The village of Totalco, population 5,000, is the country’s biggest producer of bouquets for Quinceañera parties. This hugely popular Latin American celebration symbolizing the passage from childhood to womanhood is held when teenage girls turn 15.
There are over 200 artisan workshops here, but the industry’s runaway success has also been its curse. High demand for the bouquets has created fierce competition among manufacturers, who are bringing their prices down to gain new customers.
As a result, bouquets from Totalco are selling at 10 times their original price in Mexico’s main cities, but the profits are not reverting back to the people of the village.
Many customers don’t care about quality, and they just go for the cheapest option
Roberto Argüello, craftsman
“Necessity pushed us into this,” explains Jaquelin Aguirre, 45, who opened up her own workshop just two years ago and is now in talks to bring her creations to Europe. “We are in a dry and dusty valley, the heat means that our food crops are not very abundant, and we need another way to make ends meet.”
Besides her, the workshop employs another worker and two 13-year-old girls who want to learn a trade that feeds over 500 families in the community.
Aguirre’s hands are full of blisters, but there is no time to lose: 150 bouquets must be delivered to boutiques across inland Mexico. “This is very tough work,” confesses Aguirre, who spends up to five hours on each piece.
The main tourist draw in this modest locality is the chapel of San Antonio Limón. On this Monday afternoon, Totalco looks like a ghost town. The sun is beating down mercilessly, and its rays bounce off the ruins of a former brewery. The place is so quiet that one can hear the wind blow. The only people in sight are two small children playing soccer.
But this image undergoes a radical change on Friday nights, when all the workshops rush to put the finishing touches on dozens of bouquets to meet weekly deadlines; the finished product then gets loaded onto trucks for shipment to all parts of the country – and beyond.
From L.A. to the Yucatan peninsula, without forgetting the famous Lagunilla market in Mexico City, the secret of Totulca’s fame ceased being a secret a long time ago.
“It’s quality work at very affordable prices, tailor-made to suit the needs of customers and resellers,” says María Elena Aguilera, who owns a specialized store in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz.
“Years ago it was big business, you’d get paid a load of money, but today I have to save for two months in order to splurge in a pair of decent shoes,” laments Roberto Argüello, who comes from a long line of prominent artisans.
It’s not for lack of demand. “If I had to sum up our problems in one word, I would say it is envy,” says Argüello. “The problem is dishonesty from colleagues who copy your models, and hunt for customers to offer them a lower price, even if their profits are very small... we’ve been unable to agree on a common price.”
Stuck in limbo
Quinceañera parties may signify the passage from childhood to womanhood, but Totalco has been trapped in limbo for nearly 50 years – as long as it has been producing bouquets. For some reason, the industry has never reached maturity, Roberto Ramos admits.
Other hurdles are the exchange rate and the price of supplies, which are purchased abroad. “Do you know how much a bouquet such as the ones we make sells for at Liverpool [a chain of retail stores in Mexico] or at any other department store? What we’re lacking is ambition; we are the first to undervalue our own work,” says Aguirre.
The secret of Totulca’s fame ceased being a secret a long time ago
The Argüellos opened up their own shops years ago, eliminating the need for intermediaries. They have stores in Xalapa and Mexico City, and are always on the lookout for business opportunities. But they’re an exception to the rule in a saturated market.
In Xalapa alone, three stores on the same street sell the exact same bouquet for 180 pesos ($9), 400 pesos ($20) and 900 pesos ($45), respectively. The workers at the most expensive store say they have never heard of the village.
“Many customers don’t care about quality, and they just go for the cheapest option,” complains Argüello, who wonders whether he’ll still be in business in a few years.
Aguirre agrees: “As artisans, we are our own worst enemies.”
English version by Susana Urra.