Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Juarez makeup debacle comes to an end, but questions about what inspired it linger

An installation commemorating the Ciudad Juarez murder victims, March 2006
An installation commemorating the Ciudad Juarez murder victims, March 2006
Photo by Steev Hise/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The other night, while I was visiting with a few comadres, the talk turned to Ciudad Juarez. One woman had just seen the film "Backyard," a Mexican feature based on the hundreds of unsolved murders of women, many of them factory workers, in the border city. The film screened at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival last week.

And from there, the Juarez conversation took an inevitable turn: the recent flap in the fashion/cosmetics world over a Ciudad Juarez-inspired line of makeup from M·A·C Cosmetics and Rodarte, the Los Angeles-based fashion house, which so angered consumers after word of it got out earlier this summer via fashion and beauty bloggers that M·A·C recently decided to pull the line.

Here’s how it started: Last year, Rodarte designers and founders Kate and Laura Mulleavy, two sisters of third-generation Mexican descent, took a road trip along the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso to Marfa. In January, they unveiled a line of ready-to-wear fashions with an intentionally thrown-together look, which they said at the time was inspired by that road trip, in particular the female maquiladora workers who dress and make their way to work in the middle of the night – and who also happen to make up the bulk of the victims of the murders that have been occurring since the early 1990s.

The clothing line came and went without major incident, but the announcement a few months ago of the Juarez-inspired makeup collaboration with M·A·C, which was set to launch this month, drew ire from consumers with its nail polish, blush and other products sporting names like "Juarez," "Ghost Town" and "Factory." One item that prompted particular outrage is a multi-hued blush with bloody-looking red streaks.

In July, Rodarte and M·A·C apologized for the name choices. M·A·C also promised to donate proceeds from sales of the collection to charities in Juarez and change the names of the products.

A Rodarte statement read: “The ethereal nature of this landscape influenced the creative development and desert palette of the collection. We are truly saddened about injustice in Juarez and it is a very important issue to us. The M·A·C collaboration was intended as a celebration of the beauty of the landscape and people in the areas that we traveled."

However, two weeks ago, M·A·C announced that while money would still be donated to charities in Juarez, the makeup line would be canceled.

From a statement on the company's Facebook page:

M·A·C and Rodarte are deeply and sincerely sorry and we apologize to everyone we offended. We have listened very closely to the feedback of concerned global citizens. We are doing our very best to right this wrong. The essence of M·A·C is to give back and care for the community and Rodarte is committed to using creativity for positive social change. We are grateful for the opportunity to use what we have learned to raise awareness on this important issue.

?What adds complexity to this tale is the Mulleavy sisters’ background. Rodarte is their mother’s maiden name, the surname of their maternal grandfather, an immigrant from Zacatecas who arrived in the United States during the Mexican Revolution.

Some critics who know this have said the third-generation sisters should have known better: “…I must admit I'm ashamed that the Mulleavy sisters who are part Latinas--don't have a clue about what's going on in the real world,” wrote Rebecca Aguilar of Wise Latinas Linked on the Facebook group's blog.

Other comments have been more sympathetic, like this one beneath an early post in ColorLines: “…maybe they created this line and purposely created names to tie it to Juarez to bring attention to the issue,” commenter Lajoyo wrote.

What the Mulleavy sisters intended remains a mystery. Their publicist never responded to my e-mails. But I’m intrigued by that road trip. For the children and grandchildren of immigrants, traveling through a troubled landscape that is part of one’s heritage - be it the U.S.-Mexico borderlands or the crumbling heart of Havana - can stir up inexplicable emotions: loss, nostalgic yearning, a deep desire to connect with something that is out of reach. That, and depending on the circumstances, a degree of survivor’s guilt, because the people we encounter look like us.

Could all of the above, experienced by two third-generation sisters while traveling along the border, have stirred up something that simply didn’t translate well in its expression?