Today, I read about someone who was disgusted with the appropriation of sugar skulls in regards to the holiday of Dia de Los Muertos. This is one of the more somber of holidays in a Spanish context. I’ve watched and read and been moved to tears by the artwork associated with this holiday. But I think what really got to me about this is the fact that person who was angry with the appropriating felt like the spiritual moment, the cathartic moment of that holiday, had been taken away from them by all of this cultural appropriation. They felt like it had been taken away from them in some respect. As a white woman who has no holidays, I can’t help but think that if they really want to let outsiders influence them so heavily in such a rich, emotional, and culturally gorgeous holiday then the connection they once had can’t possibly be as strong as they insinuate.
Contrary to any belief, I don’t say this as an asshole who is looking down on someone else. I am indeed looking at this from the context of an outsider. I never celebrated this holiday. It had absolutely no bearing on my life whatsoever as a child since I grew up in New England. The dead holidays were Halloween or the few times a year we went to visit our dead relatives’ graves. So, in that regard, I have to admit that I may just be talking out of my ass. But I have to assume that if you’re going to let people affect you so negatively in regards to a holiday that, as I’ve repeatedly said, is very beautiful and very cathartic, then maybe it’s not meant to be.
You can’t let people come into a situation, partially knowing or completely unknowing, and let it impact you. You have to stick to your guns. That may mean that you may have to continue an argument from a rapidly decomposing point-of-view. That may mean that you celebrate a holiday that’s rapidly becoming a public holiday in regards to outside cultures.
Let’s try to put this into a modicum of perspective here.
Back when the Catholic Church was trying to convert the pagan masses, they tended to associate their holidays with the popular pagan ones. Whenever the bigger of the Celtic holidays shows up, we all see those pagan memes running around, discussing how the Catholic church appropriated X, Y, and Z to make their Christianity sanitized holidays. We see it in regards to Yule and Christmas. We see it in regards to Samhain and All Saints’ Day. We see it in regards to Imbolc and Candlemas. Why don’t we try and put ourselves into those ancient pagans’ shoes? How did they react to this? How did those ancient pagans work around this? Didn’t they continue to celebrate their “folksy ways” when it came to those holidays? Hell. The Catholic Church had such a hard time converting the Irish that they made the foremost of all their goddesses into a saint. These old practices were continued, were added to, and were embellished throughout the years so that we can see some of the older traditions mixed into the new, Christian-sanitized ones.
In other words, they didn’t give up.
Someone else commented on that post, later on, and mentioned that they grew up in an area where that holiday was a big one. Everyone celebrated it, whether they were Hispanic or otherwise. I lived in Texas, south to be specific. There is a large Mexican population and besides Cinco de Mayo, the Dia de Los Muertos was a popular holiday. I didn’t see any major celebrations but there were objects out in stores that brought the culture to “the white folk,” if you will. This included sugar skull kits that you could make at home. You saw painted skulls in those stores, as well. It’s not that the white people down there celebrated it, but it was becoming part and parcel to the cultural flourish of south Texas.
I kind of associate it less with cultural appropriation as making it part of the scenery being woven down there. Like a large and beautiful handmade rug, it was becoming a part of the pattern. It’s not that it’s being taken away from in so much as becoming a part of. And that’s something that people need to think about as well. It’s not that a dominant culture is coming in and usurping something. It’s a smaller culture proliferating in a climate and becoming a part of the dominant culture. Just as your great-great grandmother may have brought over a homemade remedy or recipe from the old country, the Mexicans in that area are bringing their personal portions of what they love about their culture and making it part of who they are becoming as Americans.
I will admit. I am a Kemetic and so, I don’t end up facing this kind of stuff. There are very few people outside of Kemetism who want to worship or practice my new year. There are very few people outside of Kemetism that want to celebrate those holidays, so of course, as I said, I am commenting on this in the context of an outsider… but only so much.
You see, I also have a voodoo aspect to my practice. I tend to call myself “Kemetic with a voodoo flavoring.” There are certain aspects of that particular faith that I adhere to. One of which happens to be the Fet Ghede on November 2nd. This means altar set ups, this means meals for my Deadz, this means going to the cemetery to spend some time at the graves of my Deadz. This means a lot of things. Does that mean that I’m appropriating? In a manner of speaking, I suppose we could say yes. But I don’t feel it that way. And I’ll tell you why. I really don’t think the lwa or the gods care one iota who has what color skin. They take who they want, when they want them (and if the person is willing enough to follow). I’m willing enough to be part and parcel of this celebration and that means that yes, I do things that “white people” probably “shouldn’t” because it’s not my cultural heritage. But you try telling the Bawon that for me and see how that goes.
All of these argumentative comments about cultural appropriation and the cultures being appropriated… it’s all so much sadness for me. It just goes to show that people are too intent on appearing placed within a certain box. “I am X ethnicity and this is my cultural heritage that I am practicing.” Okay, and that’s fine. I understand that you want to be a part of your heritage. Whenever I do meals for my Deadz, I’m very careful to keep my meal plans based on the ethnicities and heritages of my ancestors.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to only be that one thing. Human beings are as varied as they come and so are the cultures they have created in the mean time. By pigeonholing yourself and certain races, you’re being oppressive to yourself and to others. That’s not fair to you and that’s not fair to me. That’s not fair to Jane Doe or Joe Blow. That’s not fair to anyone and it’s definitely not fair to your spiritual practices, either. Just because you have a specific skin tone or a specific cultural heritage doesn’t mean you have to remain shoved into a tiny box that may or may not fit you.
If you have respect, if you have the ability to understand and research what it is you’re doing, then how the fuck are you taking away from someone else?
It’s one thing when people do things because they think it’s “cool.” It’s another when someone has the respect and the calling to do it.