With Roots in Guatemala
By Gloria Vaquera Photos by Roots Leather Company
Efrain’s infancy, in a small town in Guatemala, was far from idyllic. In fact, it was penurious and he understood that at a very young age. At six-years old he was flipping through a newspaper when he came across an advertisement for the most wonderful sneakers he’d ever seen. Coming from a family of twelve brothers and sisters, he knew that his parents could not possibly afford the luxury of a pair of sneakers. But even so, the child yearned to own anything other than the plastic shoes his delicate feet had become accustomed to wearing. Longingly, he cut the picture out and pasted it to the outside of a pair of crooked, makeshift shoes he created out of cardboard. This way, he thought, people would think he was wearing those sneakers.
Thirty years later, those cardboard shoes are a distant memory and Efrain is thankful for his recent success to one person who lives right here in Las Cruces. “I never would have guessed that one day I would actually be making shoes,” explains a grateful Efrain, “and I am very thankful to God for giving us the talent to do so and to our client for giving us the work.”
Although Efrain and his mother Manuela started the company that manufactures wallets and other artisan accessories in 1987, the company made significant strides when Maria Mercedes Colato came into their lives. It all happened only a short year ago when Mercedes was looking for Christmas gifts and couldn’t find anything unique enough. She commissioned her mother in Guatemala to find some handmade, traditional gifts and what Mercedes received were some beautifully hand-crafted wallets.
“I really liked what my mother sent me,” she said. “They were so artistic and beautiful. I knew then that I wanted to share the passion and love I have for my country through its wonderful colors, beautiful people and art.”
On her next trip to her native country, she visited the spot where her mother got the wallets and she spoke directly to Efrain. Mercedes asked if he would be interested in manufacturing a couple of pieces she designed. He enthusiastically started production and within a few weeks, he sent her some samples. She was thrilled with the quality and the overall result of her designs seamlessly fused with the beautiful work of Guatemala’s indigenous artisans. It was then that Roots Leather Company was born.
Mercedes and her son, Luis Daniel, launched Roots in October of 2015. She designs the products and takes care of logistics while Luis Daniel is in charge of everything that has to do with technology and social media. Currently their products can be found in eight boutiques in cities throughout the Southwest including Mesilla, El Paso, Juarez, Ruidoso, Colorado and California. After starting with just a couple of clutches and handbags, their product line has quickly expanded to include weekenders, backpacks, cross-body bags, belts, camera straps, boots, and even jewelry. A collection fusing Native-American and Guatemalan artistry is also in the works—since there is a likeness in geometric patterns and motifs used by both cultures and whose inspiration is drawn from nature.
Efrain and Manuela’s factory has also experienced exponential growth due to the increased workload from Roots. They now employ approximately twenty people and have even added a storefront. The women at the factory, occasionally working with their infants wrapped in a cozy bundle on their backs, do the huipil portion of the work while the men work with the leather.
A huipil is a traditional embroidered dress that the indigenous women wear. To make them, they start with raw cotton and wool and use natural dyes from roots, leaves, flowers and different types of rocks to make the yarn. Then, the yarn is hand-woven on a backstrap loom to create the artistic multicolor designs. Each huipil is unique and reflects the artisan’s personality as well as the region they are from. Because the technique is an extremely time-consuming process that requires intense focus, it may take several weeks to complete.
Originally from Guatemala City, Guatemala, Mercedes is passionate about mixing indigenous clothing with modern couture. The result is that Roots customers walk away with luxurious, high-end products. Each piece is one-of-a-kind and showcases the heritage and wonderful art that artisans have been using for centuries with a trendy fashion forward design, made with 100% genuine leather, organic cotton, wool and other natural products.
Every time a Root’s product is purchased, not only do customers receive an incredible piece of craftsmanship, but they also help the craftsmen and indigenous women by creating job opportunities in a country that is in great need of them. “They get to do what they love and they make a living doing it. That is something that we are very happy to be able to provide for these amazing people,” emphasized Mercedes.
With a focus on community empowerment and fair trade, Mercedes envisions Roots having a positive social impact not only in Guatemala but here in Las Cruces as well. She and her family have called this city their home for the past twelve years. Her husband, Dr. Luis Colato, is a cardiologist with Southwest Cardiovascular Center and aside from their eldest son (and her business partner) Luis Daniel, they also have a 10 year-old daughter, Valeria, and a four year-old son, David.
Just like Mercedes has extended her hand through the work she continues to bring to this factory in Guatemala, Efrain and his family are also paying it forward. Recently, they gave sneakers to several underprivileged children in their community. Perhaps subconsciously, it was Efrain’s way of dealing with that lingering recollection of the sneakers he couldn’t have as a child.
This year, Roots Leather Company had the honor of being part of the 2016 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in El Paso, TX. Some of the models walked the runway accessorized with the very products that Mercedes designed and were manufactured by Efrain and his company. She has been invited to take part in next year’s show to which she hopes to bring Efrain and Manuela as her guests of honor.