Forty-five percent of Mexico is arid or semi-arid. The Valle del Mezquital, located in the central part of the state, is one such arid region. Four hundred thousand people live there. Eighty-five thousand of them are ethnic Hnahnu (also known as Otomi). The parts of Hidalgo where the Hnahnu live are especially arid and rocky, with thin, alkaline soil. Little agriculture takes place in this region where irrigation is impractical, and only a very few plants native to this ecology provide income-producing resources. One plant which does is the Maguey (agave salminae).

For thousands of years, the Hnahnu have depended on the maguey for materials to produce over 100 different products. The Hnahnu have a deep traditional knowledge of the life-cycle, characteristics and uses of the maguey and its relatives. Some of the products made from it include fibers for weaving, brushmaking and other crafts, construction materials, soap, small furniture, toys, ornaments, food and beverages, paper, medicinal products, firewood and even boundary markers in the countryside. It is due to the remarkable number of products that the plant provides that the locl people call it El Arbol de las Maravillas (The Tree of Wonders).

The Tlachiquero Extracts Agua Miel
From the Heart of the Maguey

Pulque, a fermented beverage produced from the agua miel (literally "honey water" -- liquid that accumulates in the heart of the plant) extracted from the maguey, is consumed almost exclusively within the region. It takes a maguey plant about ten years to mature and start producing agua miel. When the plant is ready a quiote (stem or cane) grows, as high as thirty feet, and bears flowers carrying between three to five thousand fertile seeds. The drama of the maguey, however, lies in the fact that this stem has to be cut before it flowers so that the hole left in the heart of the plant will gather the juice that is agua miel. Without the flowers, the maguey reproduces very slowly. It may produce four or five mecuates, small new plants on runners that develop around the plant. If these are transplanted they can mature and become productive plants. After the quiote sprout has been cut the plant produces the agua miel for six to eight months. Then it dies, and every part of the remaining plant is used.

Of the six to eight varieties of maguey grown in the region, some are suitable primarily for the production of pulque, while others lend themselves to more varied uses, including ixtle (fiber) production.

Maguey fibers are durable and versatile. Traditionally, the most commonly marketed product made from ixtle is rope. The fibers are also woven into large squares of fabric, called ayates, that are tied into carrying bags slung over the head like a tump and used to transport everything from infants to food to fuel. The fabric is woven on the backstrap loom. Ayates are still woven and used by Hnahnu women, who make both the relatively coarse everyday variety and the more finely woven ones given to a bride on her wedding day. Wedding ayates are made from only the longest and finest fibers, those that run down the center of the maguey leaves, or pencas . Many hours of labor go into the making of these wedding ayates, and if sold they can cost over $100 apiece.

Extracting the fibers is an extremely labor-intensive process, in terms of both time and energy. The pencas are typically four to five feet in length and weigh from eight to twelve pounds apiece. Once they are cut, they are roasted on a fire, usually stoked with quiotes and other dried scrap parts of the maguey. Then they are pounded with heavy clubs to loosen the fibers from the fleshy part of the penca. They are piled under heaps of stones, where they remain for two or three days until they're softened. Then they are unburied and, one by one, scraped until the fibers are cleaned of any remaining bits of vegetable matter. Next the bundles of fibers are taken to streams or rivers where they are thoroughly washed. Afterwards they're soaked in a solution of lime juice and cornstarch, to whiten them and neutralize their corrosive alkalinity. Finally they're wrung out and hung on quiote rails to dry.

Once they are dry they can be carded or combed and tied into bundles suitable for carrying around the shoulder while the spinner tends to daily tasks. In this way, any spare minute can be devoted to twisting the spindle to form the fibrous "yarn" called ixtle. When the spindles are full the fiber is transferred onto weaving shuttles, ready to be woven, knitted or crocheted.

Another indigenous plant related to the maguey, the lechuguilla, is processed in a similar manner. Its fibers are shorter and coarser than the maguey fibers, and are traditionally used to make cylindrical brushes. It is not spun, but merely cleaned and bundled for storage until use.

The Economic Context

The exploitation of vegetable fibers for craft production is, at the moment, a viable productive option for the Hnahnu. Other than the income provided by the sale of fiber crafts and other maguey products such as pulque, the only source of cash income for these people is the remittances of migrant laborers. It has been necessary for the people in most Mezquital villages to watch their adult male relatives go off to labor in more populated areas, primarily Mexico City, three hours' drive from Ixmiquilpan the region's market town. Some of the younger women are also starting to leave the village, to work primarily as domestics.

Recently there has been an increasing national and international interest in vegetable-fiber crafts. There is, for instance, a market for 3000 small ayates (one square foot of woven fiber) per month on the West Coast of the United States alone. These ayates are used for body-care products, washcloths, etc. Bathing mitts of maguey fibers have great marketing potential with American and European consumers. The efforts of the Hnahnu to increase their fiber-product income have borne fruit, and several developments have led to the presence of these products in retail stores in Europe, Australia and the United States. A cluster of producer groups in the heart of this region, for example, has been particularly successful in developing a relationship with a large foreign buyer, and they have done so through an Alternative Trade Organization committed on principle to somewhat unusual trade practices, practices which favor producers far more than those operating in traditional interactions.

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