Chiapas handcrafts and folk art is most represented with the making of pottery, textiles and amber products, though other crafts such as those working with wood, leather and stone are also important. The state is one of Mexico’s main handcraft producers, with most artisans being indigenous women, who dominate the production of pottery and textiles. The making of handcrafts has become economically and socially important in the state, especially since the 1980s, with the rise of the tourist market and artisans’ cooperatives and other organizations. These items generally cannot compete with commercially made goods, but rather are sold for their cultural value, primarily in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Chiapas is one of Mexico’s main producer of handcrafted items. One reason for this is the wide variety of raw materials such as minerals, wood and various clays. Culturally, the most important reason is the various indigenous ethnicities that are found in the state, which has one of the highest indigenous populations in Mexico. In general, the handcraft producers are indigenous, mostly living in the Los Altos (Highlands) region. This area lacks industry, so handcrafts play an important role in the economy, alongside agriculture and work in service occupations. In addition, many indigenous see handcraft production as a way to preserve traditions. While men are generally found making certain crafts, such as those from wood and leather, the two main handcrafts, pottery and textiles, are dominated by women. More than 80% of the small scale artisans are women who make textiles and pottery.
These textiles cannot compete with those produced in Asia and other places in terms of price, so they are sold as cultural and social objects. Like in other parts of the country, many handcraft sales are to tourists and collectors, who often want a piece of Mexico’s indigenous and popular culture, such as blouses made by women of the Chiapas highlands. These are then often paired with modern clothing, such as jeans. The main market for handcrafts is San Cristobal de las Casas. The Real de Guadalupe Street in this city is filled with vendors selling handcrafts. These vendors are mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish) and belong to families that established themselves one of the main streets of the city.
The creation of a souvenir and collection market for these handcrafts have given them socio-political significance. Some artisans have become well enough known to travel to the United States and Europe to exhibit and sell their wares. Many of these buyers do so in solidarity with political movements such as the Zapatistas and indigenous rights. In 2002, a group of artisans from San Cristóbal de las Casas won the UNESCO Handcrafts Prize for Latin America and the Caribbean, with a handwoven and embroidered textile collection entitled Juegos Blancos.
The making of handcrafted items extends back well into the pre-Hispanic period, but it was under Spanish rule that one craft, textiles, became an important tribute item, with women obligated to work in workshops to create items solely for Spanish that owned the land on which they lived. This practice was banned by the middle of the 16th century, with the work being done instead in individual households, but still with little or no pay.
Since then, the designs of most handcrafted items have become markedly mestizo, but, they still have relationships with the various indigenous peoples of the state, such as the Lacandons, the Chols, the Tzeltals, the Tzotzils, the Tojolabal, the Chuj, the Jacalteco, the Mame and the Motozintleco.