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Marta's Mission

An advocate for "pratical antrhtopology helps people make a living with what they do best
By Susan Masuoka

Marta TurokBy any measure, San Cristobal de las Casas is remote. Nestled in the fog-shrouded mountains of Chiapas, Mexico's southern-most state, it was here, in 1978, that I first met Marta Turok, J74. I had just finished a master's of fine art at UCLA and Iwas considering a Ph.D. in art history. But before launching into further studies, I wanted to travel-to Mexico, and Central America, eventually to Indonesia and Japan. I had made the extra effort to find San Cristobal de las Casas to meet Antonio Turok at the urging of a friend who had raved about this young photographer, mature beyond his years.

I found Antonio and was indeed struck by his work; he has since gone on to become a world-class art photographer. But I also had the unexpected pleasure of meeting his older sister, Marta, a bright young woman who had recently graduated from a place called Tufts University. We hit it off immediately; we were both interested in folk art, particularly weaving by Mayan women.

I still remember my initial meeting with Marta. Today, more than 20 years later, we are still friends, and I have watched with fascination as she has transformed her passionate interest in folk art into a thriving export business, with special concern for the environment and preservation of the native culture. As founder of the Asociacíon Mexicana de Arte y Cultura Popular-AMACUP-she has become an advocate widely praised for her innovation and drive, winning, for example, the 1998 First Place Mexico City Export Prize for Crafts Export Enterprises. Her success reflects her unique ability to match market demand with craft sources, and to coordinate production, design and delivery. The greatest testament to the difficulty of this task is that no one else had successfully done it before-or has done it since.

Although Marta was raised in Mexico City, her family roots are in Massachusetts. Her parents grew up in the Boston area and her father, Mark Turok, earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry at Tufts (1933, 1934). After the war, the Turoks settled in Mexico City with their first child, Kipi, and Mark established a postcard business. Marta was born in 1952, and Antonio in 1955.

Marta remembers always feeling at home in Mexico, but, during her high school years at the American School, she "bounced back and forth in identity." When it came time to select a college, the choice was easy: her father's alma mater. But when she arrived at Tufts, she grappled with internal questions on four fronts: being Mexican, American, Jewish, and a woman who wanted a career, "not a usual ideal in those days," she says. "But I knew that thinking of myself in the context of Mexico gave me a great deal of satisfaction."

Thanks to Tufts' College Within program, Marta was able to explore her particular interest in native Mexican arts by designing her own course of study. Anthropology, her chosen field, was not yet an official concentration, and through the College Within, she could study what was closest to her heart: preserving traditional indigenous crafts. Marta also felt that before she went back to Mexico to begin a career, a comprehensive senior thesis would give her the kind of credibility that a diploma, course list, or grade sheet could not.

She traveled to Chiapas to research her Tufts senior thesis and there experienced a startling insight. The story, as I remember it, is as follows. Marta and Walter Morris Jr., an anthropological researcher and a MacArthur grant recipient, were sitting in a Mayan weaver's kitchen in the town of Magdalenas, looking at a piece of handwoven cloth. They looked and they looked and they thought about what they were seeing. Then one of them said, "These designs must have a meaning. The meaning may be lost now, but there must be something they once represented."

"I remember how powerful that idea was at the time," said Marta. "We had no evidence, no written record, but I just had a feeling that this was true."

Subsequent research has indeed proved their hunch, that an ancient representational design system was embedded in clothing and ceremonial cloths. The findings support the belief that there is continuity between pre-Columbian Mayan cultures and contemporary Mayan practices.

According to Tomás Ybarra-Frausto of the Rockefeller Foundation, Marta could have built a successful academic career by continuing this Chiapas research. "Instead," he says, "she opted to share this information with the people and pursue 'practical' anthropology, helping people make a living with what they do best." He added, "To me, what she did reflects the true and generous character that is Marta."

Our Paths Cross Again
In 1981, I moved to Mexico City. I was writing features on folk art and fine art-including a piece on FONART, the official Mexican folk art support arm, and another on noted photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo-and acting as a contributing editor for Américas magazine.

While there, I made it a point to reconnect with Marta. We would meet for breakfast in the Zona Rosa-the Pink Zone-over plates of tropical papaya, pineapple and cantaloupe, with mugs of pungent Mexican coffee. We always made sure to get together in early August to celebrate our birthdays.

It was over one of these shared repasts in 1988 that Marta first broached the idea of a new foundation she was thinking of starting.

After Tufts, Marta had worked for a variety of government agencies in Mexico. She had stayed on in various capacities through three six-year presidential terms, developing innovative community projects. By age 32 she had risen to be the executive director of the Popular Cultures Bureau, the youngest woman named to a senior post within the Ministry of Education. Under her guidance, the bureau grew from 300 to 800 workers, handling an annual budget of $1 million and opening 17 regional offices.

One of these programs involved publishing books documenting traditional practices in folk art and popular culture. Under Marta's supervision, the venture had grown tremendously to include topics such as purpura, a rare purple dye obtained from sea snails on the coast of Oaxaca; the tradition of street-performing organ grinders accompanied by trained monkeys; and Northern Mexican charro (cowboy) songs.

Marta also developed another project that reached 500 isolated indigenous communities whose weaving and sewing traditions were increasingly threatened. In cooperation with a nationwide, government-subsidized food distribution system, she had the idea to provide these communities with fabric, embroidery thread and sewing needles.

But Marta soon would no longer be able to continue these programs. With the inauguration of a new president, she would be released from her job, and, this time, she was not putting her hat in the ring for a new appointment.

"These programs had been tremendously successful and I had great hopes for them," said Marta. "But I knew they would probably end up being reduced or phased out. I didn't want to see that happen."

Marta's main concern was that many traditional arts, once handed down from generation to generation, were fast disappearing. Young people looked at the incomes they could earn in urban centers and immigrated to Mexico City, Los Angeles and New York. Marta honored the deeper meanings such traditional arts represented; as she knew, some go back to the great civilizations of the pre-Conquest era. She also knew that these beautiful objects could be useful and desirable in contemporary, cosmopolitan homes.Marta took an optimistic approach. That morning over breakfast she told me that she had already begun assembling a Board of Directors for a new foundation and defining its core concepts.

That step was the beginning of Asociacíon Mexicana de Arte y Cultura Popular, or AMACUP. Taking a cue from the purple dye project, she not only began looking at how to preserve traditional native practices, but also gave serious consideration to sustained environmental survival and economically viable work for the people.

Recognizing the weak link in Mexico between production and market demand, which had a critical impact on artisan income, Marta was determined to bring the goods produced in the countryside to the shelves of international specialty stores such as Esprit and the pages of museum gift catalogues.

Incorporated in 1989, AMACUP now has a yearly budget of $250,000 and has grown to include 12 employees, who work at its offices in the Cuauhtemoc section of Mexico City. Just last year, the company expanded to include a sales boutique in San Angel, offering handwoven baskets, gourd toys, and fine textiles and clothing. Shops in Mexico's tourist centers, such as Cozumel and Puerto Vallarta, as well as The Cabos in Baja, California, carry goods that Marta has developed and coordinated and AMACUP exports to the United States and abroad.

The journey has not always been easy. Marta's convictions, combined with her genuine friendliness and openness, have been allies in helping her convince others that Mexico's traditional arts are worth preserving and could bring precious revenues to rural communities. But that could only happen, she noted, with sophisticated marketing and planning.

"I talked to dozens of people about my ideas, and many were skeptical that I could bridge the gap between these tiny pockets of creativity and the world market," said Marta. "But I knew that many people, particularly consumers in the United States, were drawn to the beauty and the colors of Mexico and its culture."

Marta's persistence paid off. Over the course of a decade, AMACUP has been aided by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S.-Mexico Fund for Culture, and she is currently working with the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) to expand her efforts. AMACUP has also been a rousing success, as attested by the 1997 National Contest Award of First Place in Marketable Products, and a 1998 First Place Mexico City Export Prize for Crafts Export Enterprises.

Christine Kondoleon, J74, now an art historian and curator at the Worcester Art Museum, agrees. "Marta in my memory was a vivid presence on campus, hands always in motion, eyes flashing, great smile and great focus and passion in her words. While many of us at Tufts were in a general state of anxiety, restless with concern about the state of world affairs, the suffering of others, Marta searched for a path and she is still on it. In my mind, she invented the phrase, 'act locally, think globally.' "

David Guss, a professor in Tufts' Department of Anthropology and Sociology and a Latin American specialist, provides a theoretical spin on AMACUP's success. "They demonstrate the paradox that anthropologist Nestor García Canclini refers to when he observes that traditional forms of production have sometimes been revived rather than destroyed by the introduction of the market economy. Such arrangements show the resilience, and not simply the vulnerability, of subsistence economics. While I've never met Marta, I've been an admirer of her work for a long time. She is an international model for the applied anthropological work she does."

A Dream Fulfilled
Last summer, I visited Marta in the elegant fin de siècle home in Mexico City that serves as AMACUP's headquarters. In the basement, her staff was busy counting goods and packing orders for Europe and the United States.

By attending two gift shows a year in the United States, plus two in Mexico, and by tailoring goods to a particular niche, Marta has attracted 250 clients. Among the most popular AMACUP products are gourds carved in assorted designs, such as the whimsical shapes of colorful animals. Handwoven products include sisal nested boxes, rayon-silk shawls and pillows, and vibrant placemats and napkins made of foot-loomed cotton.
While Marta's enterprise might be considered small-scale, it is increasingly attracting wide attention. Three products, including terra cotta platters, Marta tells me, will be featured in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts spring gift catalogue.

"This is part of a dream fulfilled," she says. "I am pleased with the high quality of the products that we make in Mexico; they are beautifully crafted by hand with attention to color, detail and workmanship. I also see young people learning these crafts as well, whereas, twenty years ago, only senior members of communities were taking up these trades. It's been greatly satisfying to see the concept thrive."

Walking me through the storerooms, Marta explains the significance of the products and how they have been developed from traditional practices. "Take this bag," she says, indicating an open-weave shoulder bag about twelve inches square in a luscious orchid pink.

"This was made by women who hand spin and then weave stiff ixtle fibers. They used to weave the cloth into inexpensive scrubbing rags and sell them to local markets, but with the shoulder bag, we found a more elegant and more marketable use for the woven pieces," and, she proudly continues, "they're able to command a much higher price selling to us."

Some summer beach totes in lime green, yellow, natural beige, and orchid pink were another example. Each bag was fastened with a round, hand-carved button cut from a gourd. Gourds, grown on fallow fields in order to bring back nonproductive lands, offer artisans an inexpensive means to carve decorative objects such as the patterned buttons that accented the rustic bags.

We moved on to another shelf. "This is one of my favorite stories," Marta says, pointing to dozens of small candleholders carved from squat gourds. Their glossy lacquer finishes are produced through a traditional Mexican process that uses the oil extracted from chia seeds to create finishes in warm chocolate browns, forest greens and blood reds.

"The families that produce these," Marta explains, "have been so successful financially that the men have not needed to emigrate in order to send money home, like some of their neighbors. We affected the familial stability by giving them a means to keep together. The men do not want to emigrate elsewhere if they can avoid it. They are very happy to be able to stay in their villages. The sons have formed a musical band and are successful locally."

I am impressed by Marta's success. The range of her products and the efficiency of her business attest to a woman who has melded a personal philosophy with solid business sense by adapting traditional practices to satisfy a contemporary marketplace. Lou Casagrande, an anthropologist and director of the Boston Children's Museum, attributes AMACUP's accomplishments to this unusual versatility. "Marta's a tricultural, trilingual activist/anthropologist," he says. "She's also a regional genius for the arts through her extraordinary advocacy for something that enriches many lives. You don't often see these talents brought together in one person."

Adele Simmons, dean of Jackson College from 1969 to 1972, and, from 1989 to 1999, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, concurs, adding, "Marta takes initiative. She has a great deal of energy, passion and ability to make things happen."

For me, Marta's story is also a personal journey. Having followed her struggles over the past 22 years, I have come full circle. From her I gained my first impression of Tufts, and, I am certain, she influenced my decision, in 1995, to leave California and accept a new job as director of the Tufts University Gallery. I, in turn, write to let others know about her efforts to throw a lifeline to Mexican communities, custodians of a rich and wonderful culture. By her compassion, vision and creativity, Marta continues to be an inspiration.

For more information and contacts, visit AMACUP's website

Susan Masuoka is director of the Tufts University Gallery.



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