Perhaps the most compelling and enduring theme of Mexican history is the perseverance of indigenous peoples against great odds. The country’s ruling classes, colonizing or not, have sought to scrub away any last traces of the pre-Columbian past for hundreds of years, and yet it remains!
It is in this context that we can fully appreciate the huarache, the intricate, handmade sandals that have existed in Mexico and Central America since before the first colonist’s arrival.
History of the Huarache
The problems we face when delving into the huarache are the same as researching any other aspect of pre-Columbian Meso-American life, which is simply that much of the history has been destroyed. We know that the huarache sandal began life as a humbler piece of clothing, much more like the alcapayo pictured above, than the modern woven versions.
As we mentioned in our history of flip flops, the sandal is a logical answer to life in hot and humid environments that can’t simply be traced back to one specific group of people or place. While the huarache’s name comes from Tarascan language spoken by the Purépecha people of Jalisco, three other regions of Mexico are cited as having had influence on the evolution of the modern huarache.
The huarache is often attributed to the Mayan peoples in present-day Yucatan, but the majority of regions best associated with this sandal (like modern-day Jalisco), were constantly at war with the Aztec empire. So whichever region you believe invented this sandal, its creators likely had fairly regular contact with the two greatest Meso-American civilizations.
In the above image you can see the characteristic woven leather upper of the huarache as worn by a worker on a hacienda. At its most basic, the huarache is this leather upper, woven with a single piece of material through the last and holes in the sole.
The Spanish occupation of Mexico at least allowed for new materials in the sandal. Before the conquest, sandals had been made from untanned deer leather, but with the introduction of cattle and European-style tanning, light-colored cow leathers became the most popular choice.
The huarache took a turn for the more complex, but the reasons for this change are unclear. Early on, huaraches were so simple, they could be made easily by the wearer, but at some point, their weave became an art form, an art so complicated that the weaver can’t improvise the trademark “pata de gallo” pattern.
Most saddlers and leather workers could make these sandals, but indigenous peoples (like the Yaquis above) who were forced to work as peons on haciendas or in labor camps, didn’t exactly have much extra cash on hand for shoes.
The Evolving Art of Huaraches
The huarache changed in the 1930s with the availability of tire treads. Cut-up tires made for cheaper and more effective soles, although in this iteration, there was usually less woven leather on top. The tire tread huarache was a callback to an earlier version of the sandal, before the weaving became so complex that only artisans could make them. Rubber soles also made sense for urban life, because previous leather outsoles and hobnailed sandals didn’t have very good grip on cobblestone city streets.
The tire tread phase was proof that the huarache could survive any and all environmental and design changes throw its way. But this phase was also evidence of the stratification of the huarache. The simplest, handmade leather and rope versions were worn by the poor, and the fancy woven versions were made custom for middle and upper-class city dwellers.
The huarache is alive today, but not necessarily doing well. The last of the huaracheros are still making beautiful woven huaraches, but their number has dwindled significantly. Huaraches are still made the old-fashioned way, by softening veg-tanned leather in oil and water over night and weaving the pliable leather onto a leather sole.
The Huarache Blog, which has supplied much of the information for this article, has assembled a huarache directory, which keeps a running list of all the huaracheros across Mexico and the world. The directory is an invaluable resource, not only because it gives you access to authentic shoe-makers all over Mexico, but also shows the sheer variety of huarache styles available.
Mexican workers may no longer wear huaraches on job sites, as mass-produced sneakers and sandals have become far more accessible, but fashion-inclined folks all over the world are wearing these hand-crafted sandals in the summer months.
Unfortunately, many people only know the word huarache from Nike’s sneaker of the same name. As you can see, there is little to no actual inspiration from the centuries of Mexican and Meso-American footwear involved in the modern sneaker. Nike, it seems, just chose a word that sounded cool. Bold move to steal a word from the Tarascan/ Purépecha who once nearly conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
Is it Okay for (not Mexican) Me To Wear These?
I don’t see why not. There is, however; a conscientious way to consume huaraches.
Track down an artisan at home or abroad who does justice to this ancient and complex piece of footwear and support their art! Learn more about this history while you’re at it, everyone is anxious to tie huaraches back to Mexico’s most ancient residents, but the footwear is really about the hundreds years of resistance to and compromise with the country’s various invaders and rulers.
Lucky for you, some conscientious brands, like Yuketen offer traditional huaraches (with a Vibram twist), which like many of their shoes are bench-made by Mexican artisans. Chamula also offers huaraches made by real Mexican artisans in several men’s and women’s styles, all of which simultaneously allude to the shoes’ rich history and give the sandals some modern flourishes.