Emilio Hurtado, Gourd Artist

Emilio displays two of his gourds

Emilio Hurtado produces carved & burnt gourds, called mates burilados. “My most popular product at the beginning was musical instruments. Now it’s a mix of everything: jewelry boxes, small containers, instruments.”

He first learned the basics of mate burilado from his parents. He mastered the craft while working in a workshop, and subsequently taught his brothers. This skill has served them well, as each brother operates his own workshop and is able to employ a number of others to fulfill their many orders.

He was born in Cochas Chico, just outside of Huancayo in the highland mountains of Peru, and became an artisan out of necessity. His father died when he was 13 or 14 years old. Three months later his mother got married again and left his brothers and sister alone. They were approximately 14, 12, 8, and 6 years old. As eldest, Emilio became the head of the family. He had to give up his studies and look for work. For twelve years, he worked in a mate burilado workshop and received clothing and food for himself and his siblings as payment. 

When he was 24 years old, he married Ana Estrada Mayte and they started their own family. As he still had a commitment to his siblings in addition to his own, new family, he needed to earn more money. He worked for six years with the Medina family, another local family known for their skill in mates burilados. Then he started his own workshop.

He and Ana would go to the popular Huancayo Sunday fair every week, but as they didn’t have enough money to rent a stand, they and his brother Pablo and Pablo’s wife would sell their gourds on foot as they walked around the market.

Clients from Lima purchased some of their mates. “That is how we really got started. We began getting invitations for artisan fairs in Lima. My wife said, ‘Let’s go!’ We went to lots of fairs in Lima and started finding clients there, including Manos Amigas. Pablo started working with Yannina, then I started. I’ve now been working 15 years with them,” he shares.

“As we each opened our own workshops and grew, my brothers and I agreed that we would each make different items so we wouldn’t compete with each other. Other clients found each one of us and we each found success. Now we share everything.”

Emilio employs seven workers. His workshop has a slightly unusual schedule: it is open Wednesday through Saturday only. On Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays, all of his workers volunteer in a community church program for children living in extreme poverty. His son Joel is the secretary, two of his workers are teachers, one is the treasurer, and another is the head cook. Participating in this church project is not a requirement to work in his workshop, but rather is a project that many in his community are committed to.

Emilio is committed to hiring people who otherwise would not have a job. The workers Emilio hires initially are unskilled and do not know how to create mates burilados. He hires them expressly to be able to teach them a skill and help them get themselves out of poverty. Generally his workers haven’t held a job before, and keeping a rigid, regular schedule is something new for them.

At the beginning, his workers agree that they will initially work for a month. If, after that month, they want to continue in his workshop, they sign a contract for one to three years. Not all of the people he hires are interested in continuing in his workshop after the initial trial period.

During their period of employment, they gradually learn all the various skills that go into creating mates burilados. If and when they are ready to set out on their own, they give notice up to two weeks prior to their contract ending. They don’t have to leave after their contract is up, though; they can extend it with the same amount of notice, up to 2 weeks ahead of the end of their contract. In fact, one of Emilio’s workers has working with him for over 15 years!

After they open up their own workshop, Emilio continues to give them work, passing on parts of his orders and giving them projects to complete for several years while they build their own client base. When they no longer need work from him, he gradually stops sharing it with them.

Emilio produces several different types of mates. In one, Emilio draws on the design with a pencil. Then the design is carefully carved out with a small knife. Next, the mate is burned with a small flame that acts as a paintbrush, delicately burning different parts of the mate different shades of brown or black according to the design.

Another technique is used to make the gourds which narrate a story. Most of the gourd is carved, in this design, and is very intricately detailed. Emilio picks up a gourd to demonstrate his process. “First, you carve out your design. Then you rub it with cooking oil. Then you take this grass,” he shows us a handful of dried grass, “it’s a type of grass that animals graze on. It’s dried, then burned.” He crumbles it in between his hands, then rubs it into the greased gourd. “You rub it in over and over, then you wash it with water, dry it in the sun, and then you’re done. It will last for 30-40 years this way.”

Emilio designs all of his own products. He makes a product sample, takes a picture, and loads it into the computer. “My son Joel helps me do this!” Then he sends it to his clients on the computer. He creates religious designs and traditional designs from his native community, showcasing the area’s primary crops and ranching animals. “The photos are very detailed and the details on the mates show up well on the photos.”

He works with several clients: Manos Amigas, another artesanía exporter, and a high-quality Peruvian and Costa Rican coffee company. The coffee company has several different shops around the world which stock his mates: the stores in Curacao and Miami sell his musical instruments, the store in Costa Rica sells ornaments, and the store at the Lima airport sells a general mixture of his mates, such as rainsticks, ornaments, mates which narrate a story via their pictures, even Santa Claus figures.

The coffee company sends him an order each month, and although they are for several hundred at a time, he can complete each order relatively quickly, in less than two weeks. He works ahead of time; at the time which we visited, they had sent him an order just four days earlier, and he was only three days away from finishing it. Including the time it would take for him to bring it to his client, Emilio would be a week early with this order to them!

However, the coffee company does not provide him with an advance. Fifteen days after he brings them the order, they pay him. “It causes me problems. I have to pay my rent, my workers, all of my expenses out of my own pocket and then wait for reimbursement with the payment. But,” he says with a shrug, “as we have worked with them for years, that is just the way it is.”

Manos Amigas represents 60% of Emilio’s annual sales. His two other clients each represent 20%. He appreciates that Manos Amigas orders large quantities at once. He also continues to go to the Sunday market in Huancayo. Thankfully, he now has a puesto instead of selling on foot!

When asked whether he had been affected by the economic crisis, Emilio answers about a time in Peru that is now called “the internal conflict”, when the Shining Path terrorist group controlled several large swaths of the country, including Huancayo, between 1980-2000. “Tourism stopped because of the terrorism. We would get S/60 or S/70 (approximately $27 in today’s prices) for a small gourd, one that wasn’t even finished. But the terrorism stopped all that. My brothers and I worked in our fields, cultivating various crops. We sent potatoes to Arequipa, Lima, even Chile. We did that for 5-8 years. Then there was a government loan for growers. We didn’t receive that support and therefore lost a lot of money on our agriculture business. We returned to artesanía as soon as we could.”

His four children are adults now, ranging in age from 24 to 40, and each is skilled in the making of mates burilados. However, most of them make a living doing several things in addition to artesanía. “[Because of the uncertainty of the market, my youngest child] Joel is studying. Isabel is a teacher in Lima. Her husband is in construction and is looking for work. Ana Maria and Marisol are also in Lima and work in artesanía.”

His wife, Ana, was sick for six years with untreatable cancer. She was hospitalized in Lima for two years and they had lived there for another 1-2 years prior to that to be closer for her treatments.

“For those three to four years in Lima we were not working. At that time, Joel was studying commercial exportation. We had 18 workers back in the workshop. Joel ended up quitting his studies to return to Cochas Chico to run the workshop. We had 75 enormous bags of mates in our storage. During the time that Joel ran the workshop, he used up 50 bags with all of the orders.”

Emilio went into a lot of debt paying for Ana’s treatments. “She had three operations and 33 radiation treatments. I don’t know how much each of the radiation treatments cost. She had two operations that cost $7,500 each, then one operation that cost $25,000.”

He exhausted their savings, took out a loan from the bank, and even received help from Manos Amigas. “Thanks to Manos Amigas, I was able to pay for my wife’s medicine. When I asked for help, they never said ‘no’, they always made it work somehow. They would ask me if I wanted a loan or if this was my advance for one of their orders. They also helped me pay for Joel’s education.”

In 2010, he was about to sell his house to finance a fourth operation when Ana passed away.

As we discuss all of Ana’s treatments, all of his debts, Emilio shares, with obvious relief, “I just paid off my last loan last month.” It is clear how much Emilio misses Ana, several years after her death.

Now Joel is studying again, this time international business administration. He has a particularly demanding schedule, as he juggles responsibilities in the workshop, church program, and college. He attends university classes from 6:30-10:30 in the morning and again from 5-10:30 at night. From 12-4 he is either at the church program or at the workshop.

Emilio’s daughters and their spouses also help out in various ways. “Ana Maria’s husband drives a taxi, and he helps us out by bringing our merchandise to Manos Amigas so that we don’t have to make the long trip to Lima ourselves. Marisol sells her artesanía to another exporter but also works in packing there when she doesn’t have orders.”

When I asked him what he likes the best about his work, he answers, “Finishing a product that turns out really well. I like producing everything, especially the traditional designs. But since the market requires different designs, we must create different designs too.” 

Emilio continues, “Sometimes I feel embarrassed since our workshop is not as advanced as other workshops are, but since we spent so much money on Ana’s cancer, we didn’t have the money, focus, or priority on improving the workshop. Now we would like to improve, get more orders, and continue to give work to others who don’t have it.”