I recently took a trip to colonial Oaxaca, Mexico, which is a place I highly recommend for a budding suitcase importer to find their feet. The villages surrounding the city are home to some world-renowned artists, and each village specializes in a different type of folk art. My goal going in was to pay for the trip and expenses with the folk art I bought and still make a good profit. With that in mind I searched for pieces that could be resold for triple the purchase price.
Although I’ve had my purchases shipped home on occasion, generally I’m a suitcase importer. By traveling with few clothes, plus an empty suitcase, I’m able to safely carry my finds back and stay under the U.S. import free tariff limits.
Just a 30-minute drive from Oaxaca, in the village of San Martín Tilcajete, you’ll find a folk-art tradition unique to the Oaxaca area. Alebrije are meticulously detailed wooden figures, often depicting impossible and magical beasts painted with brightly-colored, intricate designs.
One of my favorite alebrije artists is Zeny Fuentes, a renowned third-generation carver whose family workshop offers many fine-crafted pieces that will sell for a nice profit. For example, an elaborately painted rooster from the Fuentes workshop costs just $12.50 and will resell in the U.S. for $65 due to the artist’s fame.
Nearby lives artist Norbarto Fabian Xuana and his family, who share their outdoor carving and living area with a friendly herd of goats. Norbarto creates a variety of smaller carvings, including some intricately-painted geckos, ranging in price from $9 to $37. In the U.S., they will sell for $35 to $95 each.
Farther south is the village of Ocotlan where I met Joseina Aguilar, a master clay artist whose work has been renowned by aficionados of Mexican folk art for years. She lost her eyesight in 2014 but unbelievably continues to create beautiful collectible figures. Her artist daughters help out by providing the fine details and painting the final pieces. I bought several exquisite pieces of art from the Aguilar family for just $10 to $22, incredibly inexpensive for highly-coveted work. Although I purchase nearly all imports to sell, I will keep these treasures for my own collection.
Of course, a trip is never just about shopping. I broke for lunch in Ocotlan’s main market and to feast on the traditional chicken enchiladas at La Cocina de Frida cooked up by chef/owner Beatriz Gomez, who is the spitting image of artist Frida Kahlo. I took my time in Ocotlan and visited the home and museum of deceased artist Rudolfo Morales, a surreal painter of rural Mexican culture. In nearby Mitla, I visited the Arbol del Tule, a Mexican cypress tree that is over 2,000 years old and about 15 storeys tall.
Here we paid a visit to the workshop of Rocio Lopez Mendez, who makes an important fashion garment in Oaxaca, the embroidered aprons worn daily by local woman. These gingham aprons are machine sewn with elaborately embroidered lowers and are worn to market and when visiting friends. After trying on some aprons myself, Rocio brought out some special hand-woven blusas (blouses) with beautiful embroidery and colorful yarn stitching and fringes. Priced at just $6, they will sell for $25 to $30.
In addition to the surrounding villages, there was the city of Oaxaca to explore. Among the lovely boutiques was Mujures Artesanas de los Regiones (Female Artists of the Region), representing women’s cooperatives with hand-crafted folk art including woven scarves ($3), handbags ($8), cotton skirts ($9), wood carvings, and pottery.
You’re free to explore Oaxaca’s folk-art villages on your own, but I often recommend aspiring importers to consider hiring a guide, especially if it’s your first visit. In the end, it will save you time and energy, and it’s a great introduction to the local artists in the region.
Mexico’s Oaxaca region is an importer’s dream for a stay of several days or longer. I have yet to sell the pieces I purchased but I estimate I will make just over $900, after all my travel expenses. Not bad for a three-day vacation.
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