|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 son’s 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-law’s 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 grandmother’s 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 reader’s copy of Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel Ghosts. I love graphic novels and I had heard that Raina’s 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 Maya’s 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.
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
|Yuyi Morales's Day of the Dead altar, 2016.|
Photo: Yuyi Morales
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 can’t 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 isn’t what is being asked from us, authors, is it?
|Photo: Antonio Turok |
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.
Thank you, Yuyi.
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.
That's interesting, Mimzy. Can you provide us with a link to further information?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Sam, thanks for these links. They were both useful and enlightening.
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