Guitar makers play to tradition in Mexico's mountains

Adjusting his stocky body on a low stool, Gerónimo Amezcua begins hand sanding a classical guitar in his cool, stone-floored workshop. He works patiently, with tools passed down from his great-grandfather's era, until the instrument meets his standards of perfection.

"I know there are faster and more exact ways to build a guitar, but I like to work puro ojo, puro pulso," says Mr. Amezcua, referring to his practice of working by sight and feel rather than with the precise, mechanical devices preferred by his counterparts in Spain and the US.

Like others in Paracho, set high in the mountains of central Mexico, Amezcua prides himself on sticking to a way of life that dates back to the 16th century. Local legend has it that Vasco de Quiorga, a Spanish monk, brought the stringed-instrument trade to Paracho to promote culture and build a self-sufficient economy. The town has evolved into Mexico's guitarmaking capital and today is something of a living museum, where visitors can buy anything from cheap children's guitars to high-end classical models, while peering into old-world workshops.

But remaining loyal to tradition, some warn, may leave craftsmen here unable to compete on the world economic stage, where their products can increasingly be mimicked by foreign hands. China is already building cheaper, factory-made guitars. Mexico's artisans are the latest victims of wave that's washed tens of thousands of jobs to the Far East.

For years, maquiladoras, or factories that assemble such goods as clothing or electronics, which dot the US-Mexico border, have headed to China, which offers a cheaper workforce and laxer regulations. In all, 500 of Mexico's 3,700 maquiladoras have been shuttered since 2001, costing more than 200,000 jobs, according to the Mexican government. Even traditional Mexican items - from Virgin de Guadalupe figurines and colorful blankets to nativity scenes and marimbas - increasingly carry a "Made in China" label.

Oswaldo Castro, a mariachi musician, surveys Amezcua's showroom. "The Chinese guitars are cheaper, but not so great," he says. "They don't know how to make them yet."

But customer loyalty is not guaranteed in a country where shoestring budgets can override quality and country of origin.

It is said that Paracho - which literally means "guitarmaking" in the Purepécha dialect - houses the world's biggest hive of guitarmakers, churning out about 80,000 guitars a year, priced from $50 to $3,000.

Kenny Hill, an entrepreneur from California, headed to Paracho in the mid-1980s to set up a more export-oriented guitar enterprise. But he pulled out in 2002, frustrated in part by an apparent resistance from Paracho guitarmakers to adopt his more modern designs and production methods. Mr. Hill now has a guitarmaking business in China.

"In Mexico, I ran into few people who really understood the value of capitalizing on something," Hill says. "In China, there is a real serious ambition and will to excel."

Guitarmakers in Paracho are well aware of the outside competition. Jesus Zalapa, who runs a guitar shop a few doors down from Amezcua's, is petitioning the Mexican government to provide more support to artisans. "Guitarmakers in China can be helped by government subsidies. Here, the producer is on his own. We don't do much for the economy, so there's not much value placed on our work."

Although the Amezcua brand is respected in Mexican guitar circles, family members live modestly. "It's the slow making of the guitar that counts," says Amezcua. "That's how my father taught me."

Meanwhile, the migratory drain in Paracho, mainly consisting of younger men heading to US and Mexican cities in search of better pay, may be a more immediate threat to the instrumentmaking tradition. "The Amezcuas and other older families will probably plug away for some time. They are content," says Hill. "But it is hard to find any young kids in the business. The best and brightest are leaving town."

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