|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.