Local artist teaches at Long Beach conference

By Charlotte Bell

If you saw Bonifacia Tovar sitting among the guavas and papayas in a Mexican market, she would look like any of the local women of the area. Boni, as she is affectionately called, is pureblood Otomí, one of the ancient tribes of Mexico. Her squat form and round cheeks are typical of this ethnic group, which built the thousand-year-old pyramid located three miles from her village of Agustin Gonzales. Her life has not been easy. She has tended cows, planted and cultivated acres of corn and bean plants by hand, and worked as a maid. She was born in 1955, has never married and lives in the family home that she shares with her mother and two unmarried siblings. She is the sole provider. The amenities of the house are a fire pit for cooking, two tables, plastic chairs, beds, a few crude shelving units, and blankets for doorways. There is no plumbing. Although financially poor, they are a happy, generous, and incredibly courteous family.

Life for Boni took a turn in 1998 when an opportunity arose. She and other women from her village were visiting Desarolla Integral de la Familia (DIF), a government-sponsored social service organization, when they learned of a class teaching rug hooking. This sparked their interest as a possibility to make some income and they took the initial class sponsored by Mujeres en Cambio. Little did she know that in 15 years she would be teaching her method of hooking to students at the biennial conference of Association of Traditional Hooking Artists (ATHA) in Long Beach, California.

The group, Las Rancheritas, consists of 16 women and Boni as the organizer. They are Mexico’s only rug hookers and sell their rugs at art shows in San Miguel and at their own store in the village. Most of their sales, however, are at events in the US, where I help with marketing. It was at one of these events in Texas that Gene Shepherd, one of the instructors, became enamored with the rugs. It was Gene and the California group who invited Boni to teach at the 2013 ATHA event in late September. After a long and tedious process, she was granted her visa three weeks before the conference began.

I flew out to meet her and serve as her support and translator. Boni has rarely traveled further than San Miguel, and it was a moving and eye-opening experience for both of us. These were some of her firsts: plane ride, stay at a hotel, tub bath, shower, ride on an escalator, view of the Pacific Ocean, boat ride, visit to an Aquarium, and her first ever meals without tortillas, to name a few. When we first walked into the Hyatt Hotel, it took her breath away. She had never seen anything like it.

Everyone gave her a warm welcome. People would come up to her in the lobby to shake her hand and greet her. Vendors gave her expensive hand-dyed wool, hooks, hoops, and a cutter. A couple of people slipped me money to give her anonymously. I know that in the months to come, my front porch will be inundated with wool donations.

Boni’s class, Hooking off a Frame, was a great success. Most hookers use frames to stretch the base material. Boni just does it in her lap. Using her technique allows the artist to hook anywhere, since they do not need to use a cumbersome frame. They were very pleased with the class.

Sharing a hotel room with her for four days gave me a closer view of her as an individual. One afternoon she asked my why it was 4pm in San Miguel and 2pm in Los Angeles. She knew a little about the solar system but did not know that the earth rotates, creating day and night. I proceeded to explain by using hotel coffee cups and drawing a map on hotel stationery. She was fascinated, and when we saw the simulation in the Aquarium of the Pacific the next day, she pointed with pride at the rotating globe. She understood. This doubled my dedication to the mission of Mujeres en Cambio: education of girls. Education raises women out of poverty by giving them a sense of personal power and economic independence. My work with Las Rancheritas has shown me how difficult it is for women like Boni to ask for what they want and need. Poverty is the ball and chain, but education provides the wings to raise women up to a new and better life.

Here is the thank you letter that Boni wrote.

“I would like to thank all of you who invited me to participate in the ATHA conference as the humble representative of Las Rancheritas, of whom I am a member.

For the past 31 years, I have had to work very hard to support my mother and brothers after my father died. Mujeres en Cambio gave me wings to rise above my simple life by showing me how to be a rug hooker. I also thank Charlotte, my second mother, who has helped me on my path in making my rugs.

I cordially invite you all to Mexico. I, as your good friend, extend my hand to you and await your arrival.

I hope to see you soon.

Bonifacia Tovar”

Look for the rugs of Las Rancheritas at Instituto Craft Fairs or make an appointment to come to the village. To learn more about the group: www.rughookproject.com. View a video of Boni’s trip at: http://therughookproject.blogspot.mx/.


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