The Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Fraustro, and the Secretary of Labor, Luis María Alcalde, during a catwalk in tribute to indigenous artisans, on November 18, 2021.Nayeli Cruz

Mexico has started a new assault in the fight against cultural appropriation to defend its heritage, after the controversies with brands such as Zara or Carolina Herrera. The Ministry of Culture has sent a letter to the American company Levi’s, famous for its jeans, accusing it of “commercializing and privatizing a collective property using cultural elements whose origin is fully documented.” The agency considers that the collection Levi’s Premium, Original Trucker Jacket It contains “embroidered elements belonging to the Mazatec culture of the state of Oaxaca, without the proper mechanism to obtain the permission of said community,” according to the statement released this Sunday.

In the letter, Culture demands that Levi’s and the Dracco Textil collective, its partners in the making of the garments that have revived the controversy, to give financially to the Mazatec community, which it considers to be the intellectual owner of the designs. The institution is supported, in addition to several international declarations that protect the rights of indigenous peoples, in the Federal Copyright Law, which establishes that “the Mexican State grants protection to literary, artistic and artisan works of popular cultures. ”, Thanks to a reform that was approved unanimously in April of this year in the Chamber of Deputies. In addition, he points out that the multinational should have asked permission to use the embroidery, and not “deform the original work.”

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The images presented by the Secretary of Culture where he compares the original embroidery with the designs marketed by Levi's.
The images presented by the Secretary of Culture where he compares the original embroidery with the designs marketed by Levi’s.

On November 13, the clothing brand announced in a video its landing in the region, in addition to future collaborations with local creators: “We arrived in Oaxaca and we want to celebrate with the art that characterizes it, Levi’s Oaxaca will be the headquarters and witness of the wealth that this city houses ”. However, a group of Mazatec artisans, grouped under the name of “The Textures Women of Oaxaca”, denounced in a statement last Thursday that “this ‘collaboration’ of Levi’s with ‘representative artisans’ seems to us another exercise in cultural appropriation and the invisibility of the people and communities behind the embroidered pieces ”.

“The companies and visual artists behind the project are named and the name of the artisans or artisans who carry out the embroidery work is omitted,” the complaint continues. The Ministry of Culture picked up the witness and joined the claim. Alejandra Fraustro, the head of the organization, has defended in the letter that “it is a principle of ethical consideration that, locally and globally, forces us to make a call for attention and put on the table of public discussion a subject that cannot be postponed: protect the rights of indigenous peoples who have historically been invisible ”.

“We invite you to develop a respectful work with indigenous communities within an ethical framework that does not undermine the identity and the economy of the peoples and always attached to fair trade that places indigenous creators, entrepreneurs and designers on an equal footing. ”Continued the letter.

The controversy has also been installed between the artisans and the Ministry of Culture itself. The institution, in the letter, has indicated the initiative Original, “A meeting place between the masters of traditional art, artists and designers with international companies to exhibit, promote and conduct business in an ethical manner”, as an example of fair trade practice for indigenous communities. Something about which “The women of textures of Oaxaca” disagree, which in the same statement in which they denounced the plagiarism of Levi’s, accuse the body of having left them out of the call, which was held from November 18 to 21 .

It is not the first time that the Mexican government has been involved in a controversy with the debate on the underlying cultural appropriation. The last occasion was last May, when the Ministry of Culture also sent a letter to the Spanish company Zara. The reason: a dress that the European brand had presented, which was reminiscent of the style of huipiles hand-embroidered by indigenous artisans. Before that, it was the turn of the Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera, the French firm Louis Vuitton or the dressmaker from the same country Isabel Marant.

While the confections of indigenous creators sell for between 500 and 3,000 pesos (between 25 and 150 dollars), a large international firm can market an almost identical piece for between 1,000 and 4,000 dollars. A looting that moves millions of euros for the big brands, and that has given rise to a debate full of edges and nuances, where the arguments in defense of fusion or artistic enrichment through contact between cultures face criticism of plagiarism and misappropriation of the intellectual property of historically marginalized minorities.

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