Can I Appropriate My Own Culture?

Cyrus Eosphoros, Online Editor

Día de los Muertos has been a culturally important feature of my life for as long as I can remember. My first grade class wandered off to the neighboring cemetery to see the wreaths, photographs and stuffed animals people laid out on family graves. Afterward, I’d accompany my dad to take photos of them. Every year, my community center in Todos Santos, Mexico, had the biggest altar I’d ever seen, which stayed up long past the day itself because the people who’d built the huge, room-size display were that proud of it.

During my junior year of high school, a fellow student and I built an altar for the murdered women of Juárez, a city across the border from El Paso, where young women — mostly poor and working-class — have been systematically killed for decades. Class requirements meant the altar was more stringently traditional and ornate than I was used to, with seven levels instead of two or three and the addition of the sign of the cross in sand. The victims’ anonymity meant the only objects with which we had to represent them were the pink crosses on their graves. We didn’t know what things they liked. We tried to hedge our bets on food and other material offerings: tamales, fruit, nice heels, makeup. Things that girls our age might like.

The physical objects you set out by the altar are for the ghost. Unlike funerals, which provide closure for the living, everything about Día de los Muertos is meant for the deceased. An altar is constructed out of symbols: a fixed number of levels for the soul to ascend to heaven, topped with a palm arc for them to pass through. It is decorated with candles and incense to purify the spirit; with earth, fire and water; with brightly colored paper cutouts for purity and pain; and, famously, with little calaveras, or “sugar skulls,” sweets that serve as a dual reminder of the inevitability of death and the idea that it isn’t so bad after all.

That’s what makes up the altar itself. For it to matter and not act as a meaningless prop, you need to dedicate it to someone. You add photos of the person you’re mourning; You set out food that they liked, clothes they wore, objects that remind you of them. While the spirit is wandering around in early November, that will hopefully draw them to you for a visit.

During my first two years at Oberlin, there was an altar in Stevenson Dining Hall next to the dessert table from Halloween until around Nov. 3. Laid out with unappetizing, stereotypical Mexican food, the altar had nothing to identify the person it was dedicated to, no personal belongings or photographs.

I’m more superstitious than the average person, so maybe I reacted more strongly than another Mexican would. “They might as well lay out a random embalmed body. At least then the dead person would have an identity!” I complained.

I didn’t go to Stevenson this week. I don’t think it was intentional, something just kept coming up between meals. But I didn’t see their latest supposedly “Latin American” menu or check for another empty altar.

Some people — the Mexican government included — fear that Halloween will supplant Día de los Muertos. However, decades of American influence aside, every community finds someone to mourn, creating altars everywhere from restaurants to community centers. People always find excuses to write calaveritas, poems mocking each other for the fact that they’ll die. People always have someone dear to them who has passed away, a relationship they aren’t afraid to put on display.

The other main tradition that comes with the holiday is people painting their faces like the altars’ sugar skulls. The history of calavera face paint and people dressing up as catrinas and catrines with it is oddly short. The Catrina herself, an elegant, skeletal woman in a broad-brimmed hat, was a political cartoon at the beginning of the 20th century, mocking women of the privileged class and their fashion affectations with the inevitable equalizer of death. Maybe people missed the point, because a hundred years later, we mimic her for fun, with skeletal faces decorated with flowers and the fanciest clothing we have on hand. Foreigners further miss the point, bastardizing the tradition into Halloween costumes.

At my high school, the school counselor did face paint for anyone who’d take it. I wore my catrín face paint proudly for the rest of the school day. The vice principal got all dolled up in a long black dress and a wide black hat with a long black veil. When light hit her, she shimmered purple, and if you squinted, you could see the white and black greasepaint beneath. She floated through the building, taking the odd boy by the arm and walking with him a few steps. I watched one young man whose elbow she touched turn and run, shouting in half-joking fear. I didn’t walk with her, but I watched, grinning. During my senior year, the counselor did face paint and waved me over when I walked in, expecting me to be her model. I said no. She looked like I’d punched her.

Way back in 2012, I’d just been exposed to the idea of cultural appropriation, learning sociology from the internet. It was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I had a name for the discomfort that built in my chest when Americans were catrinas for Halloween or built altars for their dogs instead of people.

On the other hand, I’d been told I was appropriating the culture in which I’d grown up. American conceptions of race said that whites couldn’t be Mexican, and that I was white and nothing else. I’m a dual citizen; the concept of me inherently betraying my patria by having ties to the colonizer nation — a serious accusation in a culture that has a word for those who fraternize with colonizers — wasn’t new.

What was new was the angle: People older than me, smarter than me, with better English and more extensive academic backgrounds, were saying I was willfully hurting my own people. I wasn’t even the palest person in my grade, but I believed them when they said the American passport in my name meant that didn’t matter. I was so scared of hurting people. I withdrew from the festivities, and I didn’t talk about why.

I haven’t been back home in almost two years. I try to make light of it. “White Mexican stranded in Oberlin” is a feature of my online bios. It’s not entirely a joke. I’ve gotten used to feeling alone and adrift. Oberlin has brutalized me the least of any place I’ve ever lived, but I miss living in a culture that made sense to me.

I was going to do face paint this past Monday for the first time in three years. I agonized over the decision, afraid that because people read me as non-Hispanic white I was legitimizing appropriation of my own culture by putting it on display. I tried to steel my nerves. If someone tried to call me out, I could take them, I told myself. I made jokes on Facebook about putting my Mexican passport in my pocket and slapping anyone with it who claimed I had no right to my home, the one I left thousands of miles away. People from my high school liked the posts and made encouraging comments.

But as long as people outside my culture make it a costume, I’m afraid to express it myself. What if people assume I’m one of those outsiders? What if the foreigners use me to justify their appropriation?

I chickened out again. Maybe next year.