Spotting cultural appropriation on Cinco de Mayo might be harder than you think

ASU students and faculty weigh in on Mexican textiles used in fashion and how it can exploit indigenous labor

As students wrap up their spring semesters and begin to unwind for the summer, Cinco de Mayo serves as a perfect holiday to host a celebration.

In recent years, the public has been more outspoken about how wearing sombreros or fake mustaches in celebration of Cinco de Mayo can fall under cultural appropriation and be offensive or insensitive to Mexicans. 

More recently, however, uproar from the Latinx community shows that sometimes cultural appropriation isn't that easy to spot. Avoiding the flashy and colorful poncho in 2019 is easy, but not everyone thinks twice about the intricate embroidered flowers plastered on a handbag.

Fashion brands like Michael Kors, Dior and Isabel Marant have caught backlash in the past for appropriating Mexican textiles without recognizing the exploitation of indigenous labor it may require or the indigenous artists who initially pioneered the designs. While this type of cultural appropriation has existed for a while in the industry, the latest round of controversies that popped up in fall 2018 brought the issue back to the forefront.

Monica De La Torre, assistant professor in the School of Transborder Studies, said there is a very thin line between imitation and cultural appropriation. 

“I think it's complicated in terms of artistic creativity," De La Torre said. "Every artist gets inspired by something. We draw the line on questions of power, livelihood and making money.”

Dennita Sewell, professor of practice who teaches fashion-related courses in ASU’s School of Art, said that Mexican textiles are part of a tradition that is being devalued.

“All textiles require a high proportion of hand and skilled labor,” Sewell said. “That’s the main thing in our time, the value of these things from a cultural standpoint has been diminished by the fast-fashion phenomenon.”

Sewell said consumers can make a change by supporting ethical practices.

“The number one step is educating yourself and developing an awareness and an empathy for valuing their work,” she said. “You can think about buying from sources that are actually supporting those makers and their efforts through fair wages and fair trade practices.” 

Local artist and designer Margarita Sotomayor is looking at ways to educate the public on cultural appropriation, while finding ways to help the communities that are being exploited. 

After migrating to the U.S. from Guadalajara, Mexico, she said she started a fair trade project called Arte de Mi Tierra in 2014, which aims to promote indigenous Mexican communities by commissioning talented artists outside the U.S. to craft textiles for clients.

“I researched how the indigenous work, how they get paid and all these troubles about stealing,” Sotomayor said. “This is the first thing I did because I needed to understand what the problem really is and how this could work.”

Sotomayor said she began to expand her business by branching out to a group of 30 women in Hidalgo, Mexico and said she has experienced the firsthand effects of cultural exploitation affecting her sales.

“When I arrive with something that is hand embroidered, they say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s too much money,’ but why would people pay $100 for a machine embroidered item made in China?” she said.

De La Torre said she hopes that more people will realize the power they have as consumers. 

“We’re in a moment where we can make an impact in the digital age,” De La Torre said. “By continuing to shop small and support local shops, we'll be able to drown out the Amazons, Walmarts and Targets that also replicate these designs and take advantage of people without the financial access to hire a lawyer.”

The Latinx community at ASU is also taking a stand to bring awareness to cultural exploitation. 

Jeanette Gomez, an ASU alumna who earned her bachelors in communication, said she wore a native Mexican traje to her graduation in fall 2018. 

Gomez said she felt discredited after seeing Old Navy selling products traditional to her Mexican culture. 

“The mass production of it upset us because they should credit us.” Gomez said. “They call it an Aztec design when a lot of it is a Huichol design.”

Gomez said she is a first-generation American as her parents migrated here just before she was born. She said that most of her clothing is from Oaxaca, Mexico, and she has witnessed the arduous labor behind Mexican textiles.

“It made me appreciate the work that goes into it.” she said. “They are being exploited here, especially for indigenous textiles, because a lot of people spend hours threading or beading, and they do it for so cheap.” 

Gomez said she hopes people will educate themselves on indigenous Mexican designs. 

"There's a lot more behind it when you finally get to know what each thing means," she said. "It's very captivating but there's a lot more to it. They tell a story." 


Reach the reporter at icrespo@asu.edu and follow @ziacrespo on Twitter. 

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