Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Working to His Heart's Content

Roberto with his newly tanned hides
Roberto Sanchez is a curtidor (tanner). He learned his profession from his father many years ago, but left it temporarily to explore other occupations. He tried working in the campo (fields), construction work, and a few others, but eventually he came back to tanning when he was forty. He spoke to me in Spanish, but his mother tongue is Diidxazá, el Zapoteco del Istmo de Tehuantepec. "A mi me encanta trabajar" (I love to work)he told me. "When you work in the campo or construction, you can't work when the weather is bad. But with tanning you can. That is what I like best about this job".

He is on the job each morning at six dressed in shorts, a tee shirt and barefoot. His routine varies from day to day depending on where he left off the day before. Tanning is long process; there are hides to clean and prepare after they arrive from the slaughterhouse, others to cover in lime and soak in holding tanks, and still others to sew and sink for curing. You cannot rush things if you want to do a quality job. 

When I mentioned to the local Juchitecos that I was going to photograph a curtidor, they all reacted in the same way: with a wrinkled up nose and a nauseous look on their face. "¡Huele horrible"! (It smells horrible). "Be prepared". And they were right. I found it tolerable, but just barely. I asked Roberto if the odor bothered his neighbors. He said that when he first set up in el barrio de Las Pilas, he was alone in the monte (hills). But as people moved out of the city, those who moved near him were upset and wanted him to move. "They knew I was here and what my work was", he explained. "They didn't have to build here". 

Besides the disagreeable odor, there are serious environmental and health hazards, depending on the process used. The vast majority of tanneries use chemical and organic compounds that are detrimental to the environment and the people who live in it. They also use  large quantities of water and produce a vast amount of pollutants. But Roberto is proud of the fact that his process is puro natural. He uses no chemicals; he even uses the waxy substance in a bull's horn to lubricate his needle when he sews the hides.

Hides are purchased at the slaughterhouse in Juchitán. When they arrive at Roberto's, he needs to clean the hides before they are treated with lime and put in a holding tank for two weeks. This will soften the leather and make it suppler. Next the hides are put in a clay pot filled with water and corn masa to soak for three more days to remove the lime.

When the hides are removed from the masa, they are sewn together with an opening at the top so they can be filled with water and submerged in a final holding tank for another six days. The bark of the Guamúchil tree (Pithecellobium dulce), which grows right outside of Roberto's tannery, is ground and added to the water to further soften and preserve the hides.

The final stage in the process is drying the hides before transporting them ten hours away to Veracruz to sell. The are purchased primarily to make saddles and other equestrian equipment. As hides become harder to come by, the price goes up. People come from a distance to buy hides at the slaughterhouse in Juchitán. Roberto's natural process yields a high quality product that continues to sell well, despite the competition. He is proud of his work and the fact that he is not harming the environment.

The pale white hides floating in the murky, brown water made me wonder how working in this every day affected Roberto's health."The Guamúchil bark has medicinal properties", he explained. "People come here from far away to get the bark to treat infections and skin diseases. It's good for me".

Roberto end his ten hour day tanning hides with a cold, well deserved, forty ounce caguama of Corona. The heat is intense and his day has been long. It is time to relax a bit and then clean up. He will be back on the job again at six in the morning, rain or shine. That is what he loves about his job: he can work to his heart's content.


Lisa Ede said...

Another fascinating portrait. Thanks so much!

Quena said...

Great post pops! I love the shot of the working hands!

Alice said...

fascinating. we really are disconnected from where our leather comes from. thank you for the connection! Can the next blog be about the wedding????