SIM Report: Mexico’s government accuses fashion giants of cultural appropriation

SIM Report: Latin America & the Caribbean, Issue 11

In an statement published on its website on 28 May, Mexico’s ministry of culture revealed that it has sent letters to three major international fashion brands accusing them of cultural appropriation in their designs without compensation for affected communities. The letters, sent to Zara, Anthropologie, and Patowl, call on the companies to publicly explain their grounds for ‘privatising’ collective property associated with several indigenous communities in the south-western state of Oaxaca. The high-profile communications, which were personally signed by culture secretary Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, also demand that the brands compensate the creator communities.

The letters are the latest moves by the government of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to pressure the fashion industry into acknowledging and crediting the role of Mexico’s indigenous communities in inspiring designs. In June 2019, Mexico’s culture ministry accused US-Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera of appropriating indigenous designs from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and states of Hidalgo and Coahuila in her ‘Resort 2020’ collection. Moreover, in November 2020, French designer Isabel Marant apologised after Frausto Guerrero accused her of appropriating indigenous patterns from the Purepecha community of the west-central state of Michoacán into her items.


President López Obrador's administration has accused several international fashion brands and designers of cultural appropriation / Shutterstock.com

While López Obrador has largely shunned involvement in foreign policy, having only made one official overseas visit since taking office in December 2018, Mexico has become increasingly outspoken on indigenous issues of international concern during his presidency. In 2019, López Obrador urged Spain’s King Felipe VI and Pope Francis to apologise for human rights abuses committed during the Spanish conquest more than 500 years ago, while in May 2021, López Obrador officially apologised to the indigenous Mayan people for abuses committed during and since the colonial period. López Obrador has also sought to increase investment in Mexico’s poorer southern states, home to a large proportion of the country’s indigenous peoples, although a USD6bn rail route across the Yucatán Peninsula known as the ‘Tren Maya’ has been criticised by some groups for its potentially detrimental impact on the environment and Mayan archaeological sites.

Mexican authorities are highly likely to maintain or intensify their outspoken stance on indigenous issues, particularly related to perceived cultural appropriation by international fashion brands and designers, throughout the remaining three years of López Obrador’s presidency. Garments containing designs associated with indigenous cultures, especially those produced by high-profile foreign brands, are most likely to prompt public comment from Mexican government officials. Brands and designers who fail to acknowledge, compensate or engage with creator communities face the highest likelihood of receiving government criticism. Mexico’s increasingly vocal stance on this issue may also prompt governments in other Latin American countries with large indigenous populations to speak out on perceived cultural appropriation, such as Peru, Bolivia, and Guatemala. Companies planning to launch designs influenced by indigenous communities, in Mexico and elsewhere, are encouraged to closely engage with affected communities and government officials and appropriately acknowledge the influence of indigenous groups on their work.

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