Do I Need to Ask? Afghanistan, Peru or Sante Fe?

by Barry Moltz on January 22, 2010

By Mary Jane Grinstead

In Chapter 5 of BAM!, Barry and I write about an idea that we call the Customer Manifesto—our vision of a respectful and mutually understood two-way agreement between seller and buyer that publicly declares the principles and intentions of both.

I had cause to think about a Customer Manifesto last week when I was in Santa Fe on a freelance writing assignment. This was my first trip to New Mexico. Although I’m not usually much for mountains or desert, I really enjoyed Santa Fe—especially the art which is everywhere you look.

Santa Fe is also a very spiritual place; the art and spirituality blend. It seems like everyone—Catholic or not—has religious mosaics on the fences and entryways to their homes. The adobe down the street from where we stayed had a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe over the gate and a fresco of a serpent winding down the exterior wall of the house. Covering all the ecumenical bases, I guess.

On Sunday morning, we drove out from Santa Fe to El Santuario de Chimayó, a Catholic shrine and National Historic Landmark that is also known as the Lourdes of America. Native American legends of the healing powers of this place date back to before the Spanish arrived in the 1600s.

We reached Chimayó and the adobe church just as mass was letting out.

In the courtyard, a sheltered carved wood statue of St. Francis of Assisi reaches out to an allegorical—and as you can see somewhat scary—figure of Death, known traditionally as Doña Sebastiana.

In the chapel, the altar and walls are lovely with paintings and carvings based on Catholic faith and traditions. The artists who create these images are called saint makers. Many of them use natural dyes and colors. The old and new art is at once innocent and emotional.

Since it was Sunday, all the Native crafts stores in Chimayó were closed, but next to El Santuario, there was a kind of trading post that sells icons, handcrafted items, bags of crushed peppers, roasted pine nuts, and, of all things, popsicles. Shelves are filled with sculpted figures and scenes.

While a man enthusiastically pointed out the bags of different peppers, which were well-labeled hot or mild, and explained how the peppers were ground, the woman at the cash register graciously invited me to step behind the counter to better examine the handcrafted figures.

I bought the two bags of medium hot peppers and a small clay nativity scene that reflected for me the simplicity of the art in the chapel. I didn’t ask about the piece I bought, other than the price, and the woman didn’t volunteer any information.

On the way home from Chimayó, we stopped by the side of the road where a group of Native Americans were selling firewood and peppers from the backs of their trucks. There was another man, a few hundred feet away with hundreds of baskets arranged across the ground. The southwest designs were lovely. Even better, the prices he quoted were very good.

“Where are these baskets made?” my friend asked, meaning which pueblo. “They are from Afghanistan,” he answered. “They are very high quality.”

My friend bought a basket because, as she said, she appreciated the man’s honesty. I felt differently. I didn’t want a basket from Afghanistan no matter how lovely or how well priced.

And this is where the idea of a Customer Manifesto comes in.

Back at our adobe, as I went to remove the price sticker from the bottom of my handcrafted nativity scene, I found another sticker that I hadn’t noticed before. It said Handmade in Peru.

The woman who sold me the nativity certainly didn’t make false claims about the item being locally made. If I had asked about its origins, I believe she would have told me Peru. The nativity was still a charming piece. It was handmade and probably by Native Peruvians. But I felt duped.

My friend says that as the buyer, it was my responsibility to ask. Maybe so. But for me, in a place like Santa Fe where the local history, art, and Native American artists are so much a part of the expected experience, when a shop or a roadside vendor offers pieces that are from other places, they ought to say so right up front before the customer has to ask.

How about a sign that says, “We carry goods in this store that are made in many parts of the world. Many things are handmade and local. Many things are handmade from other countries and some things were made by machine. They are priced accordingly.”

A two-way Customer Manifesto is about being honest with our customers. Honest in intent and honest in deed. I agree with my friend that it is also about taking the responsibility to be an informed customer.

In this era of worldwide access, especially as handcrafted goods are inexpensively made and easily shipped, my personal Manifesto is going to be, “I will ask the origin of your goods.”

But I would certainly like the places where I shop to meet me half-way.

What do you think?  How far does the customer’s responsibility extend and where does the seller’s responsibility begin?

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