Kendall Jenner became another in a long line American celebrities who have either endorsed luxury tequila brands or started one of their own using the labor of Mexican farmworkers for their own profit. But unlike The Rock, Nick Jonas, George Clooney, or Michael Jordan, Jenner and her 818 Tequila are facing backlash for the same cultural appropriation of Mexican culture, a double standard that fans were quick to point out. Still, as always with Jenner and the rest of her Kardashian clan, the criticism isn’t necessarily the gendered hypocrisy that people think it is.
For one, outsiders rarely understand the deep cultural and economic significance of tequila to Mexico. The drink is derived from blue agave, a plant that has been around since before Spanish colonization when the Aztecs considered it sacred and used it for clothing, mats, and roofs.
When tequila production began in 1700s Jalisco, operations were small, family-owned, and limited in its distribution to local communities. It became such a valuable commodity in the U.S. and staple of Mexican life that, in the 1970s, the country declared tequila its intellectual property. These days, the liquor can only be produced in Jalisco and the surrounding states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas, meaning it’s illegal for any other country in the world to do the same.
Still, the U.S. interest in tequila, which has only grown ten-fold in the 21st century, hasn’t come without those familiar colonizer vibes that Jenner is also perpetuating. Because of the high demand, blue agave production has worsened the quality of the country’s soil, the drink is no longer made using traditional tools like brick ovens, and is instead made with machines to mild the flavor of tequila solely for U.S. consumers, The Atlantic reported. Not to mention that when outsiders, primarily American celebrities, come in to start their own brand, they take away business from locals and rarely treat the product, the land, or the workers with the respect they deserve.
So what makes Jenner unique?
Jenner’s website features pictures of farmworkers similar to Nick Jonas’s, and in the announcement video she dropped to coincide with the official product release, her and The Rock share nearly identical drone shots of Mexican workers walking through blue agave farms.
But in that same video, people were quick to notice Jenner’s altered appearance, from her darkened skin to her “farmworker chic” garb that included a cowboy hat, woven blouse, and braids, all while straddling a horse through the agave farm in a poor attempt to emulate Mexican culture.
It didn’t help that her editing team used a sepia-colored filter to make the location look more rustic and “authentic”, the same technique used by every American film production company who makes a movie in Mexico. Sure, she may have spotlighted several of the workers—which she failed to do in her initial announcement and received criticism for—but the whole production read like a whitewashed, gentrified version of the real thing.
It’s bad enough that she named her Mexican tequila brand 818 after her Calabasas area code, where, no doubt unknown to her, the Latinx community barely makes up 9.1 percent of the city’s population and is mostly employed in the blue-collar sector. Not to mention the fact that California was once a part of Mexico.
But it became even worse when she announced her plan to release the drink first to stores in California, then exclusively to the rest of the U.S. with no intention to sell it in Mexico, a.k.a the country that made the product for her in the first place—quite literally, exploitation.
Really, no American celebrity should be pursuing their tequila ventures to make a quick profit off brown laborers. But this isn’t the first time Jenner or her family have been accused of cultural appropriation, which makes her tequila venture especially tone-deaf.
— why so serious (@spicyynoodlesss) August 26, 2017
From every member facing backlash for “Blackfishing,” to her and her sister Kylie selling t-shirts with their faces imposed onto photos of deceased Black artists like Tupac and Notorious BIG, even to Jenner herself appropriating Mexican-American chola fashion in a since-deleted Instagram post, that’s really what this recent criticism boils down to.
She’s not the first person to exploit Mexico’s natural resources and human labor for the sake of personal gain—which is a problem much larger than tequila—but she’s the one who keeps exhibiting the same colonizer patterns of behavior over and over again. She’s the one repeatedly making headlines for her blatant abuse and exploitation of BIPOC cultures for brand deals, engagement, and profit.
We’re better off supporting Clase Azul and other Mexican-owned Tequila brands, especially those run by Mexican women like Prospero Tequila, and calling out every foreign celebrity who tries to exploit cheap labor and reap the benefits of a centuries-old tradition.