A bit about me: having studied Spanish for four years in high-school (and a semester in college), I had always loved the language. I unashamedly watched Dora the Explorer episodes (‘Swiper, no swiping!’) and vociferously consumed extracurricular texts. But, when I was no longer studying the language, I allowed my skills to atrophy.
So, when I was hired, in August of 2013, by my county’s health department to ‘navigate’ the community’s way through the twists and turns of the new Affordable Care Act, I was overjoyed (as well as somewhat terrified) to be suddenly using my skills again. Thrown into the deep end in a largely Latino neighborhood with most of my co-workers unable to utter so much as an ‘hola’ . . . the burden was on me to become workably bilingual (and fast!). And, after being let go from that position and subsequently hired by SER-National (a non-profit targeting and serving the Latino community through job-training and ESL programs) it looked as though I would need to remain so.
What’s more was, for the first time, my studies were not purely academic. I was venturing into panaderias and gnawing on mysterious, delicious baked goods. I was ordering tacos de lengua in broken, hesitating Spanish, and, as the end of October rolled around, I began my Googling for a nearby Dia de los Muertos celebration.
I had long admired the skeleton dioramas (these from afar — they are expensive!), the colorful sugar skulls, the La Catrina mythos . . . the idea that our loved ones never truly left us.
But I wasn’t unaware of the appropriation of Dia de los Muertos.
In her article, “This is How We Celebrate Our Dead,” Tina Vasquez describes attending a showing of the new animated film, The Book of Life, with her two nieces . . . who live in Utah, being raised by White family members, and therefore are “hungry for ties to our (Mexican) culture.” Ms. Vasquez continues to describe her own emotions as a biracial Latina woman watching her beloved Dia de los Muertos be watered down by mainstream, White culture:
Since the death of my mother four years ago, Dia de los Muertos has become monumentally important to me and something I consider sacred, but every year there are more and more reminders that it is a tradition that belongs to Mexicans less and less.
There was that one time Disney tried to trademark Dia de los Muertos. Each year, there are more stories of corporations promoting the co-opting and whitewashing of a sacred Mexican holiday. This year it was discovered that beauty retailer Sephora was encouraging employees to show off their “Halloween faces” using a step-by-step makeup guide for a Dia de los Muertos-inspired look.
This year I saw Dia de los Muertos displays for Cheetos. In Halloween stores, I saw “sexy” Dia de los Muertos costumes for women, featuring a calavera mask, a sombrero, and a short dress embroidered with colorful flowers. On Halloween this year, I saw white children trick-or-treating in jeans and hoodies, their faces painted like sugar skulls. That was the entirety of their costume. Last year I walked into a local bar where white women had their faces painted similarly as they tried to talk customers into trying the pumpkin beer. I walked out.
Vasquez explains that, what bugs her the most about these types of appropriation is the ‘picking and choosing.’ The same people who consume tacos and menudo from diners and dives don’t seem to be all that bothered when the very same undocumented men and women that prepared/served their food are targeted for deportation.
For my 2014 Dia de los Muertos, I lit candles and placed food next to the urns of my loved ones (we keep them at home, so they’re always close to us). I didn’t make a proper ofrenda — no marigolds or pan de muerto — but I felt like I was honoring them.
I drove down to Pilsen, Chicago’s South-Side Latino neighborhood that was hosting, with the sponsorship of Elevarte (a local, youth-centric community art studio), the ‘Muertos de la Risa’ Dia de los Muertos celebration — complete with procession, traditional Aztec dances, and coffin opening. I popped over to the nearby NYCH Gallery for another art show/craft fair celebrating the holiday.
But, as I ate dinner in between events at Dia de los Tamales, a Mexican restaurant so Americanized that “Pumpkin Spice Tamale” is a legitimate menu option, and worse yet . . . enjoyed it . . . I wondered if I wasn’t just as bad as Vasquez assumed I was. Was I *gasp* . . . an Appropriator?!
Despite my deeper understanding of the day’s history and nuances, was I really just allured by the aesthetic of the celebrations? Because I was a White Lady, untethered to my family’s own mixed ethnic background and traditions, was I just desperate to belong?
In my humble opinion, the line (and there’s no denying it’s a fine one) between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ appropriation is akin to that between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camping etiquette. You know you’re violating it if you’re:
- Only there to take a selfie
- Littering the place with your trash — AKA unsolicited opinions and ignorant commentary
- Consciously (or subconsciously) doing the research necessary to create a simulacrum of the site — for which you will upcharge your future customers (think White Peoples’ love for traditionally-ethnic (and formerly cheap!) foods like kale and collard greens).
Your reward for good appropriation etiquette? A window into the peoples and cultures, that make up the world around us. And, ultimately, a more holistic path to our own personal growth and self-knowledge.