By spotlighting indigenous groups' cultural heritage as the keystone of educational and productive activities that carry over to the broader Mexican population, Inmaculada Puente is generating self-esteem, mutual understanding, and an industry for high-quality, indigenous, artisanal products.

This profile below was prepared when Inmaculada Puente was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


By spotlighting indigenous groups' cultural heritage as the keystone of educational and productive activities that carry over to the broader Mexican population, Inmaculada Puente is generating self-esteem, mutual understanding, and an industry for high-quality, indigenous, artisanal products.


Inmaculada ensures the survival and development of indigenous communities in northern Mexico by bridging these communities and urban, nonindigenous populations. On the one side, she is helping indigenous groups recover their cultural heritage and acquire new skills in production of marketable products. On the other, she is developing an appreciation of the indigenous cultures among city people, converting them into buyers of indigenous products and supporters of indigenous development. By bringing the two groups together through educational visits, Inmaculada forges interpersonal relationships–including commercial relationships–that accelerate impact.

There have been many efforts in Mexico to help indigenous groups raise themselves out of poverty and isolation by fostering productive capacity. Inmaculada's initiative, however, has key differentiating features: valuing the producer groups' cultural heritage and fostering self-esteem based on this value; building appreciation for indigenous cultures among the broader population and translating this appreciation into market opportunities for indigenous products; and creating artisanal products of ultra high quality and realizing their full commercial potential by instituting successful production and marketing techniques.


There are about 12.7 million people of indigenous origin in Mexico–more than one-tenth of Mexico's total population. However, indigenous groups tend to live isolated from the majority, endure conditions of extreme poverty, and in some cases face risk of extinction. These problems are especially acute in Sonora and other northern states where there is much less history of racial and social integration between indigenous people and people of European descent than there is in the rest of Mexico.

The isolation of indigenous groups from the majority translates into little, if any, understanding of indigenous people and their cultural heritage. There is no teaching of indigenous culture in education systems in the North, and no significant sources of information on indigenous issues. Most efforts to help indigenous populations have been sporadic. They have also been paternalistic–not focused on the development of opportunities, skills, or self-esteem. While there have been efforts to stimulate commercial production, most of these have failed because of insufficient emphasis on the quality that local and larger markets require. Especially in northern Mexico, there has never been a coordinated effort either to build appreciation of products and attendant demand, or–more broadly–to mobilize support from business communities, influential citizens, and other majority groups.


Inmaculada's strategy unfolds in three areas: in indigenous communities; in the urban population of Sonora, particularly among those of substantial means; and, most crucially, in bridges between the two.

Inmaculada advises indigenous communities on how to adapt their artisans' production for greater market penetration. In particular, she has been able to show indigenous artisans various techniques for the final stages of production (like delicate work closing seams and applying artistic ornamentation) that greatly enhance the quality of the finished products. Her background as an art historian gives her an artistic perspective that she brings to bear on these all-important techniques. As an urban consumer, moreover, Inmaculada knows how to make products more marketable to her peers. Inmaculada encourages artisans to use their tribes' unique motifs and symbols in order to convey to buyers not only their "native" artistic skill but also specifically the elements of their heritage they are most proud of. This contributes substantially to the self-esteem of indigenous communities. Inmaculada began by focusing on the crafts traditionally performed by women. Soon, however, she brought men into the fold because of their desire to contribute to commercial production. She has encouraged the men to revive traditions in woodcarving and given them the same counsel on the use of important cultural symbols and attention to the quality of the final product.

Inmaculada is helping to build institutions in indigenous communities so that the people who live in these communities can take over production and marketing. She has created an organization, the Lutisuc Cultural Association, not only to give organizational structure to her efforts but also to provide an institutional base for the ongoing professional and social development of the indigenous communities. She has institutionalized the final-stage techniques used to finish the artisan products, and she is in the process of institutionalizing marketing skills by training apprentices in how to establish links with urban buyers. She secured from the state government a capital investment in the communities' ongoing productive capacity.

In the city of Hermosillo, Sonora's capital, Inmaculada is promoting an understanding and appreciation of indigenous art that is unprecedented in northern Mexico. It is explicitly focused on artistic merit rather than on the generalized appreciation of indigenous culture that exists in other urban populations. Inmaculada teaches university classes in art history. She includes lessons on Sonora's indigenous art alongside lessons on more well-known Mexican and European art. She offers separate workshops on Sonora's indigenous artistic heritage. Across all these academic efforts, however, what Inmaculada makes explicit is that indigenous art is worth studying and understanding because it is close to home and especially because it is good, not because some charitable imperative demands it. By engaging urban Sonorans intellectually and aesthetically, she is also, of course, creating a desire for indigenous products with artistic merit and cultural value.

Whatever impact Inmaculada realizes in the indigenous and urban communities separately, she accelerates by building bridges between the two. She leads art and culture tours into indigenous communities, allowing urban Sonorans to see firsthand the cultural heritage of the communities and the artists and artisans who uphold it. She has led 14 tours so far, bringing around 300 city folk to their indigenous neighbors. The value that outsiders place on their culture bolsters the self-esteem of indigenous artisans and their communities–many of which without outside reference have lost awareness of the great beauty of their heritage. The urban Sonorans take away from the experience not only greater appreciation of the art and culture of the indigenous but also a greater understanding of the lives of indigenous people, their assets, and their desire to improve their conditions not through handouts but through solidarity and market-based solutions.

It is in this area–stimulating markets by bringing together buyers and sellers–that Inmaculada's bridge-building is perhaps most important. Face-to-face contact allows the producing communities to get to know their customers better and to develop personal contacts that will help connect them to larger markets. For the urban visitors, contact captures their interest in product and producer and in some cases motivates them to become promoters. The indigenous artisans have designed products based on knowledge of their market, including business products like folders and portfolios, bags, and small gift items. Most of the urban Sonorans whom Inmaculada targets are well-off and often have elite connections. The indigenous producers and Inmaculada have organized a voluntary sales force of their mobile, connected, urban friends who carry products on social and business trips, selling them to their peers. Urban visitors–and the companies they or their spouses manage–have also committed resources to their indigenous partners, notably by donating raw materials and covering transport costs.

Inmaculada has been successful in connecting producers to one niche market in particular: conference materials. She has secured several contracts with major conference organizers for indigenous producers to provide the bags conferees receive to carry their materials. Additionally, she has secured institutional financial and in-kind funding from government agencies, foundations, wealthy individuals, and international companies.

Principally, Inmaculada has been working with the affluent urban population of Hermosillo and with the Pima people, a group of 1,600 individuals in the Sierra de Yécora region. She is spreading to Yaqui communities in southern Sonora as well as those that have migrated to Hermosillo. She is at an earlier stage of relationship with the Seri, Guarijío, and Mayo peoples. She also has contacts with the Pimas who live on a reservation in Arizona in the United States and plans to deepen this relationship. To spread to other urban markets, Inmaculada will use her strong social and business contacts among Mexico's wealthy classes, particularly their art lovers, as well as the stream of tourists from the United States who pass through Hermosillo. She also plans to create a video to share Lutisuc's example in narrative and images. Conventions on indigenous issues, cultural preservation, and art, as well as press interest, will allow Inmaculada to further promote her model. Within the Pima groups and the other communities to which she will spread, Inmaculada envisages Lutisuc eventually branching out and providing a full array of human services–from health to human rights to bilingual education–based in community cultural centers in principal indigenous towns. Such centers would also be the base for ongoing training in production techniques and marketing skills.


As a girl growing up in Spain, Inmaculada took an early interest in art. When she attended the University of Navarra, she enrolled in the journalism program but cross-registered in the humanities department in order to take classes in art history. She especially enjoyed the on-site study of art, traveling to see firsthand examples of Celtic, Roman, Visigoth, Arab, Romanesque, and Gothic art; in these travels she also began to develop an interest in ancient cultures. Moving to Mexico City with her husband in 1972, Inmaculada was "enormously surprised," she says, by Mexico's pre-Hispanic legacy. She had learned about Meso-American history and culture only superficially in school in Spain. Here in the broad valley where Mexico City and vestiges of its ancient forebears reside, Inmaculada saw the great archaeological sites of Teotihuacán, Tula and Xochicalco, attended ceremonies and festivals around the solstices and equinoxes, and with the help of experts, learned to understand ancient stone carvings and messages transmitted through dance and music. As a reporter, she pursued stories that took her to modern indigenous communities, particularly those of the Huicholes and Coras in the Sierra de Nayarit and Huasteca regions. She discovered that although pre-Hispanic culture was the subject of archaeology and history in Mexico City classrooms, it was still alive in the indigenous communities themselves.

Moving north to Hermosillo, Sonora, in 1976, Inmaculada perceived a lack of interest not only in the indigenous in the region but also in culture of any kind. Her perspective as an outsider and a student of art may have allowed her to see what most Sonorans did not: the great and unique value of the indigenous heritage. Inmaculada exposed herself more and more to the native cultures of Sonora, including the Pima and the Yaqui, which are the warrior cultures closely related to various tribes from the western part of the United States. Gradually, Inmaculada was invited deeper into indigenous ritual and cultural practices. A turning point occurred the day that a group of Pimas took Inmaculada to see ancient cave paintings sacred to their community. This visit did more than signify that Inmaculada had fully earned the trust of the Pimas; it also created the germ of an idea in Inmaculada's mind. She realized that this very cultural heritage, replete with ancient symbols and motifs that were great sources of pride to the people, could be both shared with Sonorans broadly to boost the self-esteem of the indigenous and commercialized–sensitively–to generate income for the communities. At this time Inmaculada was teaching art history at the University of the Northeast in Hermosillo, primarily to urban elites wishing to become more fluent in European art and culture. These students responded with interest when Inmaculada began to teach them about the local, indigenous cultures of Sonora. Seeing the opportunity to connect these two worlds, Inmaculada began to institute the training and bridging activities that the Lutisuc Cultural Association continues to cultivate.