Warning: Yet another personal and opinionated, rambling post by Mari.
Those of you who know me know these three things to be true: I have a hard time answering the simple question “Where are you from?,” I love to travel, and I love to collect beautiful handmade objects from different places.
Among my favorite items here with me in Guatemala are my gorgeous handmade ikat scarf that I got while living in Ecuador, and a beautiful embroidered loose blouse from Chiapas that I bought while in Mexico traveling with my mother. You may have seen me wearing these items before… because I love them! And while I may have received a scholarship in college for being Latin American, I actually have no Latin American blood. My parents are not from Latin America, and I don’t claim to be, either (except for when it involves subsidizing my education!). Though I don’t belong to these cultural groups, I wear the scarf and blouse with pride, because I love them… but I know there is a fine line between respectfully wearing something from another culture and appropriating something of traditional importance disrespectfully. I don’t have all the answers for this topic, but it is something that has been on my mind, working with local artisans and promoting some traditional designs as part of our Kakaw products.
With Halloween just around the corner, we all know of those costumes that are big cultural No-No’s, like that of Pocahontas or a geisha. Anything to do with painting your face to appear of a different ethnicity, stay away! We get that, pretty simple and outright racist.
But what about those images in high fashion that showcase clothing from a different culture?
While I find these photos aesthetically beautiful, I also find them culturally insensitive. I don’t find them offensive, but I find them silly, inappropriate, and of poor taste. This, to me, is what is called cultural appropriation, where the clothing of cultural significance is taken out of context and showcased without emphasis on cultural traditions or peoples.
But for me, as someone who has a hard time answering that simple question of where I am from, how do I know what culture I belong to, and what is appropriate for me to wear? If I don’t know, then how should anyone else? I certainly don’t like the idea of someone else telling me what I can and can’t wear, possibly based on my perceived ethnicity or culture.
I hope that people can see that I wear things from different places with good intentions: respect and love. Take my scarf from Ecuador – I was fascinated to find this scarf handwoven on a backstrap loom with ikat designs not dissimilar to those from Guatemala or even parts of Asia. I bought one for my mother and one for myself, people who understand the work that went into creating these pieces. I love mine, and my mother hers.
I also love to wear turquoise jewelry bought during a trip to New Mexico. I think turquoise and silver go together beautifully, and I like thinking about my trip there, and how people asked me which tribe I was from (I am not Native American either). I also have this gorgeous necklace from Syria recently gifted to me by my mother, who noted of what has been going on in the area. She thought that I should have it. And though I have never been anywhere near Syria, I feel a strange connection to the people and place, and I wear the necklace out of love. Am I helping anyone by wearing that necklace? No, not at all. But I do think that internally it is a personal reminder of other things, bigger things outside of my small world, that is humbling. I like the gentle reminder.
You won’t see me wearing skimpy outfits in indigenous regions, or marketing Kakaw products with sexy photos. That’s just not me. I believe in honesty, respect, and appreciation, especially when working with Guatemalan artisans. I also believe that there is something to having physical objects that help us feel a connection – to people and places we may or may not know. And for handmade products, the connection is even stronger, because we know someone (or most likely someones) put a lot of care into making them, like we do.
We want to be part of this movement to provide that connection through handmade goods in a sustainable way. Sometimes we focus so much on the production process (with good reason, it is amazing!) but perhaps equally important is the consumer process, that of appreciation for the handmade world and of different cultures and peoples. We hope we are doing this respectfully. That is our intention.