Ask a Yucateca: Should I be concerned about appropriating your culture?

Yucatán is known for its beautiful embroidery. Photo illustration Yucatán Magazine

This is a question I get a lot. Cultural appropriation has become a sensitive topic for folks in the last decade. So you may be wondering how people in Mexico/Yucatán feel about foreigners using elements of traditional culture.

In all honestly, people here in Yucatán tend to be pretty relaxed about this sort of thing. For example, when Looney Tunes said they would phase out the Speedy González character for being stereotypically offensive to Mexicans, people all over the country cried out, “¡Amamos a Speedy!” and the company decided to backtrack. A similar thing also happened with a relatively recent Mario Bros game, where Mario was given a poncho and set in a desert-like world full of structures resembling Aztec temples. Folks here loved it, while in the US and Canada, many saw it as being in poor taste. 

This image, created by AI with a prompt by Douglas Clarke, distilled cliché Mexican culture with just a few clicks. Image created for Yucatán Magazine

As Mexicans, we celebrate the fact that elements of our culture get representation abroad, even by non-Mexicans. This, of course, is only the case as long as it is done in a tasteful and respectful way. One sensitive topic is when foreigners embrace elements of narco culture, which most Mexicans agree is despicable. It also often rubs people the wrong way when gringos are adamant about giving their opinions on sensitive topics they don’t really understand or with which they have no lived experience. 

One of the things that Mexicans and Yucatecos are most proud of when it comes to traditional culture is cuisine. So when someone talks about the “authentic panuchos” they had in Toronto, we can’t help but roll our eyes. But on the other hand, we are guilty of loving cream cheese and jalapeños on our sushi, so maybe we should not be so quick to judge. There is nothing wrong with foreign takes on our favorite dishes; just don’t call them authentic unless they really are. For example, I once had an amazing frijol con puerco in Montreal, and believe me, I chowed it down like there was no tomorrow. Just for heaven’s sake, don’t put mayonnaise on cochinita pibil. 

Also, if you walk through the streets of Mérida with a poncho or a giant sombrero because you think this will make you blend in, we will relentlessly make fun of you rather than take real offense. 

So feel free to try your hand at making tamales, get that tattoo of a Maya balam or hire a Mariachi. We love it. Just make sure that when representing our culture, you do so in a respectful way that embraces and honors our traditions. The more you do this, the more likely it is that you will be embraced by locals and given the opportunity to participate with us in the celebration of our culture.

Kanasín native Yesica Benitez explains the realities of local culture to bewildered expats. Email her at yesicabenitez@roofcatmedia.com 

Yesica Benitez
Yesica Benitez
Born in Yucatán, Yesica Benitez Chan is a marketer, avid gardener, softball player, baker, and a great lover of Yucatecan culture and cuisine.
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