Cosa Buena means ‘a good thing’, and that is exactly what founder Vera Claire intends to create through her collaborative works with indigenous artisans in the Southern region of Oaxaca, Mexico. Cosa Buena’s mission is to provide their customers with access to traditional, Mexican wares, while expanding access to educational opportunities and a broader marketplace for their artisan partners.
Cosa Buena works with several families in small indigenous communities in Oaxaca to design and produce one-of-a-kind handmade pieces ranging from home decor to pet accessories. The carefully curated collection exhibits a refreshing blend of ancient techniques, natural materials, and skillful artistry.
In addition to providing a source of income for their partners, Cosa Buena offers access to educational opportunities for the artisans who handcraft their products– taking what they believe to be a more holistic approach to sustainability. Through educational initiatives, Cosa Buena hopes to empower their artisan partners by providing them with the long-term skills needed to grow and expand their businesses.
Below is a short video made by Sofala Ntweng-Knapton about the company and interview with founder, Vera Claire.
What sparked your initial interest in indigenous artisans in Oaxaca?
My interest in indigenous art began while I was living in South America. I lived in Chile and Argentina, and spent time traveling through Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. During my travels, I made a point of visiting small rural indigenous communities in the Andes. At the time, I was traveling alone, and I was so touched by the warmth of the people who received me in these communities. I was fascinated by Andean textiles, traditions, and medicines– particularly how much they differed across the region.
When I returned to San Francisco, I desperately missed these connections. I wasn’t quite ready to settle back into my life stateside. I started reading a lot about indigenous populations and art forms in Mexico. All signs pointed to Oaxaca, and within a few months, I set out on another solo journey South. I had no intention of starting something in Oaxaca, it all happened rather organically. I spent time in different communities learning about the various art forms and building relationships with families of artisans. These relationships are really what set the wheels in motion for Cosa Buena.
Can you tell us a bit about the problems that indigenous people face regarding their products?
Over the last few decades there has been a growing market for artisan crafts worldwide. While access to a larger market can bring financial gains, it can also be disadvantageous for a number of reasons. One of the most common issues artisans face is the appropriation and mass production of traditional indigenous designs. Large corporations frequently rip off traditional indigenous designs and produce knockoff versions without facing any consequences.
Another challenge they face involves making decisions about the design and style of the objects they produce. Many artisans feel pressured to change their traditional designs in order to appeal to a growing international market. Most artisans want to preserve local values, and their crafts are a means of sustaining deeply held beliefs about their culture and relationships with the environment. However, they may struggle to maintain autonomy over their aesthetic decisions when producing for an international market. Unfortunately, this can lead to artisans abandoning traditional art forms.
This is certainly true in Teotitlàn Del Valle, the Zapotec weaving community in Oaxaca. Today, only about 10 families still practice traditional natural dyeing. As the market for Zapotec weavings expanded, use of synthetic dyes became more prevalent because they were cheaper and less labor intensive. Large scale producers would ask families to make hundreds of the same design, but when you use natural dyes it’s impossible to replicate the same color every time. As a result, many families abandoned the traditional natural dyeing methods. The use of chemical dyes introduces a number of problems such as pollution and health issues. What is even more unfortunate is that they threaten the survival of the traditional Zapotec art form.
Finally, there are many brands and companies that claim to be “fair trade” but exploit artisans. This can range from large corporations to small businesses. I really do believe that people have good intentions, but they are often uninformed. People want to be helpful, but they don’t really understand the community’s needs.
Many of these issues have been the driving force behind my educational initiatives– particularly the English language courses. Language is a powerful tool, often taken for granted. I hope that the curriculum I am designing will help artisans claim their rights, maintain their autonomy, and preserve their traditions.
What differences have you witnessed through the educational initiatives you are providing?
The educational initiatives are designed to achieve long-term goals, so any real change will take time to measure. That being said, some of the immediate benefits can be seen from our artisan-lead workshops. We offer artisan-lead workshops in natural dyeing and weaving, ceramics, and mezcal distillation. These workshops have provided our partners with additional income, and given them a new avenue to explore that isn’t focused solely around selling their work.
I am also developing an English language curriculum for my artisan partners as part of my Master’s thesis. My hope is that these language courses will help my partners grow and expand their businesses with international clients. While the artisan-lead workshops provide short-term gains, this educational initiative has a more long-term focus. Although these initiatives have different goals, they are designed to complement one another. I like to call it a holistic approach to sustainability. I hope in addition to financial gain, this initiative will provide my partners with an invaluable and sustainable resource. Money comes and goes, but no one can take your knowledge, and experiences away from you.
What long-term plans and goals to you have for Cosa Buena?
So many! We’ve just recently launched Entre Sueños our new retreat that combines yoga, meditation, and artisan-lead workshops. We’ve had a great response, and I’m really excited to share this cultural immersion experience. Right now I am in conversations with my University about a partnership that would allow graduate students from my program to pilot their original teaching materials in Oaxaca. We are discussing ways to develop this program as a study abroad opportunity to earn credits. Depending on how the educational initiatives develop over the next few years, I am also considering starting a non-profit subsidiary of Cosa Buena. This may even lead to pursuing a doctorate and making this work the focus of my research. My partner and I definitely dream of one day setting more permanent roots in Mexico, so we’ll see where all of this takes me. There are a lot of exciting opportunities, and I plan to continue exploring them all!
Entre Sueños (in between dreams) is Cosa Buena’s first retreat that you can be involved in, incorporating yoga, meditation, and workshops in ancient art forms.
“For those seeking an authentic & immersive experience, we offer a unique opportunity to connect with locals in Oaxaca’s indigenous communities.”
Find out more about the retreat by following the link below.