Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Day of the Dead, Ghosts, and the
Work We Do as Writers and Artists:
Guest Blogger Yuyi Morales

Author/Illustrator Yuyi Morales

In October of 1994 I was still dealing with immigrant depression when, on the streets of Walnut Creek, California, I saw something strange. As I pushed my sons stroller, we passed houses covered with spider webs, bloody skeletons, ghosts hanging from trees, and a plastic chainsaw laid on a front lawn. I even recognized a mask from a horror movie on the lawn. When I returned to my mother-in-laws house, where I lived during my first year in the USA, I asked her in my broken English what I had just seen. She explained it was Halloween.

Ever since that first sight, I found it interesting how Halloween precedes the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. At first sight they even seem to have a similar theme — death — and yet they are profoundly different. Just like my two grandmothers.

I grew up in Mexico in the house of my paternal Abuela, a devout Catholic who said that during the Day of the Dead, you had to receive your deceased loved ones with offerings and an altar, or else face dire consequences. My maternal grandma, a single mother of twelve, had converted to a small new evangelical church and believed that celebrating the dead was a thing of the devil. She had taught my mother to stay away from this and many other traditions. Day of the Dead in Mexico can hardly be avoided; the streets filled with cempasúchil flowers and the smell of copal incense follows you everywhere. When my mother eventually abandoned the church, many of our friends started including our family in their celebrations by sharing their leftover bread baked for the altars, and we soon participated in the feasts of the food our family and friends hosted. As a teenager, I had my own break with both of my grandmothers beliefs, and I passionately tried to learn what it meant to celebrate the Day of the Dead beyond the bounds of religious ceremonies.

Last summer, during my residence at the Maurice Sendak Fellowship, one of my fellow authors brought me an advance readers copy of Raina Telgemeiers graphic novel Ghosts. I love graphic novels and I had heard that Rainas books are a huge hit with kids, so I was excited to see this book. I began reading and found a story featuring a mixed Mexican American family whose youngest child, Maya, is affected by cystic fibrosis. But to my disappointment, something felt off. My first surprise was the name of the protagonist. “Catrina” is a term used in Mexico to satirize poor Mexicans who aspired to adopt European aristocratic identities. Cat, short for Catrina, and her family move to a cloudy California town where they make friends with a Mexican family named the Calaverases (from the word calavera, Spanish for skull, another invented name that made me pause). As Carlos Calavera befriends Catrina and her younger sister, he tells them the town is inhabited by ghosts. The narrative, although touched by stereotypes, makes for an interesting ghost story — the relationship between Cat and Maya is complex and tender as they love each other while dealing with their fear of Mayas possible death. But when the story attempts to weave in the celebration of the Day of the Dead, which in this book takes place on the night of Halloween rather than on November 2nd (!), it reinvents what is to a large, living community a precious, ancient, and even sacred tradition. 

"I feel that this image says so much about the Mexican people's
playful relationship with the idea of death." Yuyi Morales

Woman in Morelos. Photo: Yuyi Morales
Day of the Dead can be traced back to the Aztec rituals honoring the deceased during the eighteen months of their calendar. After the Spaniards conquered Mexico, these rituals were made to coincide with the Catholic ceremonies of All Saints and All Souls, condensing the celebrations into two days, November 1st for honoring the children and November 2nd for honoring the adults. In small towns, entire communities prepared under strict rules for the ceremonies, while urban settings celebrated with sugar skulls, skeleton toys, and a playful attitude of life being one with death. At the heart of the celebration there is the belief that during the days reserved for honoring the deceased, our relatives and friends now dead should be received lovingly when they visit us from the afterlife for this one day of the year. In Ghosts, these ideas get muddled by the construction of a world where, on the Day of the Dead, random ghosts, rather than the souls of the departed, come on the midnight after Halloween to have a grand party with strangers. I know that at least one of my grandmothers would turn in her grave if she read that on the Day of the Dead ghost cruises and ghost pirate ships tether to the docks, and that teenagers fall in love with cute dead boys attending the celebration.
Yuyi Morales's Day of the Dead altar, 2016.
Photo: Yuyi Morales
According to the author, Ghosts is inspired by her experiences of the annual celebrations for the Day of the Dead in the streets of the Mission district, the Latino neighborhood in San Francisco, of which I have also been a participant since the late 90s. The first time I attended one of these celebrations I was delighted to do it in community. From the time I had emigrated to the USA, most of my celebrations were spent alone at home with my son. I was surprised by Day of the Dead in the Mission neighborhood; this was nothing like the reverent ritual back in Mexico. Gathered for the procession, behind the Aztec dancers and the families with candles and pictures of their dead loved ones, was a huge crowd. San Francisco, in all its amazing diversity, had come to join the celebration, and some of the participants paraded wearing costumes with masks, or their faces painted like skeletons, ghosts and other strange creatures. In the procession a woman carried a picture of Frida Kahlo, which made me wonder if she didnt have a relative or a loved one to honor instead. That same night I got invited to a Dia de los Muertos party where there was dance, drinks, and a costume contest. The winners were a white couple dressed like sexy vampires. The receiving of our loved ones dead had turned into a Halloween spectacle. Like the author of Ghosts, I have enjoyed the San Francisco festival for years. As an immigrant I find joy by sharing in community the traditions that sustain me. But while I can enjoy dancing with my friends on that night, I would never suggest one can learn about the spirit of Day of the Dead by partying at a street festival.

I think I can understand why an author would decide to use Day of the Dead to tell a story that tries to make sense of death not as the end, but as a continuation of life. At its core, this celebration gives a way for people, in this case children, to ease the fear of death of our loved ones. But for all of its good intentions, Ghosts, carries out an erasure of essential parts of an ancient tradition by rewriting it as a celebration rife with stereotypes, at the expense of a very alive cultural practice.

The other day I read a comment on Amazon in response to Debbie Reese, a tribally enrolled member at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico, who expressed concerns that Ghosts had given an inaccurate portrait of who were buried in the California Missions. “I don't appreciate you getting ... offended over a beautifully crafted novel that has nothing to do with your heritage,” the comment read.

I was astonished, and then I reasoned that a response like this one is the product of the continuous colonialism we all have been a part of. When groups of people have been systematically erased from narratives, books, history, and the world, they become invisible to the rest of us. When people cant be seen, they can be reinvented into anything, including mascots, bandidos, liars, exotic things, merchandise, romanticized beings, things of the past, or folklore. 

Why do I think we need this discussion? I know I need it because I am a teller of stories, and I could be the author who, in my enthusiasm to tell an inclusive story, might use my craft to erase and redraw identities, practices, and ways of living that are not part of my imaginarium, but that are about real people living real lives. I need this discussion because I hope that no child has to explain that something I wrote in a book is an inaccurate picture of who he or she is, because of how difficult it is to refuse an imposed identity once it has been written in a book by a prominent author. I need this discussion because I want to cast away the fear that in order to avoid making mistakes that could hurt the most vulnerable, I would have to work under rules that constrain my imagination, impair my art, smother my voice… Except, that isnt what is being asked from us, authors, is it? 

Photo: Antonio Turok 
I like to believe that what it is actually asked of me and of everybody who is committed to children and literature is to be strengthened by principles. Principles like honesty, so we have the courage to say what we feel and who we are, but also to recognize that our vision of the world is always limited and that there is nothing wrong with admitting we still need to learn things we don't know. Principles such as respect, so that we listen to the voices of those who are seldom heard before we attempt to be their voice. Principles like love, so that we see the humanity and the power of others as we see ours, so that we connect not as saviors or victims, but as equals.

This year my Day of the Dead will be celebrated in the altar I built to honor my dead loved ones, whom I will receive with joy in my house. There will be no fear of ghosts visiting, since my friends who left before me, my long-gone grandparents, my deceased teachers, and my relatives dead will come invited by the bright light of the marigold flowers I arranged. They will arrive as a gust of wind, a feather floating on the sunlight, a butterfly, a hummingbird, or a whisper; and after they eat the spirit of the food I placed on the altar for them, and they play with the toys I offer them, drink a much needed glass of water, and even read some books I will leave for them, they will be ready to take the long journey back to the land of the afterlife until they return next year. Meanwhile I will keep them alive in my memory, in the stories I tell, and in the best of our traditions. 


Katherine said...

Thank you, Yuyi.

mimzy said...

I do appreciate Yuyi's comments and insights. However I would like to point out that 'Day of the Dead' as celebrated in Mexico may have Aztec influences/origins but the celebration itself is not unique to Mexico. It has been celebrated in Europe since at least 998.

Debbie Reese said...


That's interesting, Mimzy. Can you provide us with a link to further information?


La Profe Tejana said...

mimzy, why are you trying to trump yuyi's excellent blog?!? really??? trying to outdo the aztec/mexica tradition of day of the dead by giving it a european precursor? wow. well, the aztecs date back to before mexico was mexico. that takes us to the 13th or 12th century at least. and before the aztecs were the toltecs which puts us back to 900, and i am sure they had some type of veneration for their deceased. and i could go on.

your comment clearly points out that you don't SEE yuyi's point at all. yes, around the world for centuries there have been different traditions to honor the dead by different cultures. but today's blog is specific to a particular culture in a particular time/place and how ir was egregiously appropriated by telgemeier.

Pat said...

I just returned from the Texas Book Festival and the Tomás Rivera Awards (celebrating Tonatiuh's Funny Bones: Posada and his Day of the Dead Calaveras and Ashley Peréz's Out of Darkness). Yuyi presented /performed Rudas:Niño's Horrendous Hermanitas for a crowd of enthusiastic children and adults. What I saw in her presentation was a personal and entertaining framing of lucha libre as a performance- a show- and a narrative of good vs. evil. She made the wrestlers' histories, characters, and their meaning for her childhood both accessible and culturally distinct, while never reducing the powerful lucha libre tradition to something 'American' - like football heroes for example.
In this essay, Yuyi has described the choices and dilemmas that Raina Telgemeier had to grapple with, but which resulted in creating equivalences so that a readership (non-Mexican) would be able to enter into a world where death is understood and celebrated as part of life. An artist and editor's choices focus necessarily on telling the story in a way that opens up the world for a reader, but they should also choose to recognize the limits of their framing when cultural specificity and living traditions are at stake.
And the stakes are high. As Yuyi joined the signing tent for her multiple award-winning books, the line for Raina Telgemeier stretched out and around the tent, with stacks of Ghost at the ready on sales tables. Many readers will encounter Day of the Dead for the first time in a deeply flawed rendering. Young readers and adults who participate in Día de Muertos celebrations may hope to see their lives accurately represented. But they will be disappointed and confused. Still, Ghost sells. The cost is higher than any of us should have to pay.
Note: If the book appears in a school or public library, please talk to librarians and teachers about the inaccurate representations and appropriations. And then insist that Funny Bones and Yuyi's Just a Minute and Just in Case be available and foregrounded in any discussion/display related to Día de Muertos. In fact, Yuyi Morales's Los Gatos Black on Halloween would be a wonderful story to read and compare distinctions in the feeling and meaning of these very different holidays.

Ms. Edith Campbell said...

Thank you for this very personal essay that relates the complexities of culture. Being given this glimpse into how celebrating Day of the Dead has evolved for you, an insider, over the years makes me wonder how an outsider can stick their toe in one spot of the river and then assume to know enough about the river to write about it. The result would a rather exotic misrepresentation of depth, tributaries and path as well as its flora and fauna. I’m sure the day is coming when we will have talked and celebrated together enough to be able to tell each other’s stories, but most of us are not there yet.

Dana Sebastian said...

Telgemeier keeps getting better and better, and this is her best book so far. All of her work has been wildly popular and multiple-award-winning, in part because she is so irrepressibly happy and energetic, with so much joie de vivre to go around. Two were memoirs, Smiles and Sisters, and I thought they were great for pre-teens, all my kids loved them and have read them again and again.

~Dana@College Reine Marie

Sam Bloom said...

Dana, I don't know if you're a real person or if this is spam, but on the off chance that you ARE indeed a real human: please re-read this post. I won't argue on Telgemeier's popularity, or Smiles and Sisters (and Drama!) being fantastic. But in terms of Ghosts... seriously, re-read this post. And this: https://booktoss.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/ghosts-swing-and-a-hard-miss/
And this: https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2016/09/not-recommended-ghosts-by-raina.html

Unknown said...

Sam, thanks for these links. They were both useful and enlightening.