When an approximation of the Tenango de Doria artisans’ iconography appeared on a line of mass-market tennis shoes, not everyone thought they were so cute.
That’s It! brand footwear, sold in the Liverpool department store chain, has drawn accusations of cultural appropriation. Shoes with colorful flora and fauna that characterizes that group’s traditional iconography was sold in stores between 594 and 699 pesos.
But the Otomí community is not credited, much less paid, for the alleged infringement. The only cultural reference is the legend “Mexico” on the back of the shoe.
The shoes were not found today on the Liverpool e-commerce site. Other That’s It! shoes remained, however, including a model that appeared to incorporate an interpretation of pasta-tile designs, and another with a generalized African print.
Tenango is a style of embroidery that originated in Tenango de Doria, a municipality in central Mexico’s Hidalgo state. It is a stylized version of centuries-old Otomi embroidery, which was developed in the 1960s. At least 1,200 artisans there practice the craft.
Indigenous communities barely profit from their own handiwork and the struggle to prevent plagiarism is constant.
A Spanish multinational clothing firm was found earlier this year to have been plagiarizing the same iconic designs.
The company, Mango, withdrew some embroidered sweaters and blouses only after state lawmakers wrote them an angry letter.
Nestle was also under fire for swiping indigenous designs, incorporating a familiar deer, armadillo and hummingbird motif, for a collectable teacup the multinational corporation marketed in 2016.
Manufacturers may have legal standing to adapt designs that are not copyrighted, but public uproar can force them to withdraw items or compensate communities with it appears they are simply copying a look.
But upscale brands have successfully cooperated with the community to work with the distinctive design. French fashion label Hermes, for example, has partnered with the Museo de Arte Popular and various artisans to create reproductions of the embroidery.
In the case of the tennis shoes, cultural promoters and artisans sent a letter to Liverpool to invoke a possible case of “plagiarism, dispossession and violation of cultural rights.”
The letter, sent by Carlos Arturo Martínez Negrete, a researcher who has denounced other cases of misappropriation of handicrafts, denounces the transgression of the cultural rights of the Hidalgo community, “by isolating members of the community, as well as any Mexican who feels violated their cultural rights, this occurs by limiting their participation in cultural life, access to the benefits of culture and common heritage.”
In addition, the letter asserts the tennis shoe line “inhibits the purchase of the original products, does not give credit, changes the interpretations of the colors that represent part of its traditions.”
On behalf of the Asociación de Dibujantes (Association of Illustrators) de Tenangos A.C., Martínez Negrete asked the company for damages. The document also recalls that at the end of 2017, the same department store sold Otomí dolls attributed to the community of Amealco, Querétaro, but that had actually been manufactured in China.
Liverpool responded that in response to customers, these models would be removed from their stores, “to clarify the situation on the use of the design by the supplier.” The June 12 letter continued, “Liverpool is a Mexican company that for 170 years has operated with ethics and strict adherence to the law.”
Last Thursday, the shoe’s designer and manufacturer, based in León, Guanajuato, made contact with Martínez Negrete.
“They do not know what to do because Liverpool told them that they will return a 1,800 pairs of shoes,” said Martínez Negrete.
Sources: El Universal, Reforma