Nike Stole Panamanian Indigenous Artwork And Tried To Pass It Off As Puerto Rican Until Latinos Canceled The Whole Thing
After Nike teased its imminent release of an Air Force 1 shoe design meant to celebrate Puerto Rico, it was immediately met with backlash. The design features a coquí, the frog that can be heard chirping all over the island, and Puerto Rico’s national animal. That’s cool.
What’s not cool is the colorful design bordering the coquí, which is a blatant copy of a traditional Panamanian mola design. The company has since postponed the release of the show. They even apologized for “the inaccurate representation of the design origin for the Nike Air Force 1 ‘Puerto Rico’ 2019 edition.”
The Puerto Rico Nike Air Force 1s were expected to be released on June 6 at $100 a pair.
“@Nike, Guys, these are cool sneakers, and I get the reference to the Coquí frog, but this pattern and design are NOT from Puerto Rico,” @IsaacLarrier tweeted. “It’s a design called MOLA, made by the Guna people in Panama and parts of Colombia. It is a HUGE failure of your research department.”
The mola design belongs to the Guna indigenous peoples of Panama and Colombia and is very specific.
Most of the Guna people live in Guna Yala, islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Belisario López, the leader of the Guna community told U.S. News and World Report that the design represents “Mother Earth because the design is based on everything that is nature.”
The Guna knew that their design was protected by intellectual property laws in Panama and fought back.
Their lawyer, a Guna woman, released a statement that stated that Nike never asked for permission and that they “pirated” the design for company profit. Too often, companies steal from generations of indigenous art with no recourse. This time, the Guna people won.
The Guna Yala community isn’t opposed to commercializing the design.
“We are not against our ‘mola’ being commercialized,” Belisario López, Leader of the Guna Yala Community told US News and World Report. “What we oppose is it being done without consulting us first.”
Another major problem is that Nike tried to reappropriate Guna culture as Puerto Rican.
That a U.S. company would internationally distribute Panamanian artwork as representative of Puerto Rico left many Panamanians pretty angry. Rightly so.
The fact is that the mola is more than a design. It’s identity.
Monica Martinez, a professor of social anthropology at Barcelona University who has been studying the Guna for twenty years, said, “The mola is like a flag for the Guna. There is really a cultural identity that is articulated around the mola. It is a very strong element of identity.”
Some Panamanians are pointing out that Panama has frogs, too.
As well known as the coquí is to Puerto Rico, the Golden Frog is also widely known as endemic to Panama. It’s Panama’s national animal.
Some Latinos are angry that Nike didn’t look closer into Puerto Rico’s own rich history of art.
You don’t have to look too far to find an established Puerto Rican graphic designer or artist to consult with. Where are the art historians on the Nike team?
The creator of La Borinqueña already tweeted a mockup to Nike.
“.@Nike, when you make a tribute sneaker for Puerto Rico, note that ‘mola’ art is from the Indigenous people of Gunayala in Panama,” @MrEdgardoNYC tweeted. “So, here’s my quick #LaBorinqueña mockup and we can donate proceeds to our grants program in PR and the Mola shoe can benefit Panama! Hit me up!”
The tribe is now seeking damages for profiting off “part of the spirituality of the Guna people.”
Guna lawyer Aresio Valiente told AFP, “The company has to compensate us because it was an illegal copy of our designs.” This is part of a larger effort to reclaim justice for what feels like identity theft.
Valiente knows that Guna’s case against Nike is “not the only one in the world. Thousands of designs and the ancestral knowledge of indigenous people are being pirated by multinational companies.”