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The Exploitation of Wayúu Artisans and their Mochila Bags

The Wayúu people are indigenous peoples that reside both in Venezuela and in Colombia. According to the 1997 census in Colombia, they comprise twenty percent of the indigenous population, approximately 144,000.

They live in harsh conditions on dry, barren land without immediate access to hospitals, government assistance, proper nutrition, and proper tools for education much less in their own language. In addition, their existence is under threat as many children are dying from malnourishment, nor are they given any proper care via government policy. On august 2017, a month old baby was given back to her family in a cardboard box because they couldn’t pay the expensive bill for a proper coffin.

Needless to say, financial safety is lacking for the Wayúu people. And the western world is exploiting that as much as possible.

In Guajira, Colombian women weave their famous Wayúu bags only to receive a small portion of the profit. Therefore, as these bags continue to grow in popularity as a trend, the elite class in Colombia continues to profit off their labor and work.

One of the main economies of the Wayúu people is the craft of mochila bags, small buckets bags with complex geometrical patterns woven with a variety of colorful thread, but unfortunately they do not receive any profit. Women weave these bags meticulously. It can take anywhere between two to three weeks to weave a Wayúu mochila. The making of the bags is a sacred process in their culture. Learning to weave is a coming of age symbol for young girls.

Unfortunately, they do not have access to take measures to protect themselves or their work. They do not have correct access to copyright or Copyleft laws to protect their designs from being made for profit. Many popular brands either exploit indigenous workers to make these bags and pay little to no money for their labor, or just cut them out of the loop entirely by stealing their designs.

July 2017, a Colombian showcase in collaboration with Colette’s boutique is a prime example of this. The showcase was curated with the guise of representing Colombian culture. The perpetrator was Esteban Cortázar, a rich bourgeois half-Colombian with white European jazz singer mother who grew up in one of the richest areas of Miami. He curated around eighty pieces that included post cards exhibiting the persons of afro-Colombian women in their daily lives. Other items included Wayúu mochilas and other mochila bags for 665 euros. Cortázar was praised for his curating and bringing awareness to Colombian culture, yet all he had done was steal someone else’s hard work. This isn’t just Cortázar. There are many others who perpetuate this cycle of appropriation, particularly well known designer brands such as Christian Louboutin. In July 2017, Louboutin only paid the Mayan women of Mexico, whom he exhibited in his campaign, 13 US dollars per bag. The bags sold out for 1400 each.

The elite is mostly composed of white Colombians who are so far removed from the culture they commodify. An absolute truth is that they do NOT have a right to usurp the indigenous culture and to accumulate profit. The elite class in Latin America has continuously succeeded in this since 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Many of those families that stayed in the Americas still reign villainously with their riches while the indigenous worker suffers at the their hands.

They do not have the right to represent any sector of Colombian culture that belongs to the peoples whom have to fight the elite class for legitimate occupation in the public sphere. They do not have the right to represent the indigenous community who has to fight the elite class for legitimate occupation in the public sphere. They do no not have the right to represent the afro-Colombians who were brought here by their ancestors. They do not have the right to represent urban culture that comes from the poor working class. They do not have the right to appropriate the cultural patrimony of these groups whom the elite has spent many efforts in sustaining a position of superiority to these groups. They do not have the right to thicken their already full pockets on the backs of the poor working class.

Fortunately, there are movements to recognize the intellectual property and collective rights of weavers. The Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez, is one of the groups fighting to declare the Wayúu weavings as cultural heritage, meaning the designs cannot be taken or adapted without consent of the original artist.

Stealing from indigenous tribes is not a new concept. We have continuously seen many indigenous patterns on clothes and accessories. In addition to the land contamination and eviction indigenous people face at the hands of capitalism, their culture is used for profit by the same elite class who perpetuates stereotypes of them.

This struggle exists on a wider scale throughout many indigenous communities in the Americas.


[Images via x & x]

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Written by Alyssa Evangelista

Alyssa is a Dominican-American New Yorker and graduate student in Communication and culture in Paris where she also teaches English.

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