One of Spain’s leading craft persons and activists on behalf of her compañeros in Spanish leather working was born and raised in Oakland, California. Over her 35 years in Spain Munira Mendonça has presided over an association of women artesanas, served on the board of directors of the Andalusian regional federation of artisans, and organized craft fairs and courses. Since she’s had her shop, she’s promoted the work of local handicraft workers there. She’s also taught her skills to a series of apprentices, some of whom have established their own workshops. And she still offers occasional leather working courses to small groups.
Munira discovered Granada at the end of a European road trip when she was 23 years old. “Ah, on the road with crazy Rose,” says Munira, who has lived in the city of Granada and the towns of its province ever since. “That was a lifetime ago. In fact nearly all of my adult life has orbited around this same square, Plaza Nueva, where I landed on my first day in Granada and where I live today,” she adds. “It was just a couple of hundred yards up the street from here that our car broke down on the Paseo de los Tristes (The Melancholy Walk, as it used to be the route up to the cemetery.) Here in Plaza Nueva is where I have lived for the past 17 years. I consider the sidewalk café on the opposite side of the square my second office. My life today is essentially my workshop, my tienda, my new granddaughter, my family and my daily walks in one of the most privileged settings in the world: the grounds of the Alhambra.”
Before Spain Munira and her friend Rose had spent a few months driving all over Northern Europe and they were ready for a bit of relaxation. “After criss-crossing England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland we awoke on another grey, rainy day we decided to head south and get some sun. We went through northern Spain and then spent some serious time in Portugal. I am Portuguese, and my grandmother had a lot to do with my upbringing. She never liked the States and always wanted to return to what she called ‘the Old Country.’ So when I arrived in Portugal I suddenly understood my grandmother a lot better. The smells, the food, the warmth of the people, the gardens that reminded me of my grandma’s back yard… All of it seduced me.
Then came Granada, though Munira didn’t stay to live in the city until years later. She was distracted. “When we arrived in Andalusia and visited Seville and Cordoba, then Granada, fate stepped in and decided I should stay here. After our car broke down Rose and I parted ways. She stayed in Granada with the car some Americans invited me to visit the villages on the seaward slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which they call the Sierra Alpujarra. This was one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I had ever seen and it moved me on all levels. It was the month of December and the sun was shining through the mountain mists. That evening I met the man I was to spend the next 27 years with and who became the father of my four wonderful children. The eldest one was the first child born in the village in 15 years, which made me something of a local celebrity.
The year was 1978 and the villages of the Alpujarra were still quite primitive. “They were wonderful,” says Munira. “It was all so refreshing after the Bay Area, like going back in time to a world of stone-cobbled streets, people in touch with the earth, the best sourdough bread in the world, birdsong and the rush of water everywhere, the clop-clop of the mules and donkeys on their way to work in the fields… People didn’t lock their doors. There was one shop in our village, in the living room of Isabel’s house. We were only a handful of foreigners and we were generously tolerated by the townspeople. Looking back on it, I think we were their TV series.”
Munira started out in leather working in the most natural way. Her new compañero was a leather craftsman with a workshop on the road that passed by the village. It was there that she began. “I fell in love with the work,” says Munira. “But I couldn’t devote myself to it as I was busy raising four closely-spaced children for several years. When they were all out of diapers I went back to the leather as a hobby. By this time we were living on the outskirts of Granada.
I wanted to learn more about leather embossing, so I went shopping around for a maestro. The one I found, Diego Campos Mariscal, was one of the last remaining professional leather craftsmen in Granada at the time. He has since retired. Diego was so important to me, both as a mentor in leather working, and as a business advisor, something a newcomer needs in Granada, as dealing here can be tricky.
“On the first day I went into his shop and found him working in the back room on a mesa camilla, the traditional long-skirted peasant table with a charcoal brazier underneath it. I introduced myself and asked him if he would teach me. He was reluctant, not about passing on his art, Diego was always generous with his knowledge, but for fear of an inspector from the labor department catching him working and teaching. If he were caught he would lose his miserly pension and most likely be fined. That was the norm then and it hasn’t improved much since.
“In those days my children were still quite young and my leather work was a bit of a hobby. We lived on the outskirts of Granada and I would come in as much as I could and sit with Diego and bring in my bits of leather. After a time we began looking for a home here in Granada and after searching a bit I asked Diego if he knew of anything for rent near Plaza Nueva. He chuckled, in his loveable grandfatherly way, stepped out of his shop and pointed to the next building where there was a ‘for rent’ sign on the balcony. The apartment was large, with big windows overlooking the plaza, and I was wondering how I could ever afford it. But, as my life seems to be one miracle after another, it happened. Not only was Diego’s shop just downstairs, but he was also a neighbor. When he retired I inherited his shop, his tools and his designs. Diego is like a father to me, I am forever grateful for his teachings and his friendship.
All of Munira’s four children have helped her in her workshop. “I’ve always worked at home,” she says, “and when they needed pocket money they would ask me if there was any work to be done in the workshop. My eldest son, a serial entrepreneur, does all of our graphic work; our website, advertising, triptychs, etc. My daughter, who is a great support and buys me all my treats worked in my taller for some years. My son, Hamza, has been working with me for the past three years. He has excellent hands and is a fine leather worker. If anyone from my family carries on the tradition it will be him. And my youngest who tends to sooth me when I need it!
Munira paints a pessimistic picture of the status of the embossed-leather business—and other handicraft trades–in Granada today. According to her evaluation we have to think in terms of a dying art. “There used to be seven workshops of cuero repujado en Granada,” says Munira. In those days a leather workshop consisted of a minimum of 12 people. There would always be at least two carpenters as leather was mostly used for furniture; chests, desk sets, chairs, triptychs, biombos (folding screens), and a long etc. Today none of those workshops remain.
According to Munira there is far too little official help for the artisans. “What is very sad about Granada is that it once thrived on its traditional artesania, some of the best. Today it has become a city flooded with souvenir shops filled with imported goods.The local government has no idea of the treasures that it has on all levels. They do not recognize that the tourists come here seeking local artisans and the beautiful articles that are made here.
“Because the artisans were neither well paid nor given a dignified place in the society—and Spaniards understand dignity– their children did not want to carry on with the ‘family business.’ The majority of the traditional artisans of Granada have died and not many have passed on their knowledge. There are a few institutions that are now making some tentative efforts to recuperate these lost crafts.
“The solution? If it’s not too late already I think the solution is to go back to the traditional guild system. Currently the government is trying to foment artesanía and artesanos with tax cuts for taking on apprentices, but I believe in a much more integral system: the traditional guild. That is my dream. I think they should take immediate action to create a legal context in which these artisans are given workshops where they can teach and not have to worry about inspectors from the Labor Ministry. Granada is a lovely city, especially the Albaicin neighborhood where abandoned buildings full of character abound. They could be restored and local artisans could give demonstrations and sell their work.
Last question: After 35 years in Spain do you feel more Spanish or more American? “Both, which is what I love,” says Munira. “There are parts of me that are very American and other parts which I consider more Spanish and European. I have no trouble living with both sides.”
- Munira Mendonça
- Plaza Nueva, 15
- 18009 Granada, Spain
- Tel: 958 216531