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Andrea García and Sara Mora of Abuelita Borrego on sharing and modernizing traditional skills 

— As told to Melissa Patenaude

Andrea García (left), with artisans from Chiapas.

Interview

Rethinking traditional artisan crafts.

Paying respect to the people, communities and experiences that brought us the artwork we can touch today.

07/30/2021

Words by
Melissa Patenaude

As part of a ritual to say goodbye, the women... the daughters and granddaughters began to cry “mel chij, mel chij” which is in the Tzotzil language. In Spanish it translates to “Abuelita Borrego”.

Introductions-
Hi! I am Andrea García the founder and creative director of Abuelita Borrego. And I am Sara Mora and I work as design and production lead for Abuelita Borrego.

Andrea:
Abuelita Borrego started about 4 years ago in “Los Altos de Chiapas”. I lived there for a year or so and began to work with communities of artisan women and indigenous peoples, giving product development workshops. The workshops were given by myself, in the communities with the artisans. It was an exchange of knowledge. I did not charge for the workshops and I brought my own material. They wanted to learn. The exchange was that they fed me and paid for my transportation.

The project began that way. The name derives from the original Tzotzil peoples in Chiapas. The women are in charge of taking care of the sheep (sheep is Borrego in Spanish), taking them to the pastures, and cutting the wool to make some textile pieces. They have a worldview that says that all people have an animal presence within them that joins them at a certain point in life. "Abuelita Borrego" is the name that refers to this worldview of women with their special bond with their sheep as they take charge of the animals within their families and their communities.

A few years ago, I went to the funeral of a friend's grandmother in an indigenous town called Zinacantán, Chiapas, where my friend is from. At the funeral, as part of the ritual to say goodbye, the women, the grandmother's daughters and granddaughters began to cry “mel chij, mel chij” which is in the Tzotzil language and translates in Spanish to “Abuelita Borrego”. They called her “grandmother sheep” (Abuelita Borrego in Spanish) because she had her sheep for about 18 years and the sheep always went everywhere with her. Sheep are not long-lived animals. They live about 12 years, so it was very surprising that her grandmother's sheep had been alive for so long. Just after my friend's grandmother died, after 3 days or so, all her sheep died. This fulfilled their worldview that everyone has an animal presence that, at some point our their life, joins us and accompanies us in each stage of our life--as it was the case with these sheep. It is the story of Abuelita Borrego. A story that tries to relate this connection that exists between rural women and their sheep.

Exploring creativity and breaking the mold

Andrea:
My family doesn't have a heritage of art or design. There has always been a creative part in my family that has been hidden and hasn't been exploited. My cousins and I are from a generation that explored that creative part a little more. My family is made of psychologist and administrators, nothing to do with the creative part.

Sara:
My case is very similar. I also do not come from a creative family or from artists. There are some more creative personalities but in terms of careers, professions and trades, there are many doctors and many engineers in my family. So this creative world I am entering is a bit out of the norm. But since I was little, I always had been interested in art, culture and any creative medium to produce, be it graphic content and physical products. Through my educational and work opportunities I have been nurturing my creative self. But I actually have not had that influence from home.

Sara:
I started working with Andrea about a year ago. I study architecture but I was always interested in product design. So I applied to join the team. It didn't work out at the time, but a few months later, Andrea looked for me again and asked me to join the team. This is how I started to participate and get to know the whole process. For the last year I have been fulfilling the role of product design, development of customized pieces and general support with the management of the different projects, whether collections for the brand or custom orders for clients.

The one things that I appreciate the most in both the world of architecture and product design is to create spaces that are more human, less cold, warmer. This matches the vision of Abuelita Borrego, as a personal philosophy and as a philosophy for design and architecture. I like to participate in projects that promote warm, functional, and comfortable spaces that do not feel alien to humans or to the human experience. Spaces that are not intimidating and people you feel welcomed. Both the products of Abuelita Borrego and my intention as a future architect is for spaces that embrace people--not spaces that feel small but spaces in which you feel integrated--and the objects that make it up. That is what I like the most about my work.

Andrea:
Like Sara, since I was little, I was very interested in everything creative, be it art, culture, crafts, things that made by hands. At the age of 17, I began to get more involved in artisan processes here in Guadalajara, such as pottery with local artisans, glass blowing through various workshops that I took outside of school.It was just when I decided to go live in Chiapas that I was able to further explore this part of the artisan processes from its roots.

That was what generated a lot of interest in generating a brand. Beyond creating a brand, being able to show a more human vision in the processes. I saw many designers in Mexico had brands that work with artisans, but they were started from a very egocentric point of view. The sentiment was "I am a designer and I created these pieces". The artisan's work was only valued by the finished pieces. The people who made them, their life context, their processes, what they had to go through both personally and professionally, were not valued. All of these combined elements is how they were able to make the pieces.

I wanted to create a business creating artwork that can show different contexts, and above all, give the opportunity for the artisans to proudly see their work and tell themselves “this is my work and it has an impact”. 

Andrea:
I witnessed this a lot that when I was giving workshops to these women. I would give them examples of brands. Many of them had already worked with these brands, but when seeing their work done in a totally different context from theirs, they did not recognize it. It was a very strong culture shock and point of clarity for me that these women could not recognize their own work.

That's why I started Abuelita Borrego, a business that would operate from a kinder, more genuine, more contextualized vision. A project of warmer colors, pieces that feel like your own and close to you, in contrast to something more alienating. Pieces that can show different contexts, and above all, so the people who made them can proudly tell themselves “this work was done by me”. That same emotion is generated when designing hand-in-hand with the artisans. When seeing the finished pieces, they have this emotion of "my work is here, done, and is having an impact".

"As for the future, I feel that these are artisanal processes that need their time and space to grow. Working with this type of tradition, skill, community, takes time. This is the vision of why I am doing it, I do it for the communities. It's like a religious thing and although we cannot advance quickly, I do consider that many people can value work put into an object and by making this process transparent, I feel that the object becomes much more valuable through history."

- Andrea

More on Andrea, Sara and Abuelita Borrego coming soon.

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