Cultural appropriation is a hot topic nowadays. It needs to be. From appropriating Black hairstyles to over-tanning or outright using black or brown makeup in order to look like a Black woman or Latina, images that culturally appropriate various cultures and races litter the media. I can’t speak to all cultural appropriation offenses. I can only address Mexican cultural appropriation because I am Mexican-American or Chicana. Those are my preferred identifiers, but you need to know that not every Mexican-American identifies as Chicano, due to its political attributes. (I, additionally, accept Latina and Hispanic identifiers, too.)
Good fortune has surrounded me with people who are culturally sensitive, both at work and socially. It’s common for someone to reach out to me and ask, “Is it okay if I smudge my home?”, or, “Would it be cultural appropriation of Mexican culture if I painted my face like a sugar skull for Halloween?”
I’m grateful that people think to ask before acting. It makes me happy to see society progress to a level of respect for one another’s differences.
Based on my personal observation, it’s my opinion that most cultures do not appreciate when members of other cultures wear garments or hairstyles that are of their specific culture. That is their prerogative, however, that is not the case with Mexican culture. Still, before you run out to buy a sombrero and poncho thinking you’ve just been given a pass, know these caveats:
- The item you wear or display must celebrate and honor Mexican culture, not mock it.
- The item you wear or display must come directly from a Mexican artist, designer, or retailer. Only Mexicans should prosper from Mexican art and products.
Mexicans actually love it when non-Mexicans enjoy our food, drink tequila, and learn our language. Please do so voraciously! For us, that’s not Mexican cultural appropriation.
Yes, Karen. That means it’s okay to celebrate your 60th birthday at a Mexican food restaurant while the staff places a sombrero hat on your head and sings “Las Mañanitas.”
What’s not okay is if you later wear that same sombrero hat on Halloween, along with a poncho, while drawing a mustache on your upper lip, carrying pistols and calling your costume “bad hombre.”
See, in the former scenario, you were celebrating my people’s heritage along with your own personal milestone. Thank you for including us in the festivities. In the latter scenario, well, you mocked mi gente (Google it and learn some Spanish) by portraying a caricature stereotype. That’s a dick move, Karen. Stop it.
We invite you to celebrate Mexico. Here are some ways to do so respectfully:
- Wear a sombrero hat only when it’s used to provide shade from the sun. Sombreros were invented for that. They are not a costume.
- Wear a poncho to protect you from the weather. Ponchos were invented for that. They are not a costume.
- Go ahead and paint your face sugar skull for Halloween or a Day of the Dead celebration. However, this is really important to note: sugar skull art should be festive and beautiful, not scary. While some view death as dark and morbid, Mexicans do not. We celebrate both life and death. If you choose to paint your face like a sugar skull, be respectful by not painting something ugly and frightful.
- Learn Spanish. I use an app called Duolingo. I highly recommend it.
- Learn Latin American history. “John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons” is easy to consume, since it covers the basics in an entertaining way and doesn’t get super complex. While the special goes over all of Latin history, Mexico is, of course, included. Don’t hesitate to visit your local library for even more knowledge.
- Visit Mexico.
Clearly, one of the easiest ways to celebrate Mexico is to…
Buy Mexican-Made Products
So, is it okay for you to wear a Mexican embroidered dress, practice the art of smudging, or display Otomi art in your home? Yes, but only if you purchase said pieces from a Mexican designer, artist, or retailer. And, of course, you must be using these items in a way that honors and reveres Mexican culture.
Again, unlike many other nationalities and races, Mexicans are actually flattered when you include our fashion, art, food, drink, and music in your life. But if you’re not a Mexican, don’t you dare make a profit off of them.
Please purchase your Mexican dress from a Mexican, not from Anthropologie. Otomi artwork should come from Otomi people. American and European fashion designers and retailers are infamous for stealing from Mexicans and indigenous people. Don’t support that.
If you’re planning a destination wedding in Tulum and want to wear an Otomi embroidered dress, feel free to do so. Just please purchase one from an Otomi designer and not Carolina Herrera. I found a great shop on Etsy that I highly recommend: Arte Otomi.
Don’t hesitate to ask a Mexican! If you have questions about whether or not something is Mexican cultural appropriation, reach out to a Mexican or Mexican-American that you know and trust for their advice. Or, you could reach out to me on Twitter. Ask me nicely, and I’ll help.
Be mindful of cultural appropriation, including the Mexican culture. So long as you celebrate it and purchase directly from Mexican artists, designers, and sellers, you are welcomed to enjoy the beauty of my people.
Special thanks to my friend (and probably prima), Elena (aka Chicana Travels), for her input on this piece. Be sure to follow her on Twitter!