Puech Ikots (Words of Our People) Collective Brings Economic Hope to Oaxaca’s Remote Highlands

Jenny Smith and I bumped into each other online.  Virtual worlds connecting, so to speak.  There was a strange name linked to hers:  “Puech Ikots.”  It peaked my curiosity and I discovered this artisans collective making alebrijes (fanciful carved and painted wood figures) in the remote mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur.  That presented a whole world to discover and started our dialog.

Anteater by Ofelia Hernandez Ruiz, $250

Here is the story about Puech Ikots in the form of Q & A.

Note:  To inquire about sizes and to purchase contact Jenny Smith.  If you have trouble with the link copy and paste this:  jmsmith325@gmail.com

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator: How did Puech Ikots get started and why?

Jenny: Puech Ikots means “words of our people” in the Huave language of Oaxaca. Carlos Orozco, my co-facilitator in the project, is an indigenous Oaxacan of Huave descent.  The project was created by Carlos with my help in 2009.  Our goal is to contribute to the self-determination and economic independence of indigenous artists in Oaxaca, while also giving them the opportunity to develop their craft.  We also want to promote Oaxacan art and culture to the American public in general.  As the translation of Puech Ikots’ name suggests, we feel that the art of Oaxaca is one of the purest forms of expressing the spirit of the place and its people.

White Puma by Patricio Melchor, $175

OCN:  Who is involved with it in Oaxaca?

Jenny: Carlos Orozco directs the project in Oaxaca.  He is an artist, musician, and cultural activist.  The membership of the collective has been fluid.  Right now we have a core membership of six artists who are very committed to the collective.  Over the past couple of years we’ve worked with about a dozen people total.  Historically, we haven’t been limited to one place — we have worked with artists from various locations in Oaxaca state.  Carlos is based in Oaxaca City but regularly travels to remote areas of the Oaxacan Sierra to meet new artists and tell them about the collective. Members are welcome to join or leave at any time; the collective is always open to new members.  The only requirement (as such) for participating is that the artist should live in an area where he/she does not have easy access to traditional tourist markets.

OCN:  Who is involved with it in the States?

Jenny: I am the facilitator and contact person in the USA (Chicago).  Our fiscal sponsor here is the Cuentos Foundation, which is a 501c3 dedicated to fostering cultural understanding and expression through art.  I am part of the board of directors of Cuentos.  The foundation itself is not part of the Puech Ikots project, but we work together on events and we’re grateful for their support.

Seahorse, $200

OCN: Why are you involved?  What motivated you?

Jenny: I loved Oaxaca from the first time I visited in 2008.  I met Carlos during that trip and we became good friends.  He had the original idea for a fair trade/cultural exchange artistic project, and over the course of a year we developed this idea.  I was, and still am, very excited to be a part of it.  I have a strong personal commitment to the concept of fair trade.  It’s also important to me to support initiatives that are local and indigenous-directed.  So for me, supporting these talented people in this organization is an act of solidarity. Puech Ikots is non-hierarchical and based on a “usos y costumbres” model, so decisions in the collective are made by consensus and all collective members have a voice.

OCN: Where is this particular village located in Oaxaca?

Jenny: Sierra de San Pedro Mixtepec is about four to five hours from Ocotlan via pick-up truck.  You can experience a bit of the drive in the YouTube video.  However as I said before, we work with artists in other places as well.

Purple Frog by Patricio Melchor, $200

Porcupine by Jose Hernandez, $300

OCN: How is it different from San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola, the two most famous wood carving villages?

Jenny: Puech Ikots specifically focuses on artists who do not have access to traditional tourist markets such as San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola. We developed the project for this purpose.  We want to support these artists by facilitating their ability to preserve and develop their cultural heritage while also making a living. Puech Ikots alebrijes are sold at prices the artists determine to be fair.  The proceeds are then returned to the members of the collective.  We feel that this is fair trade in its most direct, grassroots form.

OCN:  How does the relationship with the artists work?

Jenny: We do not pay for the art up front.  The artists give their work to Carlos who give it to me to sell in Chicago and I return the money to the community.  There is an enormous relationship of trust in this relationship that is very humbling.  This is thanks to Carlos’ reputation and effort in working in indigenous communities. Carlos and I do not keep any of the profits.  We barely make enough to cover administrative costs (postage, publicity, fees for entering art events, etc).

We are working on addressing issues of sustainability with this model, however.  This is our major challenge right now.  Carlos and I manage the project ourselves, and unfortunately don’t have the resources to pay for the art up front. This means the artists have to wait — sometimes quite a while — to get paid.  The artists know this when they enter the collective, but it can be very frustrating for them when sales are slow.  Some have chosen to leave the collective because they were uncomfortable with the uncertainty.  Carlos and I are working on trying to get cash reserves to be able to pay the artists right away, but it’s difficult.

OCN:  What do you dream about accomplishing?

Jenny: In addition, we also want to pursue cultural programming in Chicago.  We had an event last month at an art gallery in Chicago where I presented video footage of the collective and talked about Puech Ikots, and it was very well received.  We’d like to have artistic events/workshops here too.  Our 2011 goal  is to compile all the video footage we have into a short documentary.  One long-term dream we have is to open a Puech Ikots taller (workshop) somewhere in Oaxaca, where our artists can have a space to work.   We feel that we’ve accomplished a lot in a short time, but there are still so many things we’d like to do!  Really, when we started this project we had no idea where it would take us.  So it’s been very exciting for us to see that there is a lot of interest.

Blue Ram, $175


See the Web site:  www.puechikots.com

Here is a video about the project.  Featured are Patricio Melchor, his wife Ofelia Hernandez Ruiz, and his grandmother, along with Puech Ikots co-facilitator Carlos Orozco.


To learn more about Puech Ikots and how you might help, contact Jenny Smith.

You can also find out more about the Cuentos Foundation at www.cuentosfoundation.org


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