On Tuesday, Reddit user laika_cat uploaded the above photo to the Los Angeles subgroup, along with the headline, “Gentrification in Highland Park has reached new lows, apparently.”
For the unfamiliar, Highland Park is a northeastern neighborhood in Los Angeles that’s very much a Latino part of town. In 2000, Latinos made up more than 70 percent of the population. That was 16 years ago. Nowadays, Highland Park has a reputation of attracting a hipper (read most likely white) and monied (again, white) crowd. As the Los Angeles Weekly declared back in 2012, Highland Park is the new Echo Park, which was also an L.A. neighborhood that went from being historically Latino to hipster (not to be repetitive, but white) crowd.
The sign was hung up by the contracting company in charge of the project, not by the homeowners themselves, who claim that the house has belonged to their family for more than 30 years. That doesn’t matter though. Why? Because…
It’s easy to see why people are reacting so strongly the the sign. After all, that passive aggressive sign is straight up telling a largely Latino population that they should be thanking white people for improving their neighborhoods. It’s as callous as the gentrification of what’s been taking place in areas like Austin, Tex. Sometimes, gentrification can be deadly, like when it gets to a point where a person of color who grew up in a particular neighborhood becomes an intruder in his/her own hood.
And look, gentrification isn’t entirely bad, especially if it’s done in a manner that is inclusive of the community it’s seeking to improve. Boyle Heights, another Latino heavy neighborhood, is lauded for its gentrification. Let’s do more of this.
As a kid growing up in a Latino household, pretty much everyone had a giant molcajete for grinding up spices and making salsas, or a tortilladora for whipping up homemade tacos and quesadillas. And as staple of pretty much any Latina home, they weren’t that expensive either.
Well, one online company has taken all of that and flipped it upside down to try and make a very hefty profit by bringing ‘artisan crafted’ products into people’s homes – helping them experience a ‘cultural journey.’
The store’s outrageous prices for such traditional kitchen items is generating tons of criticism alone from people calling them ‘culture vultures’ and accusing them of gentrifying Latino cooking and cultural appropriation.
Verve Culture is being called a ‘culture vulture’ for taking traditional Latino cooking tools and selling them at insanely high prices.
Verve Culture – an online store dedicated to bringing “you on a cultural journey” – is facing a series of complaints after profiting from traditional cultural products. The company sells typical products in the preparation of three traditional cuisines at very high prices: Mexican, Moroccan, and Thai.
In the case of traditional Mexican products, the company sells orange and lemon juices; accessories for making chocolate, blown glasses, and molcajetes. And at insanely high prices: a molcajete for $60, a tortilla press for $60, a Mexican chocolate set for $80, and a “Mexican hand juicer” for $15.
The company is obviously profiting off of traditional products of a culture that is too often denigrated – or on the other end of the spectrum, fetishized. Brands are no stranger to appropriating traditional cultural items to boost sales but this particular instance seems to have hit a major nerve with shoppers.
Like, for real?! A molcajete for $60 USD?!
Among some of the most outrageous priced items is a molcajete and tortillero set that goes for $60 USD. That’s literally 20 times more expensive than it should cost.
As someone who lives in Ciudad de México, and who does their shopping at local tianguis and mercados, I have literally bought the exact same set Verve Culture is selling. I paid $60 pesos for the set – not $60 USD – or about $3 USD.
Selling items like this at such inflated prices means Verve Culture is profiting off of the cultural and gastronomic identity of an entire country. So it’s no surprise that Mexican Twitter lit up in shock and anger.
The reaction on Twitter was swift and full of outrage.
A Tweet showing off the outrageously priced products and accusing the brand of “gentrifying Mexican kitchen cookware” already has 36,000 likes and almost 20,000 retweets.
Among some of the comments include one Twitter user who said “Take your site down. This is an insult to Mexican culture along with all the other cultures you’re profiting off. Our culture is not your home decor!”
Another user tweeted, “…not of them is brown so it should really be named stolen culture because they’re selling fancy versions of things traditional to Mexican culture. Having one is fine, profiting off of a minority or their culture is not fine.”
While at least one person pointed out that the people who craft these items have long been taken advantage of. In a tweet, she said “Culturally we’ve been taught that our incredible craft and culture are worth close to nothing for years now, I really wish we could just collectively erase this mindset but at this point it’s so deeply rooted that thinking differently even feels “wrong” most times.”
Many pointed out that if you want to respect a culture’s food, support actual locals and artesanos.
Shopping online from three women who are not from the communities they’re profiting off of, is now way to support that community. That should be common sense but that site seems to have many customers.
As one Twitter user pointed out, if you really want to support local trabajadores, you should be buying directly from them. Shop in your local flea markets, your Latinx-owned shops and markets, this is how you’ll best help artisans.
The company’s $60 tortilla press was even featured in a Buzzfeed article earlier this year.
In the article, the author points out that the “tortilla press is made in Mexico from old Singer sewing machines and other recycled irons! The cast iron should last you, basically, forever so it’s definitely worth your money.”
That’s all great but where is that money going? How much of the $60 is the Mexican, Moroccan, Thai artisan actually earning from Verve Culture’s sales?
So what is Verve Culture and what do they have to say about all of this?
According to their website, Verve Culture is “a women-run business spanning three generational groups from Baby Boomer, Gen X, to Millennial.” As founders, Jules and Jacquie are a mother and daughter team who have worked together for 27 years.
In the company’s about section, they go on to say, “We are in constant pursuit of life traveled fully.”
“Our vision is to explore the cultural richness of artisans and communities around the world – to educate and inspire, while honoring the traditions and heritage of their work.”
Despite these claims, Twitter has been loud and clear in its message: stop profiting off the backs of already underpaid and overworked artisans from around the world.
Growing up, Andi Xoch’s aunt encouraged her to speak to plants. Her relatives usually laughed at the sight of a woman talking to her in-house flowers, but Xoch was intrigued. As a little girl, she acknowledged that there was life inside the pots, so conversing with them seemed standard. More than two decades later, that seed of curiosity about flora bloomed into Latinx with Plants, a digital community and IRL Los Angeles-based shop that teaches Latinxs of their ancestral relationship with herbage.
Sprouted in the spring of 2019, Latinx with Plants started as an account on Instagram. Through the page, Xoch wanted to provide representation of Latinx plant parents that she felt was lacking despite the community’s deep and vast connection with herbs and gardening.
“We’ve had a long connection with plants even before the trend started,” Xoch, a Mexico City-born, L.A.-raised organizer and artist, tells FIERCE.
“I wanted to represent that, to show that we’ve been part of this world even if it’s not presented in an Instagrammable form.”
For the past few years, so-called plant porn has dominated Instagram content. With hashtags like #plantgang and #urbanjungles, the growing trend has helped produce a new generation of young people with green fingers that are boosting sales of houseplants and inspiring even the basement recluse to be a plant parent. In fact, a National Gardening report found that 83 percent of the people in the U.S. who took up gardening in 2016 were between the ages of 18 and 34. Even more, it reported that 37 percent of millennials grow herbs and plants indoors, more than the 28 percent of baby boomers who do the same.
However, with the exception of a few accounts, including Xoch’s friend D’Real who created @blackwithplants and inspired her to make a similar account, many of these digital spaces are overwhelmingly white. This, Xoch says, ignores the history Latinxs have with plants and the sustainable practices they developed while gardening for decades.
“You walk onto our people’s front yards and you see their food: plantains, avocados [and] chayotes. And it’s all sustainable; they use pots made out of buckets and cans. It’s beautiful,” the 32-year-old says. “This is who we are. This is our culture.”
As Latinxs, Xoch says that our Indigenous roots have been forgotten or intentionally kept from us but that we can reconnect to our origins through inherited practices. Among them is ancestral medicines. At her shop, several elders come in and casually inform Xoch about the healing properties of her different plants. While the whitewashed mainstream plant blogosphere has co-opted much of the everyday traditions practiced within low-income communities of color, she finds comfort in knowing that these remedies are being passed down across generations through word of mouth and are not being commodified.
These informal educational encounters is one of the reasons why Xoch established her brick and mortar in August. Aside from selling an array of plants at the Boyle Heights-located shop, she wanted to create a space where new plant parents and señora gardeners can enter and feel welcomed, experience the joyous power of verdure and learn from one another.
She says that her mission is to build community and help people who feel depressed, anxious and alone, particularly amid the Covid-19 pandemic, experience the healing power of plants.
“Plants can be an asset to you because, whether you think it’s just for the plant’s sake to be alive, you are actually participating in a self-care act by nurturing your plant,” Xoch says. “They force you to get up every day and help you realize a lot of beautiful things about yourself that you forget to acknowledge: the caregiving, the attention, the love, the dancing, the singing — all the things that make it bloom are also exercises in self-love, self-care and self-preservation.”
A newbie business owner, Xoch says she now has another objective, though: to offer a non-traditional example of success and to be honest about the struggles of entrepreneurship.
On paper, Xoch’s road to becoming a boss seems swift and simple: She learned the location of a potential property on a Sunday, visited it on Monday, signed her lease on Wednesday and opened up shop the following weekend. However, the reality is much more complicated. A high school dropout, her lifelong dream to open a business was halted because she lacked the confidence, capital and connections to get started. Even when she did launch the store, the experience was far from easy. Xoch opened her small business from the ground up on a tight budget amid a pandemic and while her father sat ill at a hospital where doctors thought he would die.
“I want people to know this is real shit that people go through. We have the load of the world on us, we are caring for our relatives and we are trying to make sure our business is doing well,” she says. “I walk in [my store] and that alone is defying the odds.”
Follow Latinx with Plants on Instagram. For those in Los Angeles, visit the shop, which is complying with Covid-19 regulations and operating by appointment only, at 2117 E Cesar Chavez Ave.