Who would have thought a small shop selling nothing but cacti would thrive, in Minnesota of all places? But Madre Co. was an instant hit when it opened in Northeast Minneapolis in March 2018. So much so, that 90 percent of the stock sold within 48 hours of the store’s opening, forcing owner Erik Hamline to close for a few months to regroup and restock. Madre’s popularity then prompted its move in May to a larger space.
Less than four weeks after re-opening in a newly-renovated warehouse just north of downtown Minneapolis and garnering another wave of praise from mainstream and social media alike, Madre Co. abruptly changed its name to Mother Co.—a response to one blogger’s claim of cultural appropriation.
The blogger, a Minneapolis-based musician named Toussaint Morrison, stated in his post that Madre and its owner were using “the language and cultural aesthetic of brown or black people for profit.”
“Madre is owned by Erik Hamline, a white man who can be found tending delicately and tediously to each of the green beauts inhabiting the shop,” the blogger writes. “Seemingly with his heart in the right place, Hamline doesn’t look to mean any harm, however the impact of a white business owner utilizing the Spanish word ‘Madre’ for profit, plays immediately into appropriation and affectation.”
The blogger shared similar sentiments on his Instagram and it sparked a conversation with more than 70 comments—some in agreement with the claim of cultural appropriation, some not.
Four days later, Hamline announced the name change to Mother Co. on his store’s Instagram (which has more followers than the blogger’s combined following on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter).
Hamline says he wanted to respond quickly. “Even if [our branding] upsets one person, or even if it’s just questionable to one person, in my mind, that’s an error on my part that I need to correct to be as sensitive as possible.”
The original name, Madre Co., was intended to be a nod to the physical region of the Southwest U.S. where most of the shop’s plants are sourced and where Spanish names are still commonly used for towns, roads, businesses, plants, and more, Hamline says. He also thought it spoke to the care he gives his plants and the beauty of Mother Earth. Before opening, Hamline says he asked many of his first- and second-generation Hispanic and Latino friends for their thoughts about using the Spanish word in his business name. They gave him the green light, he says.
“And the mistake that I realize I made now is that they’re all my friends,” Hamline says. “So, they know me, and they know my work ethic personally.”
Hamline says his second mistake was following the lead of other businesses in town that walk a similar line. There are other restaurants and businesses in the Twin Cities, Hamline says, that sell a name and look that is hyper-specific to a region other than their native Minnesota. He thought that if what they were doing was accepted, then his store name wouldn’t be a problem. “Again, error on my part,” he says.
Accusations of cultural appropriation against businesses, though, are not unique, and seem to be increasingly common.
TV personality Andrew Zimmern faced national criticism and accusations of cultural appropriation and insensitivity shortly after the November opening of his West End restaurant, Lucky Cricket, following the release of a Fast Company video interview in which he insulted Asian cuisine in the Midwest. Lucky Cricket recently closed abruptly and announced on social media that it is remodeling.
A Portland, Oregon, burrito cart named Kooks famously shut down in 2017 after critics claimed the non-Hispanic white owners stole recipes while visiting Mexico.
Is the Madre/Mother Co. incident the same? Is it always wrong for a business to borrow from a culture other than that of the owner?
Aaron Keller, CEO of Minneapolis branding agency Capsule (and TCB columnist), says no. “An entrepreneur, creative team, or someone coming up with a brand name isn’t usually looking to insult a culture or diminish it by using a word as a brand name. In fact, they are looking to raise it up and ask people to remember the story behind the name and all that is positive about the cultural nuance.”
University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business distinguished service professor Dr. Mike Porter agrees. “The cacti company is not trying to say that they’re Latino. It doesn’t say ‘Madre: Authentic Mexican Cacti’,” he says. “‘Madre’ is just a word. It happens to be a Spanish word, but it’s just a word. Which part of Latin culture is he appropriating? A word alone—is that appropriating culture? [Not] unless he is literally trying to translate that into profit for his business.”
Porter, whose current research focuses on crisis communications, says he thinks the blogger pointed his finger at the wrong business owner—someone who “is running this one business and just happened to pick this name because it felt more Southwest than Minnesotan.”
“There are other places where he could really aim legitimate angst,” Porter says. “But I don’t think this is the one.”
But Rico Vallejos, multicultural creative director and copywriter of Twin Cities marketing consultancy RicoLatino, thinks that the blogger has more grounds for his claim.
“I, myself, don’t have any problems with [Hamline’s use of a Spanish word in his business name], but I can see how, in this age of cultural appropriation, it is an issue,” Vallejos says. “I think you can make a fair argument, as the author of the blog did, to say that this is cultural appropriation.”
Whether or not it was necessary, the experts agree the name change was likely in the best interest of Hamline’s business.
“Arguably, I’m not seeing the culture that’s being damaged here. But if it’s perceived by people that you care about that you are damaging their culture, or a culture, and that hurts your business, then it’s probably not a good business choice,” Porter says. “In this case, [Hamline] sort of rolled over and played dead, and I think ultimately, that’s going to work best for him. His business, his brand is not built on that name. It’s built on everything that the blogger described—his wonderful cacti and so on and so forth…He didn’t make the only right choice, but he did make a right choice.”
Vallejos believes the opportunity for the cactus retailer goes beyond a name change. He says Mother Co. should share more about its philosophy and business practices on its website.
“The fact that they changed the name doesn’t change one key thing, which is that a lot of the products they carry come from Latin American—from Mexico, from Peru,” Vallejos says. “Are the products sourced fairly? Are they fair trade?” An “About Us” page would be a good place to share this information, he adds.
Hamline says that all of Mother Co.’s plants are bought in the Southwest and that his dealers are phytosanitary and certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to guarantee the good health of their products. The pottery he sells is made in Mexico by companies with NAFTA-approved U.S. distributors.
Vallejos suggests Mother Co. could also increase its community involvement—particularly in North Minneapolis, home to large African American and Latino communities. “In their note on Instagram, they say, ‘hey, about our location, we’re in the middle of nowhere, we’re not bothering anybody.’ But that’s not the meaning of community,” he says. “Are they giving back? Even if you’re a mom-and-pop shop, you can do something. You can be part of the community. Either giving money, giving time, giving resources, giving air time on your website to community events or community causes in both the African American and Latinx communities,” Vallejos says.
Hamline says Mother Co. is doing just that. Before moving into the new space, Hamline says he reached out to a number of Northside organizations to express his desire to work with them. Hamline has sent gift certificates to local nonprofit organizations for auctions, and is involved with groups like the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON) where he offers donations to small business startups.
Mother Co. also gives away free plant cuttings on Wednesday mornings, and Hamline has started bringing in smaller plants that sell for less than $10 to make the store accessible to a wide range of people.
“A lot of assumptions get made about me and my shop,” Hamline says. ‘From this whole thing, I just want to find a way to do what I personally feel is right, and what I hope is actually right, and what all the feedback I’ve gotten lately has kind of led me to believe is right. Because in the end, we have to be nice to each other and respect each other.”