photo of Mexican man the sierra norte
Mexico glossary










Ixtepeji, Oaxaca


10 November 2001



Fernando, during his 33 years, has dedicated almost half his life to the job of carpentry, with which he maintains his family, working the pinewood that grows at Ixtepeji. He made charcoal with his father previously, but he did not master the work. He was interested at an early age in understanding and learning the art of making furniture. Now, as a father of a family himself, he hopes to pass on his skill, acquired over many years, to [his son] little Fernando. Good understanding and good organisation are for him the foundation for the advancement of his town.

Section 1
Do you work in carpentry?
Yes I do.
Where do you work in carpentry?
In Yuvila. We have a workshop there, a small one, not more than that.

How long have you been working in carpentry?
I have been working for 14 years.

Who taught you?
Back then, in the beginning, hardly anybody taught me; it was only curiosity, enthusiasm and love of the work. I began to see how the job was and I began to get hold of the ideas; and the work itself was teaching me then. But I did not have a teacher who said: “This is made like this, or this has to be cut this way”; but doing the work itself was teaching me how to do it. That is how I learned. Of course I have been working 14 years, I know enough, but I still have much further to go, that is how it has always been.

So do you have a workshop?
Yes, we have a workshop. Well, I began, as I say, 14 years ago but after 12 years of working alone, the company was formed. We were around 16 partners but now only five partners are left and we are working together. Back then, the company was acquiring its own equipment. Now that we have equipment, well, it is quite big: it is able to employ around 30 people at the most.

Can any member of the community join the company?
No, what happens is that this company is private. Sometimes the government orders quite big jobs, then we contract the people who can help us with that work. Of course that is short term work, it is not long term, and then we hire people from the same community. About 20 or 30 people, depending on the work there is.
Section 2
What is your way of working, is it to order or do you make furniture and then go to sell it, or how is it?
It is almost always to order. We do not work… let’s say, we do not have furniture in stock that we can sell later. We don’t do it that way, we do everything to order. As I said before, furniture is ordered by the government; they request it from us, then we start doing it. For example they request government writing desks, and we start making them. Also, they make requests for particular furniture, therefore we start making it. We do not make anything to have in stock and then sell it – no, not that way. Everything we do is to order.

How do you get known by others?
Well, right now what happens is that we are here in the community, we do not have many [local] contacts, we do not do much promotion, but a lot of people from the government know us already. In fact, we have worked with the SEP (Education Secretary), Obras Publicas (Public Works). We have competed, let’s say, with the great carpenters of Oaxaca, the great companies, and we have worked like that, together. For that reason, if somebody wants an item of furniture, they locate us there in la Central (general supply centre for the Oaxaca city), and they come here, depending on the work.

How do you transport the products?
That depends on the contract that comes in. If the contractor wants us to take it to the place, well, we include the cost of transporting the furniture.

Where does the wood come from?
The wood - we buy it here in the sawmill of Ixtepeji, but there are times that we do not obtain dry wood. And as I said before, sometimes the government requests furniture at short notice, then we have to look for the wood from elsewhere. We have gone to look for it here in Oaxaca, we bought it with La Asuncion, with other carpenters, or part of it we bought here in the sawmill and part of it from Oaxaca City.

Where is the wood cheaper? The prices are more or less the same. But as far as quality is concerned, we have better quality here in the sawmill, because over there the wood you get is whatever there is, they do not select it [for its quality]; because in Oaxaca they choose the wood for you and so they choose poor quality. Without fail in Oaxaca you go to a wood shop, and they choose everything for you, the wood is almost always very bad. So the wood here is more convenient for us, the quality is better. But concerning prices, they are much the same; there is little difference.

Do you participate in the forest activities to get wood and in other forest activities?
No, only according to our obligation as comuneros (registered community members) do we partake in reforestation or the planning of paths, only as comuneros. But we do not participate in the exploitation of the forest, because we live from this. We do not do other things; we are only involved in carpentry, that’s all.

How do you deal with the profits?
Well, it can be said that we deal with them as a partnership. Let’s suppose that a job comes in, let’s suppose that we make about 50,000 pesos from the work - it is distributed on a partner basis. This is done equitably; there is no other way of distributing it.
Section 3
Do any funds for the company remain?
Yes, we always take care of that, that some funds should be left so that when there is a job we have a small fund to be able to begin it with, not to be at zero then.

And if any member of the community wants to participate in your organisation?
Well, in fact, we have not looked at it from that point of view, that is – how can I put it? – the company is formed by four or five partners, but we have not looked at that possibility. Of course, right now, the way the workshop is, it is already a great investment. It is possible that no member of the community would have the capacity to get to the level we are at; only if he had enough money to get to that level. But I believe that perhaps we would not accept it - the experience we have of having more partners shows that it is more difficult to agree with more people than a few. Here we are five partners, we have already been together for some time and we have been working well enough, without a problem; but when there are more partners, there is too much discussion, people don’t agree about anything.

For example, when there are asambleas (community parliaments), and you have some work pending, can you miss the asambleas or how do you do it?
Well, we hardly ever miss them because within the work that there is to do, those days are almost always considered free. For example, we leave Sundays almost entirely for resting, and then sometimes on those days there are asambleas and we can go to them. We don’t like to miss them because we have been always dependent on the progress of all the people.

Is there a problem if you have a private business within the community that is governed by practices and customs?
No, not up till now, because thanks to the good understanding of the people, they have supported us in this way. We have not had any problem. There are other partnerships: there is the chocolate factory, and there is another carpentry workshop, so there is not a problem of that type.

How old are you?
I am 33 years old.

And how many children do you have?
I have two.

Does the carpentry leave you well off?
Well, speaking in general terms, dedicating oneself to it full time and doing good work, yes, more or less. But it doesn’t make us a great fortune either. Only if we have quite a big job, then it leaves us well off, or a series of jobs, let’s say. For example, as I told you, we have worked with the government, that leaves us more or less OK. For example, to make 1000 chairs, if you’re cutting and cutting to make 1000 chairs, or doing work of that kind, it takes you a long time because it has many details. That is, all the cuts for the details are different, then it takes more time, it gives you a little [for each], and a series of work gives you more. But I tell you, it will be once every two years that a job like this comes in. Right now, we can say that we have work that gives us quite good returns. Well, that is to say, it gives us more or less a medium amount, and we don’t take too long either.
Section 4
Do you plant any crops or do you no longer work in the fields?
Well, I no longer work in the fields. In fact before, even before when I began [as a carpenter], I used to work in the fields because, I tell you, at the beginning the income is always lower. With time we’ve specialised more in the work, and it’s been possible to stop sowing crops. No, I do not plant in the fields; I no longer sow crops because, I tell you, every day I have work. I hardly ever rest, I only plan and manage: these days I don’t have any (wood) work even though the business is mine, I no longer do the work. But I no longer work in the fields.

And your family, do they live from your work?
Yes, they all live from it.

And your wife, does she have any other occupation?
No, my wife only does the domestic tasks. We all live from the work I do.

It is a little more comfortable?
I always say so, yes. Because many people of the same community tell me, you have a good job. And sometimes one does not value that, as sometimes you want to go to the forest (to take time off, to relax), but you say it is difficult. This they have told me. Then, thank God I have this little work. I tell you, this is what I do, I’m not involved in anything else, I live from this.

And this work you are doing - what is this for?
This is going to be a dining room [table]. Well that is what the people in charge of the ecotourism project told me.

How did you learn?
In the community itself. What happened is that there was a carpenter here whose occupation was making furniture. But as I tell you, he was a very basic carpenter, he knew only half the job. I used to go and I saw how things were done. At that time he didn’t use electrical tools, he had to do the planing, and finish the edges, and cut the wood with the hand saw – all the work had to be done by hand. But I had that curiosity, and one day he told me, “Do you like carpentry?” “Yes, yes I like it,” and I asked him, “Is there a chance that I could come to do a little wood cutting?” “Yes,” he said. And I already began to make just little things: a little box, little seats. “If you want,” he said, “there is going to be work. I’ve been asked to make some coffins and I am going to do them. If you want you can come.” And so I began like that. We began with the coffins, but when I used to go to the city of Oaxaca, I saw how the furniture was. I saw them (the carpenters there), but then I saw they were well equipped. You did not see how they became equipped. You said, “But how do they put in this piece?” For example, one piece goes up and this one goes down, and I said, “Hey, how does this go?” I said, “I never imagine this goes this way.” But I tell you, the work itself teaches you. Once you have the desire to work, and stay at it, like that, little by little it comes, so I went on learning. Later on I went to Oaxaca, and from a carpenter I know, I used to see how he worked, and I started coming up with more ideas. As I tell you, there are lots of things to learn, but as for the basics, I know everything.
Section 5
For example, is it difficult to have all the necessary tools?
Yes, of course, very. It takes a lot of money to have all the equipment needed. Well, it can be said that we don’t have all the equipment, but we have the most important. We have the plane, for taking the plank of wood and planing it, la canteadora (tool for finishing edges), we have the circular saws, the pendulum saws, the escofiadoras (tools used to make wooden figures - chisel?). They are home-made but work well. And besides these there are the hand tools, for example, the router, the sanding machine, the drill. The sanding machine alone costs 6,000 pesos. Let’s suppose that somebody wants to build a workshop, it is going to cost him – imagine this – the sanding machine alone costs 6,000 pesos… And so on… That means to have an income, to do something, we need 100,000 pesos as a minimum. A lot of people say, if I had 10,000, I’d rather take it easy. We suffered a lot to establish our little workshop, we suffered in terms of economic resources. For example, sometimes instead of taking money to buy food, we had to plough it back into the business - that was the most difficult thing - to get the equipment we needed.

How was it that you began to organise?
What happen is that in the time of Heladio Ramirez’ rule [as president of the National Campesina Confederation], there was a little support for buying equipment and machinery. They were going to give us tools, and we were going to pay in four or five years, and that was how we organised ourselves, and we got 16 of us organised. First there were small machines; but when we saw that the machines were not appropriate, we got a loan to buy machinery. That was the harder step, but thanks to the partners who stayed with us as well - because they stayed as well - it is now four years since we paid off the loan, we paid everything. From there we started to earn more money, that’s why - as I told you - we have paid for the equipment, so we are not worried any more. If we work a little, we have an income.

Why did the other partners leave?
Because, as I was telling you before, instead of having an income from a job, for example, from that work we were going to make like, how much? Let’s say 3,000 pesos… Instead of making those 3,000 pesos, we had to take 300 pesos and the rest we had to invest. All the expenses, and there was the family…that was the reason. And later we asked for a loan, and they were charging us 10 per cent, and when we paid the capital, which was 12,000 pesos, and the interest too, we had to pay 24,000 pesos [in all]. At that time to pay 24,000 pesos, that was 24 million. Now we owe nothing. But I…when we don’t work all together…I do work. Then they call me from Oaxaca, because I have done a lot of jobs in Oaxaca, I have made closets, windows, doors, office furniture. Suddenly I get a call, I want you to come to do an estimate, and I go. I almost always have work, which means I have other little jobs to do, besides this one. I almost never go looking for it, because I can say that the work itself recommends us.
Section 6
And if there is a boy from the Yuvilia community or from Ixtepeji who becomes interested in learning carpentry, would you teach him?
Yes, of course, we will be happy to teach him. In fact, there have been boys from the community over there whom we have told there is the opportunity to learn, without cost. We tell them: we can teach you, we can give you the equipment and everything. I used to tell a boy as a joke, “I am going to teach you from nothing, I won’t charge you.” Because when I started working, they paid me nothing, and even if it’s only a little I’ll pay them for what they do, and I tell them there’s an opportunity here. But a lot of them don’t like it, because what happens is that since it is a full-time job then… For example, let’s suppose that if you’re gone all day, you stay in confinement there [in the workshop] all day, and the majority of the communeros, the inhabitants here, they are used to going to the fields, which means they are more relaxed, but it is hard work. They have had the opportunity to learn, because carpentry is very useful. Wherever you go, if you know carpentry you’ll soon find a job. Some have attempted it, but they don’t stay, it’s quite hard work. At the beginning you suffer, but once you learn a little, you get ahead.

When you have to make an estimate, what do you base it on?
Well when we do an estimate, we count the working days, the cost of the material - which is wood, nails and such things, if the work involves metal fittings - all that we take into account. Transport charges, food, all that has to be taken into account. For example, for the days (daily wage), it has to be 250 minimum for each worker, and that’s how you calculate it. But since we know the situation, we say from here to there it takes me so many days, and that’s the way we do it. Sometimes we charge by the square metre. Now, for example, we are charging 150 a square metre, you charge depending on the metres done. But if for example this is a contract, then here I tell you how many days I am going to take, how much I am going to invest, and you do your calculation: this is what I am going to make, this I am going to invest, and more or less this I’m going to put into a little fund for whatever, to pay the electricity bill. There has to be something for the machines, so that when in time you have to buy a tool you have a fund to take from, and that’s more or less how we do it.

What wood do you use most?
We work mostly with pine, which is more common here, pine is what we work most with. There have been people sometimes who ask us for furniture in other types of wood, for example cedar, mahogany, ganacaxtle ( “ear tree”; local term for Enterolobium cyclocarpum, a large spreading deciduous tree with nutritious ear-like pods). But sometimes we say, well, sometimes people say, “I don’t have cedar”. And sometimes we look for it but it is difficult to find, because there’s almost none left any more. And the people who have the material, they work it. And pine is common, it’s the one that’s sold here.

Don’t they sell oak?
No, because oak doesn’t get sawn. They cut it for firewood, it can be said that there is good oak, but now there isn’t a good market for it.

Before you got into carpentry, what else did you do?
Me, when I was little… my father… we were involved in installing ovens, making charcoal. But after I left school, I was with my father just there, installing ovens, making charcoal, only that. After some time I started with this. This means I worked very little in the fields, three or four years. From there I began with this [and have continued] up until today.
Section 7
And when you worked the charcoal with your father, how difficult was it? Did you take long to make the charcoal?
No… yes, it was so difficult because it is heavy work, too dirty. It took a long time to make the charcoal, because I was not a specialist. I, for example, I couldn’t… the charcoal didn’t come out well for me, and the little I sold, it was bad, so I didn’t make it [any more].

How do you make the charcoal?
The oak is cut along the grain [?], [the wood] gets piled up, it’s cut in different sizes. It’s piled up until there’s a lot, then we light it, we put soil on top, and we leave the troneras (holes which allow the smoke to escape) for the fire. We set light to it and it catches fire. And then it comes to the point when the fire reaches the top, and we have to get the top off to put more unseasoned wood in, and then we close it and the fire burns down. And then the fire gets to the ground, and we put out the fire, the soil goes down, and we leave it to cool for a day and then get it out. If you are good at making the charcoal, you get it out when you stop the fire. If not, you touch it and it crumbles, that’s what happens. But imagine charcoal like this, it is not good, it is almost dust, which means it doesn’t get sold, it doesn’t have a price. But if you get it out as you stop [the fire], you will have a lot of charcoal. And I’m no good at that.

Where did you sell the charcoal?
We would go to Oaxaca. At that time we still carried the charcoal [by donkey] in nets. Also, earlier, I still travelled from Yuvilia, walking with animals, with donkeys. We left at 11 at night, we arrived at 7 in the morning. I got to make three trips, like muleteers, walking. But at that time there were few supplies, there were no cars, and the small supplies ran out, and there wasn’t anything to sell or make a living from other than the charcoal. Then we had to walk, we didn’t have any other option. But what could we do? At least we made enough to eat, but most of the people were occupied in the fields, planting corn and beans and all that. My father had a small farm down there, where we join with Tlalixtac, more or less where it is called El Estudiante (the student), we had a farm there, and we used to grow maize and beans. All that was there; we had enough maize, enough beans, white beans.

Did you plant for your own consumption?
Yes, only the charcoal was [sold] for making purchases; to buy soap, sugar. That is the way we worked here. But I say I didn’t work too long in the field, after that I dedicated myself full-time to carpentry.

Do you have any sons?
I have one, a little one, he is eight years old. He is too… he is a little carpenter. He is starting, he likes it a lot. Yes, when he leaves school, only because it is close to my house, he eats and goes to the workshop. He arrives and he has a little hammer, and he arrives to do anything, and I leave him, because I say that he has to do it, to see for himself. After some time, if he wants to do the same, he can get to be a good carpenter. Because now he does anything, he gets the saw, he gets the drill, he gets the cutting machine, and he does his cuts. He begins to cut, he is not scared of the tools, and a lot of people see him, they admire him. Sometimes I take him to Oaxaca, I have a little polisher and he grabs anything, and starts polishing it, that’s what he does. Then they listen to the noise and they say, “Are there two?” I say “Yes”; when they arrive I tell them, “This is the other one”.
Section 8
What is his name?
His name is Fernando too.

And the girl doesn’t do this?
No, the girl doesn’t. She stays at home with her mother, because she doesn’t care for it. He does, he wanted to come here, he says, “Why don’t you come on Friday? Can you bring me I am free on Saturday and I can take my notebooks there to do my homework.” But he likes carpentry a lot, then he grabs his wood, he grabs any wood and cuts it. Another time he made some little seats. I just told him how to do it: “Cut here on this measure and you nail it more or less like that.” He made three seats. Can you believe he went to sell them? He sold them. I didn’t know, but people told me “Your son sold this to me.” I said to him, “They are not going to think that I sent you, are they?” “No,” he says, “I told them that I made them.” Yes, he made some of them; then he made a little shelf. I told him more or less how it was going to be and he did it, not very well but he made it. That’s how you begin and little by little, you can refine your work. Yes, because when one is young, I think one can learn more than when one is an adult. Here I have some partners who were already grown-ups, and it is still not easy for them. And I had a nephew from Yuvila, working for a year here with me, and that one – [Fernando] - has already overtaken him. So I have seen that it is easier when you’re young than when you’re grown up; as a youngster you learn quickly.

How do you see your community, is it organised?
Santa Catarina Ixtepeji? So so. Not too disorganised, but not too well organised either, in relation to work. But I see my community as being more organised than other communities. How shall I put it? It is also small, there is more organisation, there are around 80 ciudadanos (citizens), and we can talk between all 80 of us, we can agree better than if we were 500 or 600. Then I see that in my community there is more organisation than in other communities. For example in El Punto, yes, there is organisation, but not like there is in Yuvilia, we have seen this… during the years of my life, I have seen this. And I think in work, organisation counts a lot, good organisation is fundamental, as is good understanding among partners if we are to make progress and do a job easily.