Mi cultura no es un disfraz

I live in a quaint old little Dutch town with this odd tradition of planting tulips every year and celebrating their bloom. It may seem oddly pagan for a town sprinkled with churches on every corner, but it’s justified by claiming to celebrate the Dutch settlers who “discovered” our town (notice no mention of the Native Americans that were already here). The celebration wouldn’t be complete without a set of parades; the grand entrance, one all about music and children, and the grand finale for all the tourists that line the streets every year. My eager participation started in Kindergarten, (what kid doesn’t want to show off?) and it continued every year until I graduated high school thanks to my participation in the marching band. The vendors plop down the 1st week of May and pack up the Sunday after the big parade. It wouldn’t be odd during this week in May to go to a parade and see children and adults of all backgrounds in Dutch hats and wooden shoes (No, not only the people with Dutch heritage participate in this ritual). The tradition has been going strong for decades. And if you ignore the absurdity of celebrating people who discovered a town that was already inhabited, the festival is a lot of fun, and a great way to catch up with EVERYONE.

There was a period when the city started to understand that their traditionally Dutch residents were starting to look more and more different and that perhaps the parades should reflect that. In 1st grade my teacher asked me if I wanted to march with the class wearing a Dutch costume or march with the students that were representing different countries. I chose the later. Each one of us got to hold a flag so people would know what country we were representing. I was so excited to be wearing my bright pink flowy skirt, my hair in braids and my lips painted with bright red lipstick. Regularly in class my waist length hair made me stick out in a sea of blonde hair and blue eyes but marching along children with the traditional dress of all different countries felt comfortable. After I moved schools a teacher at my new school had a great idea and pulled me and a few other students aside and asked if we wanted to sit on a float in our traditional clothes from our countries. It was the float representing the city and she wanted the people on it to represent all the different people that lived here. I did that for a couple of years and switched up the outfits I wore. There was the China Poblana dress (a beautifully sequined dress that’s typically worn to dance the Jarabe Tapatio and whose origins are up for debate), the all-white dress from the state of Veracruz (which is danced to music that has heavy influence from the African slaves who were brought there and the Spanish that settled there), and the pink skirt with the typical embroidered shirt. I wore each dress with pride, I loved sitting on that float.

But for reasons I didn’t know, the children stopped participating and in a few short years the only people on the city of Holland float were wearing Dutch costumes. You can still find people of different cultures in the parade but they’re always on their own float as stand alones, separate from the city of Holland brand. I find it funny that the Holland area convention and visitors bureau website says Holland was founded to provide freedom of expression…and yet the city intentionally or unintentionally is becoming more separationist.

When the Holland float stopped celebrating all cultures and only Dutch heritage I clung deeper to my own. I have always been proud of my heritage, I find it beautiful and I love the rich and complex history, a story that I never learned in class but learned orally through family. That led to a deep appreciation for all cultures and different times in history which has manifested in self-expression in my clothes and accessories.

For me, appreciating a culture is a way of keeping it alive. That’s what the Tulip Time festival has managed to do with Dutch history and it’s what I attempt to do every day I get dressed. But appreciation and appropriation is a fine line to walk and I have to be careful of how I choose to show my appreciation.

We’re nearing Halloween and the talk about culture as a costume will surely start popping up on my timeline soon enough. I have personal opinions about how to appreciate a culture to not verge on mocking or repressing the people the trend originated from but I needed outside perspective.

So I reached out to two women much wiser than I. Both said that they like when people of other cultures share some of our traditional clothing because it shows how Mexican culture can be beautiful. But one did make the point that there is a difference between costumes, mocking, and appreciating.

During recent Halloweens it’s become trendy to do calabera makeup. Without understanding that it’s a religious ritual not a costume to be commercialized makes the act come off as offensive and insensitive.

For a while the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe (an image that is believed to have appeared on the shirt of an indigenous man so that the church clergy would believe the Virgin Mary sent him to tell them to build a church honoring her) was at risk of being patented and only that one company that held the patent (not a Mexican company) would have the right to produce and sell the image.

Not only that but designers have gone as far as stealing patterns from indigenous tribes and selling them as their own, as was the case of Isabel Marant who made a $300 dollar dress that almost identically resembled patterns that Mixe tribes have been making for over 600 years. The designer eventually stopped selling and producing the dress, after backlash from many communities. But fashion houses stealing from communities unable to profit from their artwork is nothing new to fashion.

Don’t even get me started on the lazy Mexican or illegal immigrant trope that people do for costumes. Just don’t do it people.

I’m not a believer of the “only people of one culture get to participate in it”, which I know may not be a popular belief to have. But I’m not an isolationist. I think that’s dangerous and keeps us closed minded. We wouldn’t expand our experiences or grow as humans. We wouldn’t have democracy, math or denim the way we know it today if we all isolated ourselves in our own cultures.

But I do think we have a duty to responsibly appreciate other cultures.

Such as the Brazilian designer Oskar Metsavaht who drew inspiration for one of his lines from the Amazonian tribes and dedicated a part of the proceeds that he got to the people of that tribe.

So when you’re getting dressed ask yourself:

Who produced this, if it obviously has influence from a distinctive culture was the entity you purchased it from of that culture?

If not, does that entity give parts of the proceeds back to the community which it drew inspiration from?

Am I appreciating the beauty and will take care of this item or am I putting this on as a costume (and discard it) after it’s served the purpose I intended it to?

Is there any religious significance to this piece of clothing or accessory? If there is, am I a participant of that religion?

If it does have religious significance would it be considered offensive if I entered a cultural space NOT wearing it?

If the answer is no to any of those questions you’re probably bordering cultural appropriation. There’s a lot of information published on the web if you need more education on the history and implication of cultural appropriation. But I made it easy by linking a few here here and here. In the words of Olufunmilayo Arewa who wrote the first post I linked, “borrowing may become appropriation when it reinforces historically exploitative relationships or deprives African countries of opportunities to control or benefit from their cultural material.”  I want to expand on that quote by adding that it becomes exploitative when it deprives any cultural community the opportunity to control the destiny of their artisanship (and no you’re whiteness is not a cultural community in danger of being exploited). Bottom line don’t let appreciation become exploitation. And don’t disrepect my history and people by using my culture as a costume that you’ll throw away after a night. 





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