The most prevalent memory I have about Día de Los Muertos—when I lived in Mexico—is my grandmother going to the local bakery and buying us, my older sister and I, pan de muerto and sugar skulls. The skulls had our names engraved on a little banner over the eyes—as a young kid, this was exciting, a new candy. I didn’t care too much for the bread. It was like any other pan dulce, but it had less colors, only sprinkled sugar. And lastly, the soapy smell of cempasúchils (marigolds).
I was in primero de secundaria (7th grade) when I celebrated the holiday for the first time. The private, nun-administered school wouldn’t celebrate Halloween due to the “satanic” implications that accompanied the holiday, but Día de Los Muertos was fine—because it was closer to the culture, because it had a vein running into Catholicism, because it was a day to remember. The day was celebrated with a competition. The students had to create an altar for someone who had positively influenced society. My group chose Leonardo da Vinci as the influence. I remember asking my mom for Renaissance-looking hat, a black coat, and so on. We wanted to look as European as possible. Because we researched plenty of Da Vinci’s achievements and theories, albeit computers and internet, and put so much effort into the altar, we won. The school’s main field would reek of marigolds for days to come.
This was one of the happiest days in secondary school. Yet this is not the way Día de los Muertos should have been celebrated. This was my own form of appropriation.
From my understanding, Día de los Muertos is a Mexican national holiday that was moved from its original date to coincide with the Catholic holidays—All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days. This holiday is more popular in the southern and central parts of Mexico; this is mainly because the holiday is an appropriation from the Aztecs, which, regionally, by proximity the tradition was passed down.
The holiday is celebrated with ofrendas (altars); these ofrendas consist of traditional Mexican meals (e.g. mole, chiles en nogada, chiles rellenos, chile colorado, chicharrónes en salsa verde, et cetera.), pan de muertos, marigolds, alcohol—mainly tequila—and the sugar skulls. The ofrendas are set up in one of the two following places: in the privacy of a house, or at the cemetery near the tombstone of the celebrated deceased.
Octavio Paz, in his “legendary” rendition of Mexican culture, Labyrinth of Solitude, explains that Mexicans have a “ special relationship with death” and that “[Mexicans’] relations with death are intimate—more intimate, perhaps, than those of any other people.” There’s a shared belief that Mexican’s obsession with death comes from our ancestors, the Aztecs—think of these things: live sacrifices, pulling hearts out, offering virgins, et cetera. This is may be one of the main reasons why there is such a huge controversy when Latinos(as)/Chicanas(os) call out how the holiday has been appropriated.
In one of our literary translation classes, Rosa Alcalá, pointed out how Mexican Spanish is “extremely fatalistic.” Yes, we learn to be very dramatic or “passionate” people—I blame novelas.
I grew up in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. I don’t remember there being a huge parade or public celebration for this event; I was introduced to it by sugar, bread, and nuns.
One reason why we never traditionally celebrated the holiday was because of its association to Mexican native roots (indios). In my classist societal bubble, being associated with the Mexican indio immediately connoted naco. The term naco carries too much weight: translated, it means ghetto. But the term also references someone who lacks culture, wealth, and poise. A big no-no for my country-club-golf-playing-well-behaved and oh-god-I-hope-you’re-not-gay culture.
Because of this, I never cared for the holiday; I never cared for appropriation.
On May 11th, 2007, my father passed away.
On July 20th, 2004, my baby sister Karla was born. A few weeks later, we found that she was born with a rare condition: Trisomy-18. This condition is the shyest sister of the three trisomies; Down Syndrome (Trisomy-21) is the most popular of the three. The doctors told us the baby most likely wouldn’t survive the month, and, if lucky, she would live till her first year. The doctors kept all hopes tight and expectations short. They also added that Karla’s life span would be extremely short.
I always wondered why my father’s passing never affected how we viewed or celebrated the holiday. I also wonder how I will feel after my sister’s passing—the distress, grief, and disbelief. Even after endlessly imagining how distraught I would be after my sister’s unavoidable passing, I’m not sure this would change my personal relationship with the holiday. Even after my family moved to El Paso, Día de Los Muertos was still the same holiday: sugar skulls and bread.
As a family, we only celebrated my father’s remembrance on two occasions—his birthday and the day of his passing. But we never lit a candle, prayed, or bought him flowers on November 2nd. This was normal to me.
In 2012, I moved to Tucson to pursue my MFA in poetry. I clearly remember what my first roommate, Emily, told me: “I love Dia de Los Muertos.” Initially, I thought, Girl, you’re from upstate New York and white. How the hell do you know about this holiday? After Emily caught up to my reaction, she eventually explained how the holiday was celebrated in Tucson. She also told me this holiday had really helped her to get over her grandmother’s passing. This made me happy; I was happy that my culture had helped someone to grieve—something my culture never did for me, nor did I care for it.
That same year, I decided not to go to the All Soul’s parade because I was too busy with schoolwork and grading and what not.
Days after, I decided to troll Instagram and Facebook, and I noticed how people, here in Tucson, were celebrating—I wasn’t sure if I was shocked or disgusted. Some folks dressed in Halloween costumes – a lot of them with painted Catrina faces – and others mourned for their rights, even for the environment. What Emily told me and what I saw didn’t match up. Of course, I wasn’t expecting the traditional ofrenda, or people helping each other through their grievances. Yet, there were those who looked like they were closer to the tradition.
After reflecting on what I had seen, I couldn’t bring myself to not be pissed off. This was outrage, appropriation. I wanted to bring up the issue with my creative writing fellows, but they all seemed to be sucked up, fascinated by the celebration—calling it the best holiday Tucson had. I didn’t want to be the sourpuss who came to rain on everyone’s parade—literally. Given that I was the one of the only Latino writers in the program, and the only one who grew up in Mexico, I felt like the odd man out. I didn’t know if I had the right to call people on their bullshit. And on top of that, because I never cared too much for the holiday, I kept questioning my position. Yes, I’m Mexican American. Yes, I know the tradition probably better than any of my colleagues. But really, who cares? Did I? And if so, because my culture is appropriated—did this really give me the right to start a dialogue? I mean, I grew up trick-or-treating, Christmas, and all of these adopted European holidays. In a way, I was also, most likely, appropriating another culture.
What I’ve come to understand is that when a systematically or historically oppressed culture is appropriated—shit hits the fan. Because I was plagued by all of these questions and my position of power, I left the issue dormant. What I’m really trying to say is that I never understood the notion of appropriation.
In my first year of adjuncting, after graduating, I decided to focus a whole unit in my lit analysis class on “the other.” Jenny Boully’s “A Short Essay on Being” was one of the pieces I taught. In the essay, Boully forefronts the pronunciation of Pad Thai (should be pronounced Pot Thai, not Pad Thai), and how people who choose to ignore the correct pronunciation are allowing and continuing the appropriation and Americanization of Thai culture.
My freshmen all had the same monotonous, resistant reaction: “the essay is very bitchy,” “I don’t need to be told how to pronounce,” “It’s just food, who cares?” and so on. My original intention of teaching the text was to be part of that little change: getting fresh minds to recognize we, as Americans, sometimes ignore our imperialistic attitudes towards minorities and how we tend to ignore their traditions and make them our own. This was not the case. I was discouraged.
One of my students decided to confront me on the issue, which made me happy. She said, “This is what I’ve been brought up with—Pad (not Pot) Thai is what I know.” This leads to us questioning what tradition means—and who gets to keep a tradition, or if tradition can be changed over time. Also, we questioned if tradition should remain “pure” through what has been immediately passed down to us or whether we should follow a lineage. We never came up with a conclusion, but I kept these questions on who gets to dictate tradition in my notebook.
Rafael E. Gonzalez is a poet and teacher living in Tucson, Arizona. He serves as assistant poetry editor for DIAGRAM.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.