central state of Guanajuato are populated by Otomi Indians. I have met many of them personally, much to my joy. My friend Doña Maria Tovar, who lives in the rancho village of Agustín González, just outside San Miguel, is a full-blooded Otomi. Her parents spoke only Otomi, so she learned the language as a child, along with Spanish. But when she married, her husband forbade her to speak Otomi at home. He wanted his children to speak only Spanish, like good Mexicans. So her adult children now do not speak the language of her birth. But here’s a nice irony: her grandchildren are now studying Otomi in school. The government is trying to insure that the country’s many indigenous languages don’t disappear. Many times I have heard Doña Maria’s young neighbor Stephanie sing the Mexican National Anthem in Otomi.
The Otomi Lifestyle – Ancient in Many Ways
The people on these ranchos are predominantly subsistence farmers, growing their crops using the ancient and highly sustainable milpa system. Three crops are planted in the same field: corn (maize), beans and squash. As the corn sprouts and begins to shoot up, it provides support for the beans to climb. As the beans and corn grow, their leaves provide shade for the young squash. Finally, as the squash grows full, its large leaves shade the soil to keep down the summer heat and hold in the moisture. Each of the three crops adds different nutrients to the soil, benefiting them all.
I have met many farmers who use this system successfully, assuming the weather cooperates. They are almost wholly dependent on a good summer rainy season, since they don’t irrigate their crops. The staple diet in these villages populated primarily by the descendants of the Otomi includes the corn, beans and squash from the field, rice, nopal cactus (with its beautiful tuna fruit in summer), homemade cheese (from both cow’s and goat’s milk), fruit (often from their own trees), eggs from their own chickens and vegetables from the garden. Meat is generally only eaten for holidays, parties and other special occasions. But then they will go all out and cook an entire pig all day long for delicious carnitas, besides roasting huge numbers of chickens to serve with mole.
Cash can be a rare commodity in these Otomi villages and is always needed to buy the things they can’t grow or make themselves. If you visit San Miguel de Allende, keep an eye out for the Otomi women selling this authentic Mexican folk art in the streets around the centro. These delightful stuffed fabric dolls make a wonderful and colorful souvenir. They’re lightweight, don’t take up much room in a suitcase, and will be a great reminder of your trip to Mexico. Plus you will have the joy of knowing your money has made a difference in the life of a true indigenous descendant of the ancient Otomi people of central Mexico.
For a closer look at life in the rancho village of Agustín González, whose people are mostly of Otomi stock (including a glimpse of my friend Doña Maria), check out this video of the Rancho Tour. Sixteen women in the village have also formed Las Rancheritas craft cooperative to sell their handmade hooked rugs.