While wearing a mask can feel like a sacrifice for some, others consider the act as more of a privilege.
Diverse ethnic groups, many which have been hit hard by the coronavirus, are finding beautiful ways to weave the fabric of their culture into their face masks.
They have turned the responsibility of wearing the mask — which remains a recommendation from top health officials — into an opportunity to represent, honor, and fight for the health of their communities.
Standing with Native American indigenous populations
But such devastation is not new to Native American communities — coronavirus serves as a grim reminder of the measles and smallpox epidemics that first decimated the indigenous population.
Native Americans are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus because they suffer from disproportionate rates of asthma, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Add to that lack of access to health care and pervasive poverty among the estimated 5.2 million people that identity as Native American or Alaskan native.
Amid the pandemic, some Native American designers decided to use their craft to help their community combat the virus.
Korina Emmerich, a descendant of the Coast Salish Territory Puyallup Tribe, had originally designed masks for the fall 2019 collection for her label, EMME.
The masks were meant to be a fashion statement highlighting the “biological warfare and pollution destroying Indigenous lands and our health,” she said. Instead, they have transformed into protection for the Native American community against the virus.
“As designers, we are storytellers,” Emmerich, 34, told CNN. “And our clothing is an extension of the non-verbal stories we’re sharing about ourselves. Fashion is becoming more and more political as a way to express solidarity.”
The masks, made out of Pendleton blankets, which have significant meaning in gifting and ceremony, are made out of 82% wool and 18% cotton. The mask’s lining is 100% cotton. Wool, which has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, can be sanitized in boiling water, or with dish soap and vinegar, and even pine oil disinfectant, Emmerich said.
“I think there is also a kind of tongue in cheek ‘f*** you’ to settlers by using wool blanket material as protective wear, considering our history of being impacted by biological warfare in blankets during the small pox epidemic,” she added.
Another Native American designer, Sarah Agaton Howes, is also making masks with cultural significance. The owner of Heart Berry lives on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota and designs traditional Ojibwe floral masks.
“Anishinaabe/Ojibwe people have always made our utilitarian objects beautiful,” Howes told CNN. “It’s really our way of operating. We are endlessly innovative and adaptive.”
Along with designing the masks, Howes teaches others in her community how to make the masks themselves. The 43-year-old mother of two also donates her masks to nurses, doctors, and public workers in the community.
“When we have something beautiful, we take better care of it,” she said. “We want to wear them. When we wear masks, we protect our elders and our high risk loved ones. As we have seen with the Navajo nation, we know that our communities are very high risk.”
Naomi Greensky, a registered nurse at Fond du Lac Clinic, a local tribal clinic on the reservation, is among those who received a face mask from Howes.
“I saw the design, her artwork, and am so proud to wear it,” Greensky told CNN. “For me the patterns are relevant to our culture. People in the community see them and ask, ‘Who made that? Where can I get one?'”
“It seems as when people have a mask that is representative to them they want to wear it and are proud to wear it. In the medical community we are happy to see individuals being safer and an added bonus: sense of style. It’s a pretty neat thing to see how our culture can be tied, literally, into a mask.”
Honoring Mexican icons and traditions
In just weeks, plus size fashion designer Ashley Nell Tipton went from making skirts and dresses to creating face masks and headbands for people to wear during the pandemic.
“It is not only important to be safe and wear a mask, but also that the mask can evoke a feeling while wearing it,” Tipton, 28, told CNN.
Tipton, who won Season 14 “Project Runway,” did not waste a moment before finding unique ways to weave her Latina culture into her masks’ designs. For her, this means incorporating a lot of Frida Kahlo.
“Not only can you feel secure but also proud of your heritage and culture,” she said of her masks. “People buy these masks because during these challenging times wearing ‘art’ brings them joy. If you are going to wear anything, then why not have it be a reflection of your comfort, personal style and sense of safety?”
Along with various designs featuring the Mexican painter, Tipton also makes masks depicting cards from the game Lotería, one of her favorite games growing up.
“These masks represent my culture and how I grew up. We play Lotería every time my familia gets together,” Tipton said. “Every time I see the Lotería mask it brings back great times and memories.”
Celebrating African, Indigenous, and Latinx cultures
Seven years ago, Marisol Catchings launched Azteca Negra, a jewelry and art store focused on celebrating African ancestry in Latin America while intersecting indigenous and modern art and fashion.
Now, the 31-year-old designer of Chicana and Black heritage and her mom, Norma Saavedra, are introducing the distinctive beauty of their cultures to the world of face masks.
While Catchings is grateful she can play a role in keeping people safe by designing masks, she is also concerned about the alarming rates of fatal coronavirus cases in indigenous and minority communities.
“As a woman of color, it is truly heartbreaking to know that the Black, Latinx, and low income communities in this country are being disproportionately affected and have a higher barrier of access to essential items, such as masks,” Catchings said.
That’s why the San Francisco Bay Area native and her mom launched Masks for Healthcare, an initiative donating hundreds of masks to medical and frontline workers, farmworkers, and elderly people in nursing facilities.
The pair are continuing to “honor their values” by merging culturally representative African and Mexican fabrics in her unique designs. The masks feature various culturally significant patterns, including a serape, a shawl commonly worn in Mexico and Latin America, as well as sugar skulls, or calaveras.
“In a time of such uncertainty and fear, wearing culturally representative masks can be a way to reclaim some of our sense of safety and joy,” Catchings said. “If we are now incorporating masks to our daily routine, safety is the first pro, and the added benefit is being able to express yourself through this small and very necessary item.”
Merging African and Hawaiian cultures with Ankara prints
For Air Force veteran Alexis Williams, designing face masks has become a way to represent her two cultures while also honoring her daughter’s memory.
After Williams lost her baby girl while stationed in Hawaii, she launched her boutique, Aloha Glamour, to help her cope.
“My daughter being born of African Blood in Hawaii gave me the idea to merge the two cultures to create the term Afrowaiian for my Afrowaiian princess, Lauren Taylor,” Williams, 36, told CNN. “It was important for me to honor her through our mask because it keeps her spirit alive.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the US, Williams was also determined to continue representing her lineage — which traces back to the Balanta Tribe in Guinea Bissau — by selling face masks with colorful Ankara prints.
“What an unprecedented opportunity face masks are for expressing one’s culture, an opinion or what you stand for. Maybe our new normal will provide an opportunity to grow one’s business or help a movement reach more people.”
Representing the Palestinian struggle
Motasem Kadadah believes there has never been a better excuse to wear a keffiyeh, the checkered black and white scarf and headdress known as a symbol of Palestinian culture and nationalism.
The 22-year-old from Minneapolis, Minnesota, said he is selling keffiyeh masks “to help spread awareness of the Palestinian identity throughout this pandemic.”
“What better way to show off your Palestinian blood, sweat, and tears than to wear a keffiyeh face mask that hundreds of thousands of people wear as a symbol of resistance?” Kadadah, who is Palestinian-American, said.
Kadadah, who runs the clothing store Palestinian Stallion, designs the masks by hand. He views making and selling the masks as a way to give back to the community and encourage people to protect themselves from the virus.
“Previously, if you were to wear a keffiyeh around your face, society might get uncomfortable. Now, it’s become (part of) a social norm.”
For every mask sold, Kadadah donates two meals to families in the Palestinian Territories.