Señor Armando is a Mexican huarachero, or huarache maker who will retire soon. When I approached him on behalf of a Canadian company that was interested in collaborating with him to design sandals, he declined and flatly stated he wanted to “work less, not more.”
Huaraches are traditional Mexican sandals. Their origins are unknown, but there are clear design links between modern huaraches such as Mayan Caites sandals and Pre-Hispanic footwear seen on ancient codices. However, the introduction of cheaper factory manufactured goods has taken its toll on sales and income for craftspeople Like Señor Armando who leaves his trade with no one to continue his work or support his business.
Peasants traditionally wore huaraches and even today sophisticated and urban Mexicans consider them poor peoples’ sandals. But woven huaraches like baskets are made with great skill where the woven uppers are woven directly into the sole and not glued like mass-produced shoes and sandals.
The first huarache sandals were simple to make and everyone could make their own. Over the years the original thong designs as the ‘Pata de Gallo’ have developed into complex woven styles such as the ‘Pachuco’ and the ‘Armadillo’ also known as the ‘Costeno’ because it resembles a fisherman’s sandal.
Every region in Mexico has its different style of huaraches, but there is no official count of all the different styles. Traditional woven sandals exist in Japan called “Waraji,” a word that sounds quite similar to huarache and “Kwarachi” the Purepecha word for sandal although there is no evidence of any connection between the traditional Japanese and Mexican sandals.
All woven huaraches are made using a single strip of leather or textile that is woven around through the holes in the sole and no glue is used to connect the woven upper to the sole. There are still plenty of huaraches made in Mexico, but most are assembled in factories where traditional weaving techniques are still used, but thinner leather is used to reduce costs. This progressive reduction of costs has diminished the quality of huaraches, making them crude and disposable.
In the United States there is currently a huarache fashion trend developing, but many of these shoes come from factories, and unfortunately, craftsmen who continue to make huaraches in the traditional manner and using local materials suffer from the economic consequences of mass production.
Trying to find Señor Armando proved to be a difficult task. All the huaracheria owners around Central Michoacan who sold his huaraches refused to tell me who this huarachero was and where he lived. They were so protective of their business they feared that ‘El Gringo’ might buy all his output and leave them with nothing to sell. Some huarache shop owners went as far as to say that Señor Armando told them that he did not want to be found or contacted; others said he recently died, and another topped the lie saying that although he was dead they were expecting a new batch of the same huaraches from another huarachero—as they put it, “if one dies there are always others to take his place.” Eventually one huarache shop owner caved in and provided me with the name of a remote village. I took a bus serving the indigenous communities in search for this master huarachero, suspicious that I was given any old village just to get rid of me.
I eventually found Señor Armando in deepest Mexico and he was neither angry to be found, nor did he not rob me or hold me for ransom. As it turned out, Señor Armando was happy in my interest in his work, and cheerily welcomed me into his “taller” (workshop). He showed me how he made the same pair of huaraches I was wearing and showed me the three styles of huaraches--he can make up to 15 different styles--that he currently makes. These are only sold in the area between Zamora, Los Reyes and Uruapan in Michoacan.
The beauty of what makes Señor Armando’s huaraches so special is their authenticity: The leather is locally vegetable tanned, the soles are made from used tires and the heel patch is nailed to the sole to prevent stones from sliding under the heels when walking in the fields (a rare feature). And God is in the details as Señor Armando’s huaraches are made with the greatest of care and precision.
His designs have been published on my Huarache Blog (and now in HAND/EYE Magazine) there might be a few pairs that are still available in local shops, and I am confident those few will be exactly the same. However it’s unlikely that any other will be made with the same honest materials and with such care and integrity as Señor Armando’s shoes.
For more huarache information please visit Markus’blog: www.huaracheblog.wordpress.com