Mexico’s ban on cultural appropriation is off to a messy start

The first embroidery stitch that María Méndez Rodríguez learned at age 7 was the chain stitch. It’s the same one she would teach her seven children years later. At the age of 42, Méndez has mastered advanced stitches such as the closed buttonhole and rococo. She is now diving back into the drawing process, trying to evolve from the traditional floral and leaf motifs she embroiders on blouses to better reflect the flora in her community.

Like many of the Tzeltales women in the community of Aguacatenango, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, Méndez spends hours each week embroidering a single blouse. Back pain, finger pain, and eyestrain are common. Despite the long hours and creative details involved in their designs, the creations of Méndez and other artists in the community are often undervalued. Making a small blouse can take anywhere from 30 to 40 hours and can sell for as little as 200 pesos (less than $10 USD). For many indigenous women, their textiles are the main source of income.

While sales for Méndez and others in her community have been slow, native patterns have exploded in popularity elsewhere: Major companies such as Zara, Anthropologie, Carolina Herrera and Mango have incorporated similar designs into their clothing under the guise of inspiration. Fashion houses have benefited without acknowledging the origins of the designs or compensating communities.

But now the indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities of Mexico are being sold a solution — or at least something close to it. To fight back against plagiarism and expropriation of Indigenous art, Mexico has passed a law intended to protect and protect the cultural heritage of Indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples and communities. It recognizes the collective intellectual property rights of these communities, calls for the establishment of a National Register of Cultural Heritage and empowers the government to prosecute theft of a cultural work. On the face of it, it’s a bold move toward cultural appropriation and remedying some of the ways these communities continue to be marginalized.

Whether the law actually works is another question. Indigenous advocates and legal experts have expressed concerns about the implementation of the law — the federal law for the protection of the cultural heritage of Indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples and communities — and whether Indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples could actively participate in its manufacture. of it .

Legal experts have criticized the law’s broad and vague provisions on property, coupled with its failure to specify how compensation for theft will be distributed. Intellectual property lawyer José Dolores González says the law seems very ambitious, but does not clarify how it will be anchored in practice.

“For example, every Mexican has the right to a house, every Mexican has the right to a decent job,” explains González. “These rights, in their content, in their human spirit, are very good. But in the day-to-day practice of law it becomes very complicated because the tools to implement it are not explained.”

The Mexican law, which went into effect last month, gives indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities the power to grant temporary licenses to companies to use their designs and get paid for them. However, it is not clear who in the community can give this permission. Likewise, the law says that any contracts or agreements made by any member individually are void.

“It says the community must authorize, but who is the community? And that the people have to give permission; who are the people You get stuck here”, adds González. “Who are the people? Five people? Twenty people? The oldest person in town? A thousand people? The ejido commissioner?”

In addition to the challenges of determining who represents the communities, there is the problem of using the term ‘cultural heritage’ to define what is protected. Patricia Basurto, an academic at the Institute of Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, warns that the law could create social conflict as different communities can claim the use of the same cultural heritage.

Determining the origin of a cultural expression is complex because they are passed on from generation to generation and are constantly recreated and revised within the communities. For example, for the past two years, Méndez has been creating and innovating new designs with the help of one of her sons, inspired by local birds and fruits. “Every craftsman brings an idea to it… even if it’s the same stitches, but maybe it could be a different drawing or different colors,” says Méndez.

The law sanctions the reproduction and commercialization of Indigenous and Afro-Mexican cultural expressions without community consent. The government can prohibit the sale of the designs and, through the public prosecutor’s office, prosecute domestic and foreign companies that do not keep to agreements or copy cultural heritage. Sanctions range from up to 20 years in prison and fines up to 4 million pesos (about $200,000).

The attorney general’s office will be fined, but it’s unclear how it will be transferred to the communities and who will manage the money. Part of the law states that in cases where there is a dispute, government agencies focused on culture and indigenous communities will determine the solution. But that response worries Basurto and González, who warn that it threatens indigenous peoples’ rights to autonomy and self-determination.

In Mexico, the majority of indigenous iconography is so old that it has fallen into the public domain, so anyone can use them without having to ask the permission of the creators. That poses yet another problem for communities seeking protection under the law.

“This law should clarify what will happen to work that has fallen into the public domain, and what will happen to indigenous work that is in the domain of individuals,” González added. “The public domain, as it is, is the back door for any business to avoid jail.”

Social media has heightened concerns about the appropriation of indigenous designs in recent years. In 2018, Zara, the Spanish fast-fashion retailer, sold a blouse with a strikingly similar design to the embroidery used by the women of Aguacatenango. Méndez and other artisans found out when they were approached by Impacto, an organization that supports indigenous artisans and their work. To this day, the artists have not received any response or any compensation. Inditex, owner of Zara, did not respond to The edge‘s request for comment.

The Mixe people of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec, in the southern state of Oaxaca, had a similar experience in 2015 when they accused Parisian designer Isabel Marant of plagiarizing iconography that characterizes their blouse. In 2020, Marant was again accused, this time by the Mexican government, of usurping a pattern unique to the Purépecha community in the state of Michoacán. Marant responded only with an apology, saying she wanted to pay tribute to the original designs.

“The saddest part is that each piece of clothing takes weeks,” says Méndez. “Maybe a brand has made it with a machine and they are then paid better. And we, who work on that embroidery every day, are underpaid.”

Andrea Bonifaz, project coordinator at Impacto, is concerned that the new law could become an exclusive tool for certain groups, such as craft groups that are better positioned or have previously participated in government projects. As an organization, Impacto has followed the development of the law, but Bonifaz says they have not seen the integration of indigenous communities in its drafting.

“We want this benefit to be extended to all communities so that a woman who works in the mountains of Chiapas or in the mountains of Oaxaca can access and use this information without being subjected to bureaucratic processes that sometimes involve more to obstruct. than they could help,” explains Bonifaz.

There are nearly 17 million indigenous people in Mexico, representing about 15 percent of the total population, and more than 2.5 million Afro-Mexicans. At least 68 indigenous languages ​​and more than 350 variations thereof are spoken. That makes the context around indigenous communities in Mexico, to put it lightly, complex. And sometimes it was the Mexican state that took advantage of the indigenous and Afro-Mexican aesthetic repertoire — textiles, ceramics, dance and more — through international fairs and museum exhibitions, said Ariadna Solis, art historian and PhD student at UNAM. The conversations and alliances the government is seeking are with the brands, not the communities, making the law even more hypocritical, Solis says.

“Those who have promoted all these policies and commercial interests on a global level are alien to the communities and their interests,” Solis says. It is a problem that has been consistent over time.

This new law has also come about outside the communities. It is problematic for Basurto that the government has not fully committed itself to indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities during production. Instead, Mexico’s Ministry of Culture hosted an indigenous fashion fair at Los Pinos’ former presidential residence in Mexico City, which has been criticized for being more of a public relations stunt than an attempt to listen to the communities the law is under. theory was drafted to help.

“They wanted to support this law by creating some forums. Before the Senate passed it, they even created that infamous event in Los Pinos,” Basurto says. “It’s a way they legitimize, or want to give that legitimacy. The fact that some artisans have been given the use of their voice doesn’t mean it has that social validity that it requires.”

Mexico’s identity was built in part through the erasure of indigenous languages ​​and the appropriation of indigenous culture, but indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples and communities remain systematically oppressed and excluded. It was only recently, in 2019, that the term “Afro-Mexican” was added to the constitution, and poverty often prevents Indigenous women from accessing the same health and wellness measures as non-Indigenous women. So it’s harder for women like Méndez to have the resources to medically treat their back and finger pain.

Solis explains that Indigenous women, especially when wearing traditional textiles, become highly visible in cities, such as Mexico City, making them a target of racism. It’s easier, Solís says, for a white woman to wear a fitted cotton blouse “inspired” by the colorful embroidery of these communities, than a heavy, expensive huipil (a traditional loose-fitting tunic worn by indigenous women), which does not highlight the female figure and is difficult to wash.

“When we use these textiles, we are characterized by a whole colonial history of violence,” says Solis. “White women will one day add this exotic, colorful part of their lives, and by taking off, or even wearing that piece of clothing, they never recognize all the degrees of violence that racialized women experience every day.”

Frank Broholm had acquired considerable experience in writing and editing publications before recruited by The Media Today Chronicle News portal as Editorial Manager. His key task is to conduct effective business reviews based on the most recent business…