To say that Leon, Guanajuato is not a tourist destination for non-Mexicans is to understate the matter. A quick google throws up comments about the pollution, the traffic, and the very ordinary quality of its main product, leather goods (not true by the way).
The Leather District
Yet I’m fond of this town now of a million plus people. It’s bursting with life, one of the fastest growing towns in the country. It’s managed to transform its colonial past into a booming economic present and, given the level of entrepreneurship and capital to invest in new enterprises, with luck for the future too.
Leather Working Tools
In colonial days, Leon was part of what the historian Fernand Braudel called the civilisation of leather. This was the civilization of the ranching areas of the world. It had come from Spain, from North Africa and was transported to the Americas, Argentina, much of Brazil, parts of Venezuela, much of Mexico, and from there to the American West.
Before modern transportation, ranching was more for leather (and tallow) than for meat which could not be transported to market before it spoiled. In Guanajuato, leather bags were needed for hauling tons and tons of ore out of the silver mines. In the leather producing areas, generally arid and treeless, the wooden civilization of much of Europe gave way to leather: leather for chests, for stirrups, for saddles, for clothing, for whips, for buckets, for lining the walls of houses, for such furniture as there was.
Leather and iron chair made in León
What León has managed to do is to translate those traditional skills into a huge tanning and shoe making and (increasingly) furniture making center. If you wear Florsheims, or Hush Puppies, or Naturalizers, or Clarks there’s a very good chance they were made in León. These kinds of shoes for export are made in the bigger factories away from public gaze.
Alongside the export market, dozens of small entrepreneurs try start ups or produced lower quality for the lower end of the Mexican market. And I just love to prowl through that area from time to time, from the leather market at one end, through all the suppliers of things that shoe makers need, to the dozens of small workshops loading stuff up to be shipped off to open air markets across Mexico.