Cultural Populism is leading innovation and fostering pride in Latin American cultures
As we come to understand the shortcomings of living in a globalised world, a powerful wave we are calling Cultural Populism is reigniting self-confidence and appreciation of local cultures, traditions and identities. This change in behaviour is distinct from nationalism, which is rooted in the political idea of the nation state as a coherent whole. Instead, Cultural Populism arises from phenomena and resources that can be local to neighbourhoods, cities or across regions: such as parodying the Gangnam Lifestyle in Seoul, appreciating the Amazonian Açaí berry, or propagating a cult of Berlin-cool. In Latin America the cultural context gives it unique attributes, with great implications for global brands.
Previously the mainstream Latin American self-image was of a region not just economically, but also culturally impoverished. Sophistication, luxury and to a degree modernity itself resided in Europe and the US, and was achieved by Latin Americans through buying into international brands. Local and indigenous cultural artefacts were largely manifest as twee tourist tack. Indeed, there was a broad frustration with what is sometimes referred to as the Gringovision of Latin America – all about sombreros and boleros, poverty through an aesthetically pleasing and ill-informed photographic lens. By the dawn of the 21st century, this felt not only romanticised, but increasingly condescending and unrepresentative. However, first attempts at asserting modernity at home still involved importing concepts from abroad, best embodied in the viral spread of that cultural behemoth, the Shopping mall. Quoted in a Vice article, Mexico City Chef Elena Reygadas from Rosetta Reastaurant sums it up well:
“20 years ago, the trend was to get a French chef from Paris and bring him to Mexico, pay lots of money, and do a French restaurant in Mexico City. As Mexicans, we thought our food was too humble for high-end restaurants”
But today modernity is taking on a different flavour, one that involves savouring local cultures rather than bulldozing them. Globalisation has its role to play in this shift: as the world of online makes global culture ever more accessible and ever more everyday, Latin Americans are starting to realise that they can offer something that sets them apart and often this resides in indigenous influences. Understanding this is critical to understanding what characterises Cultural Populism in Latin America. It is not about rejecting global culture, it is about being distinctive on the world stage through bringing a unique contribution. In RSVP Online Karla Steinger cites this as the inspiration behind Maka, her line of Mexican inspired handbags:
“In this globalised world everything looks the same, it’s all made in China and difficult to differentiate. But through its culture, Mexico can propose something new that has its own language with its own roots.”
In terms of visual aesthetic, the best reference point for this exchange between global and local is probably Brazilian brand Farm’s recent collaboration with Adidas, colliding the iconic global sports brand with incandescent Brazilian colours and swirls. It’s utterly Brazilian and utterly contemporary. Bold visual statements are an important part of this trend, which largely draws on tropical and indigenous influence; dark reds and profound ochres, speckled with Kingfisher blues, set against the deep and variegated greens of the rainforest.
In a strong print campaign, Mexican brand Maria Patrona also makes the point that Mexican tradition can now represent luxury rather than poverty, a proposition that has nascent but strong implications for codes of premium-ness in the region. This does not mean, however, that Cultural Populism can’t be accessible. In Brazil, low-cost local spirits like Selvagam Catuaba and São Braz have been making major breakthroughs in recent years (in 2014 Selvagem grew by 96%). However it does mean that, whether lux or low-cost, local traditions are now aspirational like never before.
Nevertheless, references to tradition should also not lead us to confuse the matter. Cultural Populism in Latin America is not about going back to old ways, but about offering something new and unique. This is well expressed in the gastronomy scene across the region: in Colombia, Mini-Mal Restaurant combines unique ingredients and dishes from different parts of the country into one single dining experience. Quintessentially Colombian but also completely new. In Lima, Maidorestaurant fuses Peruvian ingredients and dishes with Japanese haute-cuisine to spectacular effect. Meanwhile Central’s theme is based around Peruvian regional sourcing: the tasting menu takes the diner on a journey across the whole country, from the bottom of the sea, up the Andes and deep into the jungle.
Back in São Paulo Mani (named after the indigenous goddess of the Brazilian Manioc root vegetable), injects European influences into Brazilian tradition in both its interior design and in dishes like ‘Lapsang Souchong Beef’. Finally, in Bolivia Award-winning Restaurant Gustu was set up by a Copenhagen Chef who wanted to take advantage, not of Bolivian cooking, but of the potential of Bolivia’s raw ingredients to create never-seen modern gourmet cuisine.
The idea of familiar ingredients for new dishes encapsulates what lies at the heart of Latin American Cultural Populism: it riffs on the best of local traditions and resources, re-mixed with global sophistication, to produce something entirely contemporary and surprising. It marks Latin America’s shift from a consumer to a creator of leading-edge global culture.
For global brands this means the region needs to be approached with a new sensitivity; brands that show local understanding make themselves feel more relevant, and deep cultural insight bolstered with local partnerships, will be critical to achieving this. Above all this burgeoning of creativity makes Latin America a region to watch as a future trendsetter and source of cultural inspiration.
Image Sources: Comidas and Four Magazines, Farm, New World Review and Pinterest
- Article by Xenia Elsaesser