Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

Appropriating or Appreciating Indigenous Fashion: Playing Dress-Up?

It’s the end of #fashionrevolution week. It begs us to ask the question: #whomademyclothes What do we wear and how does what we wear make us feel … or do we even think about it? Some of us, me included, choose to wear clothing designed and made by indigenous women.

These are ancient designs, considered part of cultural heritage. These are styles that come with creativity, innovation, dedicated work, long hours bent over dye baths and back-strap looms, from regions of isolation and impoverishment. Most are not copyright protected. Some are lost art resuscitated by a new generation of sewists and designers.

Japan, farmer’s coat, indigo and sashiko stitching, over 100 years old

Some of us want to believe that we are part of a socially responsible fashion movement. Many of us want to meet the maker or at least know who made our clothes. We read labels to know fiber content and country of origin. We buy at consignment and thrift shops to reuse the perfectly discarded.

This New York Times story, Finding the Beauty in Other People’s Styles, sent to me by Jenny Brinitzer, takes me right to the core of the discussion I’m very interested in:

Why do I buy and wear clothes from other cultures? Am I playing dress-up, just like I did as a young girl, fantasizing about being different or noticed? Do I have the right (and privilege) as a first-world Anglo to don the clothing of an indigenous culture far from my own roots? Is this colonial behavior, admiration … or something else? Must I conform to wearing socially and politically correct cloth by adhering to Western style?

Huipil from Chenalho, Chiapas, with dog paw embroidered bodice on loomed cloth

In this era of fast and disposable fashion, where we have thousands of choices, I think these are questions worth examining. Perhaps the answers are justifications for how we dress. Perhaps the answers dig deeper into our own values and motivations. Perhaps its a simple answer: It is just beautiful.

I think it’s important to be aware of fashion that borrows or combines style elements from one or several indigenous cultures. We see designs digitally copied or cut from whole cloth, applied to machine woven material, then sewn into a tailored dress. They become the hem or the bodice or collar, far from their origins. Renown designers do this. So do mass marketers. The original versions would have been squares or rectangles woven on back-strap looms, joined with embroidery, complete garments loose and comfortable.

Which is why I like to wear indigenous cloth. The reasons are practical. They are made with natural fibers — cotton or silk. They are easy to wear and are usually washable by hand with mild soap and cool water, so taking care of them is easier (and cheaper). In hot North Carolina and Oaxaca summers, and warm Oaxaca winters, loose weaves keep me cool.

Cotton huipil from Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero, supplementary weft

There are emotional reasons, too. My grandfather was a tailor. He made all my mother’s clothes by hand. He knew the importance of fine detail. My mother taught me to make small, almost invisible stitches on hems and seams, the clothes I continue to make and repair. I think of the labor-intensity of a hand-made piece of cloth and I think of the generations of makers, women and men, who came before me, and I think of my family.

How I feel when I wear a huipil from Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, for example, is more complex.

India Ajrakh block prints, indigo and madder

The cloth is made by women and men from a different culture from my own. This offers me a chance to honor what they do and to create connection between us. To see the similarities instead of paying attention to differences. In the buying of what they make, I contribute to their ability to sustain their culture, their craft, and their families. This is intimate and personal and gives me a great deal of satisfaction. This, I believe, is cultural appreciation. I have a chance in the act of wearing, I think, to narrow the divide.

In wearing these clothes, do I say I want to be different from who I am? That I want to take on the persona of another. I think not. What I want to communicate is that I am a woman beyond borders, where clothing tells a story of unlimited possibility. For me, it is a subtle statement that we share more in common than not and serves to tell the world a little about me — albeit unspoken.

By now, most of us know ourselves, our personalities, what we like, what looks good on us, what we are comfortable with. Identity is conveyed by clothing choices. Mine say: I am free, independent and strong. I like quirky style, I like color, I like cultural variation and respect diversity, conventions be damned.

Gretchen’s indigo, caracol purpura, coyuchi cotton huipil, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca

So, I admit it. I am respectfully appropriating the culture of Mexico or Japan or India or Guatemala, where I have traveled and shopped in remote corners where talented people in humble circumstances create beauty. It is not offensive to me to wear these garments because I believe I understand their origins, the political and social struggles of marginalized makers. I do not live their lives, yet I sympathize by wearing their cloth.

Your thoughts and responses are welcome.

Recently, I was invited by Selvedge Magazine, London, United Kingdom, to contribute an article about Chiapas textiles. It will be published soon. They asked about what inspires me to work with artisans in Mexico and introduce people to the makers. I’ll be writing more about that here, too.

Meiji period, mid-1800’s, katazome stencil with indigo dye

Note: I can add one more person to the Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour in January 2020, and there are six openings in the Chiapas Textile Study Tour that starts in late February 2020.

We will be back in January 2021 with the Monarch Butterflies Sanctuary Tour and an add-on to Patzcuaro. Let me know your interest.

Chiapas Boundaries, Borders and Cloth: Cultural Tourism

Long before the Spanish conquest of the Americas beginning with Mexico in 1521, Maya land was contiguous. Maya peoples spanned what we now know as Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

Can you identify the Eye of God, the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl, lightening and rain?

While spoken dialects differ, the language of cloth tells a similar and familiar story of the universe and creation: corn, stars, moon and sun, animals, fertility, and rain, the underworld and the heavens. The plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl is a predominant figure.

Ribbons are a contemporary adaptation of Aztec headdresses with feathers

The Aztecs, seeing the blond and bearded Hernan Cortes, confused him for the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl and welcomed him. Before that, their empire reached as far south as Nicaragua, where they hunted for the feathers to adorn royal headdresses. Their historical outposts are evident throughout Chiapas, mostly through Nahuatl place names.

Spanish territories in Mesoamerica were divided and governed from Mexico City (the Viceroyalty of New Spain). For more than 200 years, Antigua, Guatemala, served as the seat of the military governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, a large region that included almost all of present-day Central America and the southernmost State of Mexico: Chiapas.

Intricately woven daily huipil from Magdalena Aldama, Chiapas Highlands

Maya communities were contiguous until the Mexican Revolution, when geo-political boundaries were drawn separating Guatemala from Mexico. The Usamincinta River was the demarcation line.

All cotton huipil in new colors, an innovation, San Andres Larrainzar

Along this river are two very important archeological sites: Yaxchilan and Bonampak. Symbols from fresco paintings here are depicted in the cloth woven by Maya women across the borders. It is also the region of the Lancandon jungle, home to the Lancandon tribal group that speak an ancient form of Maya. They were able to escape Spanish conquest by staying hidden deep in the jungle.

Corn hangs to dry, Tenejapa

I write about this to better understand the context of the cloth, which has limited boundaries.

Traditional Tenejapa wool huipil with natural dyes

On our recent Chiapas Textile Study Tour, one of our travelers, Rosemary, told me she makes frequent visits to Guatemala to collect Maya huipiles. She said she always wondered why she had a hard time finding the huipiles from Colotenango and Huehuetenango in Antigua, until she came to San Cristobal.

French knots hand-embroidered, Aguacatenango, Chiapas

These Guatemala villages are much closer to Chiapas than they are to Antigua. She surmised that it was easier to export them here. We found many superb examples of Guatemala textiles mingled among those from Chiapas for this reason.

Pillow cover, San Andres Larrainzar

We asked the weavers we met on this journey what they dreamed of for themselves and their families. What do they want/need? What are their hopes for their children?

Sewing basket, Tenejapa, Chiapas

I ask our travelers to think of themselves as amateur cultural anthropologists: to ask questions and to understand what is most important for women, children, families, and their economic well-being.

On the loom, Tenejapa weaving, suspended from the ceiling at Na Bolom

Every artisan we talked with had a similar answer: they need markets to sell what they make. They want their children to have an education beyond sixth grade. They want them to keep the traditions alive, too. They want autonomy and independence from neo-colonialism and government control. They want to be respected for their creativity and traditions.

Seen on the street: Can I take a photo, please? I promise I won’t photo your face.

In other words, they want what we want for ourselves and our children — a life of safety, security and economic well-being, with health care and a just, living wage.

Exquisite machine-embroidered chal (shawl), San Lorenzo Zinacantan

Cultural Tourism: Why are we here?

Why are we here? Is the answer as simple as Cultural Tourism? Is our motivation to experience a world different from our own? We are lovers of the handmade and appreciators of the people who are the makers. We want to meet the makers directly and support them.

In the Academia.edu article What is Cultural Tourism? Greg Richards says, Another major cultural trend that has been important in the growth of the heritage industry has been the growth of nostalgia. The increasing pace of life and the feeling of disorientation and loss associated with modernity has ensured that the preservation of the past has become big business.

I am aware of this as we bring small groups into remote villages. I hope our footprint will be as small as possible. I hope we become observers with heart and empathy. I also want to talk about our tendency to romanticize what many visitors perceive as a simpler lifestyle.

We seem to yearn for a simpler lifestyle.

So, I ask the question of you: Is cooking over a smoky wood fire simpler if it means you or your children will develop emphysema? Is it simpler if you have to travel 20 miles to the nearest health care clinic? What if the school in your village doesn’t have a regular teacher and only goes to fourth grade? Is it a simpler lifestyle when your husband is an alcoholic and family violence is a reality, not a poster? Is it simpler when you find an hour or two a day to weave, after cooking, cleaning, tending children, husking corn, washing clothes?

Can we really know about people and their lives by interacting with them for a few hours and buying what they make? With this purchase, are we practicing cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? By just being here, what is our impact on how people live and work? Will change happen? What is authentic, anyway?

These are our questions and our discoveries on the Chiapas Textile Study Tour. Would you like to come exploring with us?

Zaachila Zancudos: Dancing on Stilts is Cultural Heritage

The Stilt Dancers of Zaachila are called Zancudos because stilts are long and leggy like mosquito legs. Stilts are called zancos in Spanish. The Zancudos are very proprietary about this dance. They consider it part of their  cultural identity and heritage.

Zaachila Bachos Zancudos Buin Zaa

After I wrote the blog post about the Lila Downs concert during Guelaguetza season and published a photograph of stilt dancers there invited from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec that also appeared on Facebook, I received a deluge of messages from Zaachila Zancudos, critical of my calling the dancers from Tlahui Zancudos.  Many were quick to tell me that they were the first to use stilts to dance. I explained that I only photographed what was presented at the Lila Downs Concert. Yet, the backlash poured in and I wondered why.

I wanted to go to Zaachila to talk with the group Bachos Zancudos Buin Zaa (Zancudos de Zaachila) to find out more about their history and traditions, to understand why they reacted so strongly.

Erick Aragon Rodriguez (left), me, Pedro Aldair Antonio Aragon

On Thursday, Zaachila market day, I arranged to meet with Pedro Aldair Antonio Aragon, age 21 and a zancudo since he was six years old. Aldair invited his friend and fellow zancudo, Erick Aragon Rodriguez, now age 36 who learned to walk the stilts when he was ten, to join us. Kay and Dean Michaels, friends from North Carolina now living in Oaxaca, joined me.

Zancudos sculpture in Zaachila zocalo

There is immense community pride in this dance, originally called Bachos. It is part of village identity. The dance goes back at least 100 years and Aldair carries on the tradition of his father and grandfather, who were also stilt dancers. A bronze monument of a stilt dancer stands in the center of the village zocalo or main plaza as a testimony to this history.

Erick explains that stilts were originally used to cross rivers and arroyos. The land is filled with rolling hills, swales and deep gullies and it makes sense that this became a necessary mode of transportation and navigation around and through the limitations of the landscape. How stilts came to Zaachila is a matter for research. Were they brought by Europeans or an innovation to deal with the terrain?

Entering town, the Virgin of Guadalupe, artist’s adaptation, greets us

The wooden stilts are made in Zaachila. There is a workshop that fabricates and sells them. I am told by the young men that about ten years ago, a troupe of Zaachila zancudos traveled throughout Oaxaca towns to perform the dance. In Tlahuitoltepec someone asked to buy a pair of stilts, which were then reproduced. Tlahuitoltecos from the Mixe region of Oaxaca learned how to use the stilts and created their own steps, using their own indigenous dress. Aldair and Erick say the stilt dancing has been in existence there for less than ten years.

We met at Comedor Denisse for barbacoa de res, there for 51 years

There is controversy. They emphasize that Zancudo is a word associated with Zaachila and should not be used in association with Tlahuitoltepec. They say the word is part of their tradition, culture and to honor the grandfathers. Anthropologists consider dance, language, dress and other forms of artistic expression to be part of cultural identity. I want to understand, not arbitrate.

The softest, best BBQ beef ever!

The Zaachila Zancudos have never gone to an official Guelaguetza because their village leaders field their group of Los Danzantes de La Pluma (Dance of the Feather). About five Zapotec villages in the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca perform the Dance of the Feather. Which is selected each year to go to Guelaguetza depends on the office of tourism/government Committee of Authentication.

At Comedor Denisse, mole amarillo, too

Today, there are about 80 people in the Zancudos group. Thirty are ages three to ten years old who are learning the dance. Eleven year olds dance with the adults. From time to time, about 10 to 30 people can show up for a dance or calenda (parade), but for major fiestas more dancers will turn out.

Coming up on Thursday, September 6, 5 p.m.

Zaachila will celebrate her Saint’s Day honoring Santa Maria Natividad. There will be a big parade of Zancudos, going from the church to the Zocalo. 

Everyone is invited. 

Go early! Go to the market. Have lunch. Eat nieves.

We have been talking about cultural appropriation at Oaxaca Cultural Navigator for some time. The new cultural center in Teotitlan del Valle addresses the question of what is cultural heritage and who “owns” it, who has rights, if any, to copy or adapt.

  • Is it disrespectful for a Mixe group to use the stilt dancing developed by a Zapotec group?
  • Is it disrespectful for the Lila Downs concert producer to invite the group from Tlahuitoltepec and not the dancers from Zaachila?
  • Was the Tlahui group chosen because they look more professional or because their traditional village dress is more interesting for a stage production?
  • Is it disrespectful that a Guelaguetza Committee of Authentication has never included the Zancudos in the official tourism office produced Guelaguetza event?
  • These are issues here for Mexicans to decide.

Your comments and opinions are welcome!

After lunch, we said goodbye to Aldair and Erick. Kay, Dean and I could not resist the nieves stalls on the zocalo. There is a line-up of about six permanent puestos. Which one to choose? We picked the busiest, of course, owned by Doña Chabelita who has been there sincce 1966, the oldest in Zaachila. Her grandson just returned from 20 years living and working in Connecticut. Impeccable English. Not sure about immigration status, but who cares!

Dean savoring nieves de vainilla

Doña Chabelita, ready to retire after a lifetime of ice cream making

Melon and pecan nieves. The Best!

A treasure trove of pitaya (dragonfruit) in Zaachila market