This post is being loaded in two different places at the same time, and with minimal editing. As some of you might know, in addition to the key lime pie business, I am also involved in a project called Manos de Mexicanos. You might be wondering what the connection is between key lime pies and Mexican folk art. It might be a stretch (connecting the two) but in terms of authenticity, I can see it clearly.
Yesterday, Victoria and I took a drive out to a town named Tiotitlan de Valle, about 30-minutes out of Oaxaca de Valle where we’re now residing. We went there to visit one of the artisans we were trying to promote, a gentleman named Fidel Cruz and his wife Maria Louisa. The town itself is where the majority of Zapotec weavers reside, their workshops and showrooms lined up and down the main street and fill the landscape in all directions off to the sides . With very little exception, every shop has a sign outside their place telling people that they give demonstrations on the extraction of natural dyes from indigenous elements, and they do. You’ll even see bundles of raw wool and a spinning wheel, and you might even see a demonstration on this process as well. Very entertaining and convincing presentations, the impression given that the rugs made there are made using these techniques. Showmanship aside, the vast majority of these shops are using pre-spun wool dyed with synthetic dyes. There is no commitment to much other than optimizing efficiency of production and maximizing profits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but to suggest, even insist that the products coming from their shops are made in the traditional manner is nothing less than deceptive and truly lacks any degree of authenticity.
But when it comes to those who actually uses these dyes, not just gives the show, but who is committed to maintaining the tradition, Fidel and Maria Louisa are unwavering. The fact of the matter is, it was Fidel who was at the forefront of the resurgence in utilizing these materials, and with much pride, the Cruz family stands firm in their decision. There is a price to pay for this, as the tour busses bypass Casa Cruz and make way to more fertile (read; profitable) grounds. The other shops give the tour operator 30% or more kickback for any sales, and the shop operator can afford to. Unfazed by this, Fidel and Maria Louisa stand their ground, because for them, there really isn’t any choice. Maybe this explains why Maria Louisa and Fidel are invited to give presentations at such places like San Francisco’s Explolratorium while the other shop keepers stay at home tending to the tour busses.
So where is the connection with key lime pies? Well, there’s a little shop in Key West, actually a very busy shop with tour busses passing by touting the shop as a Key West landmark. The proprietor of this shop gives a demonstration (at least on YouTube) showing how to make a key lime pie. Of course, you can see him squeezing key limes, and making a crust by hand, using ingredients one would use when making a traditional, authentic key lime pie. As with the bulk of weavers in Tiotitlan de Valle, when it comes time to actually making the product on a production basis, the show is the show and the pies get a completely different treatment. Bottled juice, pre-made crust, bottom-line mentality in order to maximize profit while leaving all the authenticity to viewers of YouTube. In both cases (key lime pies and hand woven rugs) there is a deliberate deception, a trickery used to fool the consumer into believing that what goes on in the show is what goes into the final product.
I feel a kinship with Fidel and Maria Louisa in this regard, although the key lime pies are nothing in comparison to the amount of skill and hard work that goes into producing one of their tapetes. There are times when I feel a righteous indignation and I wonder whether the Cruz family feels some of the same. But the thing we have in common is the commitment, the unbending sense of resolution to maintaining what is authentic. There simply is no compromise.
After visiting with the Cruz family yesterday, I know we both share a sense of pride in what we’re doing. We both know that at any given moment, anyone can stroll into our shops and see us in the process of doing what we do. There’s nothing we have to hide, there is no deception or trickery, no smoke and mirrors. I can live with that.