San Miguel Designs started in about 2005 and my boutique Abrazos opened in San Miguel in 2010. In 2005 a neighbor asked me to help her get scholarship money for her children. I inquired with many social change organizations, but the demand and the need is so great. So I said, “Dolores, you’re such an outstanding seamstress, I’d like to help you, let’s start making some products and I’ll sell to my friends and at the Instituto Fair.” And that’s how my business got started.
One of the reasons also that I’m proud of Abrazos is because working with one’s hands is real work. I don’t want to diminish other types of real work, but sewing is becoming a lost art and a lost tradition in San Miguel, which was once a center for rebozo makers. If you look at globalization, much sewing is done under horrible (and dangerous!) working conditions in China and Bangladesh.
But our seamstresses work at home an that’s extremely important to them because they are with their children, can work at their own pace and choose their own hours.
We started out with one seamstress and now we have 100. But that’s an exaggeration because we really only have 12 but when the seamstress had a lot of works, she hires her tias (aunts) and primas (cousins) and hijos (children) and vecinos (neighbors). In other words, the seamstress comes each day to Abrazos and receives her production order, but she doesn’t sew every detail. She is the “jefa” who organizes the family and neighbor “crew” but the seamstress is responsible for the quality and timeliness for everything that is delivered. Our standards are high and they are always met.
The seamstresses and employees of Abrazos are each extraordinarily talented and professional. They’re proud of their work in part because they’re working with cultural icons from childhood and with their lineage and traditions which are imprinted on the fabric and from which they sew contemporary products. We began with a Virgin of Guadalupe Shower Curtain, then kimonos, but eventually I discovered Day of the Dead aprons had the highest sales. Now we make handbags, bathrobes, men’s shirts and ties, baby bibs, potholders, pillowcases and computer and IPad covers using a wide variety of Mexican themed and contemporary fabrics that we import from all over the world.
Now we have 50 styles of aprons and 25 products and a lot of people are benefiting. Our seamstresses are independently employed, have status in the families and make significant contributions to their families financial well being. One seamstress is helping to send her husband to law school. But, like any business, we have our cycles and it is my responsibility to always look for other sources of income to keep the seamstresses and our employees working full time.
Our seamstresses work really hard and get paid a fair trade wage. They set their own wages based on how long it takes, and rarely are they asked to adjust the price downwards. People will say to me “It’s so wonderful what you’ve done” and I say, I had the concept but the managers and seamstresses and I deserve equal credit for providing beautiful products. And we are fortunate that we are well received in the marketplace because of our high quality and the originality.
Recently I was interviewed by the New York Times for an article about expats who choose to create businesses abroad, rather than simply retire. I spoke of how having a business abroad has led me to be more fully engaged with the Mexican culture and give back to this community that has given so much to me. Having a business in Mexico makes me more jazzed about getting up each day because I am always learning how to do it better and differently than working in the US. The challenges are great – but the joys are, too.
I’m grateful I stumbled into this business. I used to own an independent book store in Berkeley so I had the skill-set on how to run a small independent business. It was a great life, book-selling is a great life, but so is manufacturing and retail a great way to earn a living. The key to success is to enjoy what you do and be grateful for what you’re given and give it everything creative inside you. It sounds simple but it is not because you have to give 100% of yourself! That’s what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur.
Besides having AbraZos and our website, we sell wholesale all over Mexico. But having a store is a way of being embedded in the community. My San Miguel experience is enriched by talking to tourists from all over the world who come to San Miguel and are looking for something original as a gift to remember this enchanting pueblo. Our motto is “the perfect gift from Mexico”, “el regalo perfecto de Mexico” and that applies to tourists and nationals. Mexicans love our designs.
People have asked me: why do you work with these fabrics? It’s because I’m absolutely crazy for them. I just love the message, the spirit, the traditions that are behind them. I’m crazy about Mexico. I really love this country a lot. It’s been very good to me so I’m happy to support it, promote it, engage in it, contribute to it and immerse myself in my work.