Alvin Starkman, M.A. J.D.
Although its manifestation dates back to Roman times if not earlier, the concept of cultural appropriation began to receive press in the Western World no earlier than about the 1960s. It has more recently received attention in both media reports and in the academic literature. Regarding the former, take for example the recently-pulled Dior ad promoting its Sauvage fragrance, with actor Johnny Depp walking amidst the red rocks of Southwestern Utah, the more striking backdrop being a Sioux warrior performing a ritualistic dance. Or closer to home the criticism levied against French haute couturier Isabel Marant for designing a dress similar to blouses made by and used for generations by the Mixe indigenous peoples of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.
The explosion in the mezcal industry since the mid 1990s has also witnessed more than its fair share of commentary. It has come predominantly, thankfully, only from trolls who have been critical of Western incursion into several facets of the agave distillate boom emanating predominantly from Oaxaca. As most readers know, Oaxaca is where most of the country’s mezcal has traditionally been distilled and from where it has been distributed both nationally and now globally.
And so as a precursor to the academic article upon which I am currently working, I decided to pen some thoughts on the topic while continuing to research the anthropological and legal literature, in which my background lies. So here goes.
Cultural appropriation can be defined as the adoption or utilization of elements of one culture, nationality or ethnic group by one or more members of another, the former typically being relatively disadvantaged, the usurper doing so for profit or otherwise personal gain, and/or with a lack of appreciation, understanding and/or respect, and without permission.
My working definition is not without flaws, however. It is a starting point, open to discussion. Consider “without permission.” This might not be a valid pre-condition for finding cultural (mis)appropriation. For some, a blessing from one or more members of the culture might be irrelevant. In any event, one might reasonably ask how blanket permission is obtained from the membership, though I suppose a community council might be approached. And is it nevertheless cultural appropriation? Should permission factor into the equation at all, and if so in what context?
Take for example the carved painted wooden figures known as alebrijes. What happens when two Americans obtain the right, in writing, to reproduce specific designs in resin, in China. The family in Arrazola, Oaxaca, with its blessing sells the exclusivity to the buyers for a fee. Is that still cultural appropriation? Alebrijes are not a Zapotec invention or tradition (and Arrazola to my recollection is not a Zapotec village, its members having hailed from other parts of the country), and in fact their existence as a folkart form in Oaxaca back no further than to about the 1960s, perhaps later. I have personally not come across a figure dating to earlier than about 1980. Their actual beginnings, typically as brilliantly painted papier maché dragons and such, go back earlier than the Oaxacan wooden figures, to the Linares family of the State of Mexico. Have the Oaxacan families which produce them today, the members of which have varying degrees of indigeneity in their blood, appropriated something not their own? Does that lessen any inappropriateness of the two Americans?
What if the personal gain, rather than profit in the usual sense, is “only” obtaining a sense of self-satisfaction, a stroking of the ego, as in giving to charity? What if all the profits are returned to the host culture? Are there circumstances in which a member of the disadvantaged culture can be rightfully accused of cultural appropriation, or does he have an exclusive, inalienable right not subject to criticism, to run roughshod over his own culture for the purpose of profiting? If he has that right, is it dependent on the extent to which he has been an integral part of the culture or how much if any indigenous blood he has running through his veins?
Wood carvings, rugs, clothing, cuisine and perhaps additional indicia of current manifestations of culture in Oaxaca, have already received some attention in the academic literature dealing with the theme of appropriation. To my knowledge mezcal has not.
In the state of Oaxaca, my bailiwick, most of the allegations relative to the mezcal industry are subtly advanced, usually not in print and if so anonymously, and typically constituting merely a whisper; that is, an undercurrent. It emerges in this way presumably out of a fear of some sort of recrimination. Those accusers likely fear being called out for their blanket condemnation without a clear understanding of the complexity of the term cultural appropriation and/or not being acquainted with the alleged perpetrator. They may have no idea of his motivation, his impact on the host culture or one or more segments of it, etc. It’s easy to make an anonymous allegation; some have even harkened back to the destructive forces of colonialization without having considered that the Spanish have perhaps had a significant positive impact on palenqueros (with varying degrees of indigeneity) and their communities.
Of the three predominant theories of the history of distillation in Mexico, of which I am aware, only one traces the origin to indigenous groups. The other two date its genesis to the Spanish during the conquest, and to Filipinos in the galleon trade who with earlier knowledge of distilling, arrived on the west coast in the region near where Acapulco now stands. I am not suggesting that indigenous populations which distill agave can be deemed guilty of cultural appropriation from others. Rather, even within the context of mezcal, the issue can be more complicated than perhaps may appear at first glance, especially when as in this example the more disadvantaged are the apparent usurpers.
Today, the allegations of cultural appropriation are typically levied against non-Mexican-born “whites:” mezcal brand owners and in at least one case a distiller/brand owner; agave spirit websites and their principals; authors writing for print publications such as books and articles as well as online; and even those facilitators/instructors/guides living in Oaxaca who promote the spirit. Some who have felt the brunt of the accusations fall into more than one of the foregoing categories.
So within the context of membership in the foregoing groups which have most frequently been accused, let’s examine some of the aspects of cultural appropriation: motivation of the alleged usurper; permission; benefit to the host group; and, its identification as indigenous.
Outside of the mezcal frame of reference, motivation would appear to be clear; the French designer, the American purchasers of alebrije rights, and Dior, are all in it for money and little if anything more. You don’t have to be acquainted with them or their representatives, to reasonably understand why they are doing what they are doing.
But mezcal is different. Yes, the lion’s share of brand owners do flog their juice in order to make a living. However there is variation within that group. There are some with little or no interest in doing anything but maximizing profit. This might mean squeezing their palenquero distillate suppliers for every peso they can. Or selling for as high a price as posible without consideration given to trying to expand the mezcal-drinking market to those of relatively modest means as a way of more broadly benefiting the industry. But should we put them in the same class of cultural appropriator as the distiller/brand owner who makes it a priority to employ single mothers who otherwise would not have decent paying jobs? Or the American brand owner who sets up a trust fund for each of his palenqueros upon selling the brand to a multi-national alcohol conglomerate? Or brands which pay a mezcal instructor to teach its preferred buyers how those other than their own palenqueros make mezcal, with a view to expanding the knowledge of those who purchase and sell mezcal in their bars, restaurants and mezcalerías?
While I cannot confirm with any degree of certainty, I suspect that at least some of the agave spirit website owners who promote predominantly mezcal and/or tequila through posting articles and reviews and the like, have day jobs, and manage their online presence out of a love of and passion for the distillate(s). For certain there are those who reasonably do not rely on any income generated through selling ads or otherwise website space, since they earn much more from stocks, bonds, venture capital, and the rest. Any income earned would be a pittance by comparison. Hence at least in this category it is importance to have an intimate knowledge of the individual(s) before passing judgment. Are they using a mezcal website to earn money through promoting events? Are they giving back to the hardworking community members who distill mezcal traditionally? Is it enough that through their events and websites they are promoting tourism in Oaxaca? How much should we allow them to earn without making accusations of cultural appropriation? Motivation surely must lie along a continuum and we ought not pass judgment without first knowing precisely where along it the company/individual lies.
Many who write books and articles about mezcal are motivated by profit rather than anything else. Some sell articles to magazines and newspapers. Others, academics in particular, write books under the “publish or perish” system of maintaining their standing and/or job, some within the context of receiving money by way of grant or scholarship. And others receive advances from publishers. It’s important to consider if the writer simply swoops in to get his job done, then moves on to something else, never to return to Oaxaca, or has an ongoing intimate relationship with the state, returning regularly or living here. When it comes to documentary film makers, it tends to be the former and thus it becomes easier to be critical. But how many of the naysayers and critics even think about the swoopers-in? Perhaps they don’t because they have at least recognized that the end result is promotion for Oaxaca and mezcal, so it really doesn’t matter.
And then there are the instructors/facilitators/guides. It is suggested that most but not all in the category earn a living through this kind of work. We should similarly look at each individual on her merits, and examine the principal motivation. The concept of ethical mezcal tourism is relevant. Similar to the motivation of most in this category, are those in the distributor and retailer categories, which seem to not attract the ire of the critics for their motivation, perhaps because it is obvious. But within the latter two categories there is indeed some variation, such as the work if any that those in the sales industry do to promote agave distillates as a concomitant to sales. Naturally they enhance their bottom line by so doing.
Let’s now consider permission granted by the host society and/or members of the smaller subset, that being the ethnic group, community or family of distillers. As suggested near the outset it is perhaps imposible to obtain blanket permission, and even if it is granted it typically refers to only the palenquero who provides his blessing to the purchaser (brand owner), writer, guide or webmaster who comes calling. But often there is no quid pro quo. That is, there is no obvious benefit for the family of palenqueros or community, at least not which they perceive. When in 2019, the producers of a documentary about the future impact of the industrialization of mezcal interviewed two palenqueros, there was permission granted, but no direct consequential remuneration aside from purchasing a couple of liters of the maker’s mezcal.
However there are communities which do not welcome outsiders, even merely literally stepping into their worlds without first obtaining permission. Securing it often comes with a cost to the photographer, film maker, writer. On the other hand, it is suggested that there is inequality of bargaining power. Paying $50 USD to obtain such permission might seem like an appropriate sum for the village to extract, but for the intruder it is virtually nothing more than petty cash. Would building a library in the only school in the community make it okay, and keep the critics at bay? What about purchasing a computer for use in the village community center?
Is there ever enough benefit to the disadvantaged host culture to make cultural appropriation reasonably or somewhat aceptable? I would answer in the positive when it comes to mezcal. But even more so, and it could be argued indispensable for the benefit and amelioration of those relatively disadvantaged communities. The foregoing paragraphs provide examples. But more broadly, just look at the benefit for Mexico, the state of Oaxaca, the largely indigenous communities, and the families of palenqueros. A significant number of foreigners with not a drop of Zapotec or other indigenous blood in them have created and sustained the “mezcal boom.” If we took away Del Maguey, Pierde Almas, Scorpion, Vago and other brands which either currently or for most of their existence have been owned as a result of that colonialism, what would we have?
Despite the modus operandi of some in the industry to rape the locals to the extent possible in order to maximize profit, that is still the exception. Thankfully there are few in the industry at that end of our continuum, be they brand owners, writers and such, other media people and their corporate interests, and the mezcal tour operators working out of the city of Oaxaca. Inevitable something filters down to those much more in need than for the unscrupulous.
Our final dimension of cultural appropriation is indigeneity. It is perhaps the most difficult of all to get a handle and thus opine upon, yet otherwise likely the easiest to debate and “win” when dealing with antagonists, detractors and bleeding hearts.
Let’s say for arguments sake that the origin of mezcal dates back more than 2,000 years, and that indigenous groups have been distilling agave more or less continuously since then. And that, as the academic literature bears out, certainly in rural Oaxaca, most residents have some non-indigenous blood in their makeup. Is a white export brand owner from the USA or the UK any more or less guilty of cultural appropriation than a wealthy white export brand owner from Mexico City who has 98% Spanish blood? Are they both not guilty of cultural appropriation? What if the Mexican had 30% indigenous blood? What if one of the American’s grandparents was Zapoteco? Does class figure into the equation?
Consider a Mexican mezcal tour facilitator whose family is from the Mixteca district of Oaxaca, who keeps all the profits from his work for himself and readily accepts commission from palenqueros. How does one reconcile his standing within the cultural appropriation discussion, with his white American counterpart whose grandparents hail from Poland and who donates most of her tour’s net revenue to worthy Oaxacan charitable causes? Which one of the Mexican as compared to the foreigner, is appropriating from a somewhat indigenous culture? To what extent does or should motivation impact one’s answer?
Cultural appropriation in the mezcal industry can and does benefit indigenous communities, to varying degrees. Let’s asume that Del Maguey and Pierde Almas were guilty of cultural appropriation because they were (and perhaps to some extent still are) owned by whites with no indigenous blood. Were it not for those two and other “foreign owned” brands, other more recently constituted brands owned by Oaxacans with indigenous blood and from rural communities, perhaps would never have begun. True, inventions can occur independent of one another in the same era and geographical location, based on economic and other global circumstances. But not necessarily so. The issue might then be, are the two foreign owned brands doing more for villagers than those owned by indigenous Mexicans.
Whites born and raised outside of Mexico now living in Oaxaca, in the mezcal industry, yes have felt that undercurrent which alleges that they are misappropriating local culture to their own. Is it warranted? Not unless the troll, the accuser, has done his due diligence, knows the purported usurper and his motivation, background, and the implications of the conduct. There are very few in the industry who are capitalists to the nth degree, without a scintila of altruism. Even those who fit into that category, without knowing it are benefiting the mezcal industry, the communities growing it, Oaxaca, and Mexico. Once the foregoing has been carefully weighed, perhaps then, and only then, is it appropriate to opine regarding cultural appropriation in the Oaxaca mezcal industry. And, it should be done so within the context of a continuum. For me, I’ll defer further comment and reaching of conclusións pending completion of my anthropological and legal research.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).