The craft is called ocoxal. Baskets are made of all kinds of materials in Mexico, based on the plants that are locally available. Many are similar to those made in other parts of the world: others, like the coiled baskets of northern Mexico are recognizable to that region. But those made of pine needles are an equally localized phenomenon, not readily associated with Mexico.
Mexico has millions of acres of pine forests, generally mixed in with other species such as holm oak. These are most prevalent in central Mexico into the north and at higher altitudes including around El Tuito to the south of Puerto Vallarta and east towards San Sebastian del Oeste. Those in central Mexico, such as the border area between the State of Mexico and Michoacan, have an environment that those of us from the Appalachian and some Rocky Mountain states/provinces would feel right at home in.
These pine trees tend to grow very long needles, making baskets a viable product. They have been woven by the Mazahua of this region as well as in some other parts of Mexico (parts of Jalisco, northern Queretaro and Durango). It is the work of the Mazahua which is the best-known and best-marketed.
One of these Mazahua areas is the El Oro municipality, right on the State of Mexico side of the border. It is a former mining area, now best known as a Pueblo Magico and for its proximity to the monarch wintering sites.
The making and marketing of the baskets has been somewhat successful because of the abundance of raw material, as well as their uniqueness. The process of making the baskets begins with the collection of needles. This is limited to the beginning of the dry season, when needles fall off trees and dry out. (Needles are not harvested green or from the tree.) Two species of pine are favored: pinus michoacana and pinus montesume, colloquially called pino teocote and pino chino respectively.
The dependence on naturally falling needles presents some challenges. Pine needles, even from the same species of tree, do not grow the same. Soil conditions and other factors can result is a wide variety of colors and quality. Colors range from rust, to dark brown to an almost blonde. The main challenge is gathering enough quality needles. Most are broken, discolored or otherwise damaged by the elements, requiring the sort to occur on the forest floor. Eight hours of this work yields only about 400 grams of usable material per person. Artisan cooperatives can scour up to 80km2 of forest to collect enough.
Once the appropriate needles are selected, they are cleaned and disinfected with soap and/or bleach. They are then sorted by tone so that finished products can have uniformity. Pine needles baskets and other items are made principally with the coil method. Needles are laid out in a loose roll and then tied together and onto the previous circle to stabilize the structure. Flexibility of the pine needles is an issue principally in the tightest of circles, when needles need to be bent the most. These needles are usually soaked in water, but the effect of cold temperatures on the needles’ naturally-occurring resin is also a concern. In outer circles or straight lines, needles can be worked dry without breaking. The string used to tie the coils together can be of various materials, but in most places, the most common is commercial hemp twine because of its strength and resistance. The cord is worked using metal needles and these needles, as well as the pine needles, can and often do pierce hands.
The time needed to complete a piece depends on size and complexity, but a basic tortilla holder with lid generally takes two people about two days to make. This includes cleaning, disinfecting, moistening and the actual weaving. There are various families and cooperatives in El Oro and other locations that make the pieces. Most sell to intermediaries, but some have been able to organize representation at craft and other fairs to sell more direct to the public. However, the craft is very poorly paid for the amount of work it requires. These craftspeople must do other things, including subsistence agriculture, to make ends meet.
Of all the materials available to these craftspeople the pine needle baskets have had the most success. They are unique and can emit a pleasant smell, especially when moist and recently made. The craft originated for purely utilitarian purposes for auto-consumption. Purely traditional objects and designs are still made and sold, but commercialization has had an effect on this craft like so many others.
The vast majority of artisans’ inventory is modified traditional items or those that are completely new, which is the case in purely decorative works. The most important innovation has been the addition of metal accents. This is recent, probably about 15 or 20 years old. The metal is almost always polished stainless steel, which as been commercially-made specifically for this craft. The accents are found on edges and other parts where wear is strongest, so it has a practical as well as an aesthetic appeal. It is interesting to note that the addition of this cheap, industrial material does not detract from the handcrafted pieces but rather enhances them, especially those made with darker pine needles.
If a piece is used frequently, it can last about 5 years or so. Purely decorative pieces last much longer.
Gerardo Castro is a pine needle worker from the small community of Santiago Oxtempan in El Oro. He belongs to the Xihuatl (pine) Mazahuart organization. He and the organization are Mazahua, one of six core members, employing up to ten more during peak seasons. He is at least the third generation in his family to do this work commercially, but does not feel that it is viable for those generations after him. Central Mexico offers more economic opportunities, which parents want their children to take advantage of. However, Castro hopes the craft can be preserved as a cultural activity.