Mexico: Model Law on Cultural Property


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Status: 30/07/2022 15:22

Clothing giants make a lot of money from indigenous patterns – the Mexicans who developed and manufacture them get none of it. Mexico is the first country in the world to protect its fashion art from corporate appropriation by law.

By Jenny Barke, ARD Studio Mexico City

Four sewing machines, shelves filled with colorful threads, four women with lowered eyes focused on the white fabrics before them: in the mountain village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, three hours by winding roads from Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name, the huipiles – traditional shirts and blouses – made as worn by indigenous communities in Oaxaca and throughout Mexico and Central America.

“The adults wear the pieces on special occasions such as birthdays, holidays, weddings, but also in everyday life,” explains Virginia Balbuena Gomez. Together with her sisters, cousins ​​and friends, she has turned her tradition into a profession. Among themselves they speak Ayuujk, the language of the indigenous Mixe community.

But they have also adapted to modernity: they advertise their collections digitally on social media platforms in Spanish. They embroider the Huipilen from Tlahuitoltepec with red and black thread in star or feather-shaped patterns reminiscent of rivers, paths, flowers, suns or the Mexican agave, which is used, among other things, to make mezcal and tequila.

Virginia Balbuena Gomez founded a cooperative with her sisters, cousins ​​and friends.

Image: Jenny Barke

“Lack of human respect”

With their collective, the women make themselves financially independent – ​​from the men in their local community, but also from external partners, who kept a large part of the profits for themselves, says Virginia.

But even the collective cannot protect the women from plagiarism: the American company Anthropologie and the luxury designer Isabel Marant have adopted the agave embroidery pattern from Tlahuitoltepec one-on-one. Zara, Levis and Mango also plagiarize original designs. Without asking, let alone paying the craftsmen to do it.

This illegal cultural appropriation angers Ana Paula Fuentes, herself a fashion designer and founder of the Textile Museum of Oaxaca. “There’s a serious lack of human respect here, isn’t there?” she says. “And all because they don’t understand what’s behind it. To steal the design from them is to steal their identity. Because you look down on them. I’m using you to enrich myself, that’s it.”

The plagiarism can threaten the livelihoods of indigenous communities: some companies mass-produce the copies by machine – the copies are cheaper, flooding local markets and competing with the handmade pieces. Other companies sell the plagiarisms at high prices as designer pieces without involving the local communities.

They market the shoes they make themselves: the women of the Davaa collective

Image: Jenny Barke

The law is designed to protect intellectual property

Therefore, the Mexican Ministry of Culture passed a law to protect the cultural heritage of the indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples. “The law implies that the entire indigenous community must coordinate and accept that a company or a designer must take one of their elements or designs and reproduce it outside the community,” said Oaxacan Senator Susana Harp, who co-authored the law that was initiated.

Fashion companies that flout the rules set by indigenous communities now face heavy fines or years in prison. The problem: Internationally, the law still has no influence. Chinese fast fashion brand Shein is also said to have recently plagiarized the fashion design of a Mayan society. But despite the new Mexican law, the company could only be warned by the government.

Indigenous political scientist Ariadna Solis criticizes that this is not the law’s only weakness: the law was drafted without the help of local communities. It is vaguely worded – and there is no translation into original languages. In her opinion, the law opens doors to illegal cultural appropriation rather than closing them: “This law is really very paradoxical because it contains a number of elements that allow companies to ask the state for permission and then legally appropriate indigenous cultural properties.”

A seamstress embroiders a traditional pattern on a blouse.

Image: Jenny Barke

Programmed bickering between groups?

The law does not say who can commercialize patterns and designs and who cannot – this can lead to disputes within the groups that have been held together by their craft for centuries. In the Mexican state of Oaxaca alone, there are over 100 different sewing, embroidery and weaving techniques and styles.

For them, fashion is more than a business, says textile culture expert Ana Paula Fuentes: “Craft has been around since, well, actually since the beginning of humanity. It’s a community effort here through and through and one that also brings families together.”

A law regulating the sale of indigenous fashion is therefore a double-edged sword: if fashion is commercialized and a community is involved, the appreciation of the craft increases. But with the demand, the price rises – so the mostly modest living indigenous people could no longer afford their own fashion.

Commercialization could thus also contribute to the decline of the original values: the collective, identity-forming togetherness in a centuries-old tradition.

The wool for the traditional clothing is also dyed by the cooperative itself.

Image: Jenny Barke

International fashion companies stealing ideas from original designs

Jenny Barke, ARD Mexico City, 30/7/2022 15:46

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