Sunday, November 01, 2015

the halloweens of my people

1. turnips and sugar skulls

The other day I caught a lighthearted BBC News Hour story on Halloween. Two reporters with crisp English accents discussed the fact that Halloween had been exported from Ireland and Scotland to North America, altered, then re-exported back to the British Isles.

“Pumpkins are a new world vegetable,” one of the reporters said. “If we wanted to truly celebrate a local holiday, we’d be carving turnips.”

“Turnips!” the other exclaimed. “Well, that sounds quite mushy.”

Turnip spice latte, anyone?
Around the same time, I read a Huffington Post piece titled “Dia de los Muertos is Not Halloween,” which included some good (and sadly not obvious?) points like: Dia de los Muertos is about “paying respects to late loved ones, honoring their lives, and acknowledging the fragility of life,” not just painting your face like a calavera and partying.

Fair enough. But one (white) activist in my Facebook feed posted a long admonishment to her fellow non-Latinos, telling them that if Dia de los Muertos wasn’t “their” culture, best to just stay away. If invited to a DdlM celebration, you could attend, she said, but to actively participate would be to engage in cultural appropriation and racism.

In heaven there's always a bike lane.
I agree that white people could stand to contemplate the radical notion that they don’t have to put their grubby little hands all over every interesting thing that comes along. But thinking back to some of the non-Latino-specific altars I saw at Hollywood Forever last year—the ghost bikes honoring fallen cyclists, a tribute to Robin Williams—I was irked, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

I asked AK what she thought, since after all, I’m not Latino and I shouldn’t be the one who decides what my activist Facebook friend doesn’t get to decide.

AK paraphrased something she’d heard Lalo Alcaraz say on KPCC that morning, which was that Dia de los Muertos, while having roots in indigenous practices merged with Catholicism, has always been a Mexican-American holiday. Its modern incarnation, he said, was the result of a back-and-forth dialogue between Mexicans in the U.S. and Mexicans in Mexico.

As for the “non-Latinos should opt out” stance, AK said: “There’s kind of a hipster quality to it. It’s like not participating in cultures that aren’t your own is the new participating. Like saying you liked that band before everyone else did, and now you’re over them.”

To me, it seems like a bolder choice to have to get your hands dirty when it comes to cultural phenomena—to have to risk exposing your own ignorance or maybe even hurting someone in order to live in the world as it is: blended, postmodern, a salad bowl with some rotten tomatoes. There hasn’t been such a thing as cultural purity for as long as there have been boats (maybe longer), and in my book that’s not inherently a bad thing.

2. alter/altar

When I see Homeboy’s own Dia de los Muertos altar, I see the darkness and the beauty inherent in cultures pushing against each other, falling into each other’s arms, leaving scratches.

Los muertos.
About 80 percent of the homies I work with are Latino, and the majority of those are American-born (or at least American-raised) Mexicans. They grew up speaking English or Spanglish. Colonialism and other forms of oppression have contributed directly or indirectly to whatever landed them in gangs or prison—immigrant parents who worked too hard to properly supervise their children, or a “justice” system that levies heavier sentences on people of color. As a group, many of them haven’t grown up thinking they’re part of a rich tradition—quite the opposite—and so their loyalties lie with their neighborhoods, not with ancient Aztecs.

I would venture, then, that Dia de los Muertos, for many (though certainly not all) of the Mexican Americans in my little workplace, is a rediscovered, reclaimed holiday. But do these folks with their arms and necks and eyebrows tattooed with the cursive names of the fallen know about “paying respects to late loved ones, honoring their lives, and acknowledging the fragility of life”?

Hell yes.


Do I? I can rattle off a dozen ways that my privilege has shielded me and my loved ones from death, but also…it hasn’t. Lady Death in her flowered hat comes for all of us. Death took my mom and my babies, even if they weren’t gunned down or even born yet. It came for me, even if it didn’t get super close (knockonwood). So I’m gonna say it: hell yes.

I don’t think anyone is saying that non-Latinos shouldn’t mourn their dead; I’m just adding that when you find a ritual that speaks to you, even if it’s not one you’re born into, maybe it’s okay to respectfully speak back.

Our famous last words may be "Nice hat."
So my mom’s picture and a post-it shout-out to the Squeakies (because I have nothing concrete to remember them by) reside alongside the pictures of young black and Latino men who died too young and for stupid reasons. They’re surrounded by marigolds.

3. pussy riot

Friday night, AK and Dash and I, and our friends Andrew and Danny, went to KillJoy’s Kastle, the lesbian feminist haunted house art installation that had been getting rave reviews. Here I had no doubts: This was my culture, and I could relax into it. Queers, feminists, artists. And no, I didn’t mind that there were men and straight people there. I even brought one very small man.

No male babies were harmed in the making of the Emasculator.
Our group—we named ourselves the Drooling Screampuffs—listened to a spoken word artist/singer-songwriter while we waited our turn to go into the castle (a.k.a. the Plummer Park Community Center). She had us do a silly-serious-ish call-and-response number about the power of the pussy.

“Why do we say someone has ‘balls’ if they’re strong and call someone a ‘pussy’ if they’re a coward?” she demanded.

I was dancing with Dash on a bale of hay, enjoying the warm night and thinking about how this was the exact life I always wanted to live. I was acutely aware that I had previous generations of feminists and queer activists to thank for the fact that I could be here, alive, open, with my female spouse and our adopted kid. I loved being part of something so clever and fun and CalArtsy.

Then the spoken word artist/singer-songwriter started in on how we should celebrate the egg, giver of all life!

She was joking, mostly, but it brought out the grr in me nevertheless. Or maybe the grrl. I don’t think I was really radicalized (whatever that means—but I think it means that something in you decides to hit back) until I started seeing how much society, and the parts of society I have internalized, valued me based on how functional my tits and ovaries were or weren’t. Fucking egg-based essentialism, I thought. I’m no giver of life, but so the fuck what?

Resting in varying degrees of peace.
With that, the whole point of KillJoy’s Kastle (I think) was playing out in my head. All the wise winks to lesbian feminist history that followed—from naked ladies checking out their genitalia with mirrors to a graveyard for the good (the Woman’s Building) and the bad (the gender binary)—evoked a mix of gratitude and mild squirminess.

Honestly, it was the perfect art exhibition: thought-provoking, well crafted, collaborative, interactive, hilarious, self-aware and friendly to all. And even though I had no role in it personally, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit proud that my people had created it.

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