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These shoes are made for walking: with Pintando Pasos, an indigenous community underlines artistic talent while turning a profit.

As a child, Noe Leyva Vera, president of the United Association of Mixtec Engravers, practiced his painting skills on the dried bones of dead animals. Despite slim resources, he painted away. Years later, he went on to art school and honed his talent on more traditional materials.

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Now he's back to painting less commonplace canvases: Converse tennis shoes. Leyva is one of 12 Mixtec artists who paint hi- and low-tops alike with Pintando Pasos, a philan-thropic joint-venture of Converse de Mexico and Leyva's group of Mixtec artists.

Shoes, paints and the resources to sell the product around the globe are donated by Converse de Mexico--an initial investment of US$400,000. The artists take care of the rest. Leyva and 11 other indigenous artists from Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, design and hand-paint each original pair. Three other artists design the packaging, made of traditional textiles.

The sneakers, a footwear icon since Converse's fifties-era domination of U.S. basketball courts, sell at the company's stores as close as Presidente Masaryk and as far-flung as Japan and Italy. And the profits of all 'walking works of art,' which retail for US$250-300 per pair, are managed directly by the artists who paint them.

The program has had high-profile support from the start. Recognized Oaxacan artist Juan Alcazar helped the artists tailor their skills to the Converse canvas with workshops and classes. After debuting in November 2004 at a well-attended opening at the Museo Rufino Tamayo, the shoes were touted by such pop-culture icons as Benny Ibarra, Juanes and Ely Guerra. Worldwide distribution followed. When over 200 pairs of shoes in the first batch sold, the painters went back to the workshop to create more. They have continued to produce embellished tennies at a rate of 80-100 shoes per month.

The shoes continue to sell. The proceeds bring a steady flow of income to the 15 families of Pintando Pasos artists--and more. A percentage of the funds head straight to a collective bank account, from which supplies are bought.

More importantly, the saved money purchases time. Proceeds allow participating artists to offer free community art classes, youth workshops and 'cultural rescue' events. November brought a Day of the Dead event in which surrounding communities competed to create the most authentic and creative traditional altar. The town's patamandones--the traditional authorities--lorded over the event. More than an artistic competition, it morphed into a forum for the different generations in the Mixtec village.

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"We are going to rescue what we have lost," vows Leyva. "We are focusing on the next generation."

The infusion of artistic energy has rippled through the community. Classes and competitions helps recall fading traditons through artistic expression. The focus on youth deincentivizes drug use and migration in an area where numbers are diminishing. And, after a year of the project's success, sustainability is becoming a reality.

"The idea is that the artists become self-sufficient enough not to need Converse," says Sara Cuellar, spokesperson for Converse de Mexico.

The future of the project involves more of what's happening right now. At the beginning of December, Leyva represented Pintando Pasos in Amsterdam at Holland's Second Exhibition of Latin American Design. Leyva didn't come back to Mexico empty-handed: The festival's judges awarded Pintando Pasos the prize for Best Social Responsibility Project.

Leyva attests that the visibility of the project has opened other doors for the Mixtec artists--like the cow they painted for Lala Mexico Cow Parade 2005. It currently grazes in front of the Anthropology Museum on Paseo de la Reforma. He believes that other companies can find other groups in their branch of business and widen opportunities for communities across Mexico.

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"The future depends on driving culture, art," explains Leyva. "We are creative, we have been creative since our birth. But it does not serve for anything if it is not being used and consumed. We can't live on applause alone. We have to put food on the tables and continue to grow."
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Article Details
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Author:Cooke, Julia
Publication:Business Mexico
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2005
Words:668
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