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Duo brings trade to Mexican village

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Singing Shaman Traders sell their Mexican arts and crafts at Global Folk Art in Spokane and the Coeur d'Alene Street Fair in August. They also offer Fair Trade Folk Art house parties with slides of Mexico, an explanation of fair trade and wares to buy. For details or to schedule a party, call (208) 773-5616 or check our their Web site at

Cynthia Taggart
Staff writer
June 13, 2004

WAKING UP IN A FLOOD last year flustered Nancy Spada and Roger Gee, but it didn't dampen their enthusiasm for traveling in Mexico.

A van that was stolen from them in Mexico a few months ago cost them time, money and plenty of aggravation, but they bought another so they could keep traveling. That van broke down, but Mexican ingenuity repaired it in half the time and at a 10th the price of most American garages.

"Doing what we do, we're going to break down," Nancy says in her home overlooking Hauser Lake. "We have to expect it and handle it."

Nancy and Roger travel as easily and with as much determination as water over rocks to keep their promises to Mexican craftspeople and artists. The Hauser Lake pair buys handmade baskets, pottery, jewelry, masks and more at fair market prices to bring back to the United States and sell. They call their business Singing Shaman Traders.

Nancy is a psychotherapist trying to ease out of her stressful career. Roger is a former journalist in search of the perfect life. The two discovered a mutual interest in Mexico when Roger was teaching Nancy to sail her sailboat four years ago. Nancy loved Mexican arts and crafts. Roger loved the Mexican lifestyle and weather.

They decided to head south and buy Mata Ortiz pottery. The ancient art requires a technique a Mata Ortiz villager was able to recreate. He taught his entire village the art. Nancy was awed by the pottery, but even more struck by the adobe houses, dirt streets and humble lives in Mata Ortiz. She bought $1,500 worth of pottery and had no trouble selling the beautiful vessels when she returned home.

A shopkeeper in Leavenworth, Wash., told Nancy about fair trade — business practices that protect producers — after she returned from her second trip to Mata Ortiz. Members of the Fair Trade Federation pay fair wages by local standards, support healthy and safe working conditions and promote equal opportunities for all people.

Nancy understood the need. She'd seen people so desperate for money in Mata Ortiz that they sold their wares far below cost rather than lose a sale. Nancy joined the Fair Trade Federation, which tells her customers she's the only middleman between them and the producers of the wares she sells.

She and Roger fell into a comfortable pattern. Nancy reduced her therapy schedule to two days a week. Four times a year, she flew to Mexico and met Roger, who drove a van to carry home their purchases. Between buying trips, they looked for fair-market stores, including art museum gift shops throughout the United States interested in buying their Mexican arts and crafts. They also sold at select fair-market fairs, mostly on the West Coast.

Last year, a buyer for the Seattle Art Museum's gift shop asked Nancy and Roger for seven dozen baskets in addition to pottery and beadwork. The businessperson inside Nancy assured the buyer baskets were no problem. But she had no source.

"We said, ‘Oh my gosh, what have we done?' " Nancy says, chuckling.

Her travels in Mexico had acquainted her with the Tarahumara, Mexico's second largest Indian tribe. Tarahumara are peaceful people who live in caves, under cliffs and in wood or stone cabins in northwest Mexico's Copper Canyon. Nancy and Roger hooked up with a children's health mission to meet the tribe, find basket makers and buy crafts. They returned a few months later to buy more and took a friend's advice to drive a scenic route into a nearby canyon.

They took along a Tarahumara couple who needed a ride to the hospital. The dirt road was narrow and had no guard rails.

"It was so steep, we could smell the brakes," Roger says. "We had to pull in our mirrors when cars passed the other direction. We were trying not to act scared for our passengers."

After six hours, Roger and Nancy were exhausted. They decided to camp in a warm rain by a river. Nancy awoke as water pushed against the floor of their waterproof tent. They managed to scramble away with their equipment from the rising water and take refuge in their van. But water demolished the road on both sides of them.

In the morning, Mexican drivers stopped at the spot and hopped from their cars to rebuild the road enough for them to pass the damage. Women and children walked as men drove their high-clearance cars over scattered rocks. Roger's van didn't have enough clearance. He finally hired some young men who lived nearby to help by clearing rocks as the van forged ahead. It took them nine hours to reach a town 28 miles away.

"We don't look back at this as negative," Nancy says. "It was an adventure. We knew someone knew we were there and had the resources to help."

They learned to add an extra day to their travel schedules for emergencies, but none hit for another year. Parts on their van died, but Mexican locals fixed their vehicle quickly and inexpensively. Nancy and Roger finally realized the Mexican roads had beaten their van to death. They replaced it, and someone in Mazatlan stole the new one.

The van was full of baskets, tools, bicycles, pottery and their personal items. Roger heard the van start and watched from his apartment window as it drove casually away.

Roger and Nancy called the cops, but got no help. Their Mexican auto insurance eventually helped them file a report four days later. They didn't want to fly home because Roger traveled with their little dog, Chiquita. Planes were full anyway for spring break. They finally rented a car they had to leave in a town with no car rental drop. That cost them $600 for two days. Then, they had to hire someone to take them across the border to Arizona.

Mexican authorities wanted them to pay $4,600 for their missing van. Nancy and Roger produced paperwork stating the van had been stolen, but authorities insisted they couldn't prove they hadn't sold it. The Hauser pair finally walked away from the problem and went to Phoenix. But Roger can no longer drive in Mexico.

"I'm an outlaw now," he says, grinning. "The stolen van was in my name."

Roger and Nancy had to reassess their business plan after the van's theft, but it didn't take them long. The faces of the people from whom they'd bought wares at fair prices never faded from their minds. They knew their business improved lives.

"We made commitments. Tarahumara were waiting. Customers were waiting," Nancy says.

"We had to bite the bullet and start over," Roger says.

They picked up an old van in Phoenix and registered it in Nancy's name. It's had problems, but the Mexican mechanics have fixed it right up. Auto insurance and homeowners insurance finally reimbursed Nancy and Roger for most of their loss. Their commitment to the fair trade business is as strong as ever.

"The longer I'm in it, the stronger I feel," Nancy says. "You feel so impotent in so many other ways, but this is the one way you feel like you're making a difference. And I wouldn't trade the travel and experiences for anything."

Roger figures he's leapt from writing about people's woes to helping solve the problems.

"I'm involved in other people's lives," Roger says. "There's no other way some of them could get their stuff to market."

Still, Roger and Nancy are combining their summer and fall trips south into one this year, and it has nothing to do with their travel experiences.

"It's because of gas prices," Nancy says. "But we'll bring back just as much stuff in a trailer and two car top carriers."


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Buying from Mexico’s poor

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Singing Shaman Traders

By  Rocky Wilson

When Nancy Spada bought a piece of Mata Ortiz pottery at a Spokane auction in 2000 she didn’t know that it was made by some of the poorest people in North America.

She just knew it was high-quality craftsmanship and that she wanted more. She searched the Internet, found the location of the tiny village of Mata Ortiz, Mexico, and drove 2,000 miles in her Subaru to buy more pots.

She found a village of 1,500 people, 300 of them potters, who fired their pots in holes dug in the ground with fires fueled by cow dung. She found artists who were anxious, almost desperate, to sell their pottery.

Spada bought a Subaru full of pots, drove home, sold the art to friends—and in doing so landed a second career as a Mexican folk art importer, which she does under a Hauser Lake, Idaho, business she co-owns called Singing Shaman Traders.

Domestic and business partner Roger Gee says that Spada, a Coeur d’Alene psychotherapist who specializes in clients with eating disorders, “has a desire to help people,” and that desire is now benefiting Mexican craftspeople from Mata Ortiz to Taxco, another 2,000 miles farther south.

“We haven’t made any money yet,” says Gee. “We ought to be a nonprofit.”

That might change.

Spada, 50, plans to retire from her 25-year-old private psychotherapy practice in June and work full time at Singing Shaman. Gee, 62, has worked 30 years in advertising, public relations, reporting and editing. He has freelanced articles for Rolling Stone, Mother Earth News, AP, and UPI, and was a court and crime reporter for Spokane’s KXLY-TV in the early 1990s, he says. He now works full time with the small business.

With extensive experience in Mexico and able to speak some Spanish, Gee joined the business in 2001 and convinced Spada to broaden its importing scope beyond pottery. In addition to pottery from Mata Ortiz, Singing Shaman now imports beadwork and yarn paintings from the Puerto Vallarta area; hand- woven baskets from Creel; silver products from Taxco, Mexico’s major silver producing city; and textiles from the LaPaz area on the Baja peninsula.

Goods are sold to museums and specialty import stores, plus at trade festivals and invitation-only, in-home parties.

Spada and Gee make three or four trips to Mexico every year, normally in March, June, and September, and last year in December.

One thing Spada accomplished during the infancy of the business was to have it become a member of the Washington D.C.-based Fair Trade Federation, which the couple say is committed to providing fair wages and employment opportunities to low-income artisans in Mexico. Singing Shaman buys directly from the artisans, trying to eliminate as many middlemen in the process as possible.

“The potters and the weavers set the prices,” says Gee. “We pay what they ask and do not barter.”

Because of the 5,000 miles of travel involved in one round trip to buy merchandise, Gee says the March, June, and September trips are made to Mata Ortiz and Creel, (last December’s trip was the first annual to LaPaz), and goods from the company’s southernmost sources of Puerto Vallarta and Taxco are shipped to Singing Shaman’s Hauser Lake base from buyers the venture has in those two cities.

The small business grossed just $50,000 in sales last year.

Last week, Spada and Gee set out for their first Mexican trip of 2005, in the third van put into service following the Subaru’s inaugural voyage. One vehicle was stolen in Mazatlan in 2003, just one of many tales the couple have to tell about their adventures in Mexico. For the first time, they are now towing a 5-by-8-foot trailer that will enable them to double the amount of goods they can bring back, says Gee.

The business caters to middle-income buyers with the cost of pots ranging from $2 to a collector’s gallery high of about $400. “Our average pots sell for $30 to $70,” says Gee.

Singing Shaman sells to the Museum Stores Association, of which the Seattle Art Museum is one of its biggest clients, and to Fair Trade Federation stores in about 20 states.

The business also set up its 10-by-10-foot sales tent at about 20 Northwest festivals last summer, but will do fewer shows this year. House parties, much like Tupperware parties, at which eight to 15 people come into a private home for a slide show, wine, cheese, and crackers, will become more and more of a selling tool this year, Gee says. He says such gatherings, which generate a fair number of sales, also provide good opportunities to educate people about the Fair Trade Federation.

Mata Ortiz is located at an elevation of 8,000 feet and became a major pottery center thanks to the efforts of one man, Juan Quezada, says Gee. Quezada became a world-class potter, then proceeded to share his skills with others in the village.

Gee says Juan Quezada pots are “literally worth thousands of dollars apiece,” but are now in the hands of collectors and rarely are sold. “You can look at 20 pages of Mata Ortiz pottery on eBay and not see one Juan Quezada,” says Gee. He says Singing Shaman buys pots annually made by a niece and a sister of the storied pot maker, though their pots don’t approach the same quality.

When Spada and Gee drive into the isolated village, their van is immediately recognized, and pot makers approach them in droves. The artists in Mata Ortiz are so desperate to make sales that the couple never gets any peace, says Gee. He says the two or three days they spend in the village deciding which pots they will buy are “exhausting.”

They next drive about 300 miles southeast to Creel where, asserts Gee, one of every five Tarahumara children die of starvation. There they buy hand-woven baskets, and the actions of the residents are totally different than in Mata Ortiz. Instead of constantly crowding around and politely waiting to be recognized, “the Tarahumara sell by indifference,” says Gee.

Children as young as 3 years old peddle the baskets while adults stand back. A tourist train runs through Creel, giving children an opportunity, with some help from their mothers, to sell baskets through the train windows to tourists who don’t disembark. Once the train moves on, says Gee, he and Spada buy all of the remaining baskets available for sale, an average of 30 to 40, he says.

Other baskets, drums, and pieces of art are purchased and carried out manually after the Singing Shaman Traders hike about two miles from Creel to an even more isolated village.

While traveling, Spada and Gee routinely buy bracelets and trinkets from children, what they call “mercy buys,” which are rarely of a quality for resale.

One of the couple’s biggest tribulations came in 2001 when, acting on “bad advice,” they drove 40 miles into Copper Canyon, which Gee says is a series of five canyons deeper and bigger than the Grand Canyon.

They drove on a steep, rough, one-lane road with a sheer cliff on one side and, at times, a 6,000 foot drop-off on the other, says Gee. “We had to pull in the side mirrors to make it,” he says.

On the bottom, they camped—and were greeted that night with a flash flood that tore out much of the road both in front of and behind them. The trip out was slow, with countless stops to throw rocks out of the way, he says.

The future is looking good for a business now headquartered in a home and small shop, says Gee. Orders are coming in earlier this year than ever before, and many new customers have found the company on the Internet, he says.

Singing Shaman now contracts for secretarial services and for the manufacture of fleece bags used to protect pottery on the long drive back from Mexico.

“We hope to grow and hire some more support staff in the future,” says Spada.

When the pair return from their March buying trip, they plan to move their studio to a 30-by-40-foot metal building at nearby Newman Lake that they’ll use as a packing station, storage area, office, and show room.
















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