The People Who Danced in Ashes: Some Thoughts on Costumes and Cultural Appropriation

Well, it’s that time of year. Halloween is upon us, and beyond whatever thoughts we have about which sexualized animal or Game of Thrones character we want to be this year, there’s the hot-button topic of cultural appropriation in costumes.

Listen, my culture is not a costume. I’m all for experiencing, learning about, and sharing culture, but as taking the look of a culture without appreciating the culture itself is hurtful and frustrating.

Let me give you an example.

Last year, a group of folks I knew were going to attend a “Día De Los Muertos” themed party. The party had margarita machines and a taco truck. I, predictably, rolled my eyes at the concept, and told my partner at the time that I didn’t want to go.

For me, the party they were throwing had nothing to do with the actual traditions behind “Día De Los Muertos,” a beautiful holiday where we celebrate loved ones who have passed on. We dance, sing, share their favorite food and stories of them.

“At the very least,” I commented, “they could have the party and like, have a small area where folks could leave a photo or write a little note about someone they loved who had passed on. That way it could honor the spirit of the actual holiday.”

“Well, I don’t think they’d do that,” he said, “because it would kind of bum everyone out.”

And isn’t that the problem?

The reason why Dia De Los Muertos is powerful is that Latinos found a way to dance in the ashes and find joy in death. We are a resilient people who, as I’ve written beforetook horror and tragedy and turned it into song, dance, food and, somehow, joy.

So, if you want to take our clothing and our face-paint to have a party because it looks cool, you should also acknowledge the beauty of the culture that created those things. You should respect and celebrate the community who was able to look death in the eye and laugh loudly, eat and be merry.

I hope people learn more about and want to partake in the beautiful traditions of my culture. I just want them to acknowledge the culture too, and not just the costume you can exploit it for.

 

 

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The (Un)Value of Loyalty

Recently, my kids and I have been talking a lot about Colin Kaepernick, patriotism, and what it means to be “loyal” to something.

Tomorrow, I am planning on asking them if they think loyalty is an important value. I have no doubt many of them will say yes– we’ve been raised to see “loyalty” as one of the essential “good-human” values. Gryffindors are loyal. Good people are loyal.

And I can appreciate it. I also plan to surprise them with my own belief: I don’t know that I’m sold on the value of “loyalty,” at least not as we so often see it portrayed. That may not be a popular opinion (and, in fact, I imagine I have some of my higher-ups shaking), but let me explain.

While loyalty is defined as a feeling of “allegiance,” I have often found that people assume that loyalty means putting an organization or person above all other things– including personal values.

Sure, loyalty can mean standing with someone in their hour of need, showing forgiveness or the benefit of the doubt, or helping someone out when they ask. Sometimes, though, we use “loyalty” as a tool to manipulate. We are asked to put “loyalty to the party/group/job” over one’s own beliefs. We are called on to do things because we need to show “loyalty.”

And that’s where I draw the lineThere is no organization I would lie for or to. There is no institution that I am so devoted to that I will not call it like I see it.

 

Here’s the thing: I am a firm believer that the way you show love and care is being honest and willing to critically analyze things. A misused culture of “loyalty” doesn’t necessarily lead to a supportive, collaborative environment. Instead, using loyalty as a tool to deflect criticism leads to complacency, power struggle, and a general sense of mistrust: Who is loyal to whom? Who is putting their loyalty to something above honesty? It’s not a very healthy environment to be in. It will quickly isolate people, or make people unwilling to share thoughts and opinions that could make the entire organization better;

So, I personally refuse to operate in a space where I am unable to voice my reasoned dissent. Frankly, I understand that the ability to willingly dissent based on my morals is tied to my privilege. I know that I have the socioeconomic and educational privilege to call out problems and handle myself financially if there were unfortunate or unjust ramifications from that.

Not everyone has that. Not everyone can afford to lose their job or take a pay cut or deal with what other consequences those in power like to dole out when it’s threatened. I am incredibly privileged in my ability to do so, so it would be a misuse of my privilege if I did not use it to stand with those who shared my values but could not speak up. If I don’t use my platform and the power to take a stand, then who else will?

So, if loyalty isn’t the answer, what is?

Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to create cultures of belonging and trust. I attended a session on facilitating difficult conversations and building community with the amazing Ann Delehant. She shared the idea that trust is at the center of being both trustworthy and trusting. It means that not only must we be willing to be transparent and honest, but we also must be willing to trust that other people will do the same. 

While I’m not sold on the value of blind loyalty,am all for creating communities of belonging and trust. For me, that means being honest and upfront about intent, transparent about actions and mistakes, and willing to give and accept feedback to improve the overall group.

It also means coming to the table ready to listen and find solutions instead of pointing fingers and making accusations. Trust can’t be built when the person across the table already assumes that you’re lying. We can’t create

We can’t create collaborative, growing spaces if we all assume that anyone else  is against us. Trust can only happen if there’s a mutual agreement that we all want the same outcome, even if we might disagree on the “how.” If one side is being dishonest about intent or refuses to dialogue with the other, how can we move forward?

With all that, here are my cards (career wise, anyway) laid out on the table: At the end of the day, I am here to support my students. I am willing to show support, put work in, and rally behind things that I truly believe will help my kids, their communities, and the greater good of public education. If I’m asked to do something that helps those causes and doesn’t compromise my values, great! If not, then I’m not here for it and I’m not afraid to say so.

My students and the work we do in the classroom together are, ultimately at my center. To sell them or myself out would be to dishonor all the people in my life who worked hard to give me the opportunities that got me here. It would dishonor the students and families that trust me every day.

At the end of the day, all I can ask is that I did my best to be true to myself. If the answer is yes, I know I can look myself in the mirror the next day and try and teach my kids the same thing.

I Am the Blood of the Conqueror; I Am the Blood of the Conquered

I didn’t know the true extent of Columbus’s reign of horror until a few months ago. Sitting in a Nashville library, I read accounts of the things Columbus and his men did and felt sick to my stomach.

Columbus and his fellow “conquerors” were assholes. There are a number of sources that show this. It’s easy (and correct) to hate it all. The level of prestige bestowed on them is, frankly, disgusting.

So, when I began to read, I felt ill. Like lots of people, I knew about the general horrors of the conquistadors, yet reading primary source writings added the necessary detail that erasure often removes in order to make things palatable.

There was also rage. A sickening, black cloud of it stormed in behind my eyes, as it usually does when I read the real history of things. Normally, that rage has a name: white supremacy, slavery, segregation, police brutality, racism, privilege, bias. I can normally pin that rage to something, burn that effigy as things to stay away from and consciously choose to try and rid myself of, to work day and day to scrape out internalized oppression and beliefs.

You can’t scrape bloodlines clean, though.

When I first heard the story of Columbus as a kid, I have to admit it felt exciting. This guy was “discovering a new world,” on ships with Spanish names. Up until then, it felt like I hadn’t heard a word of Spanish at school. Then, all of a sudden, we were talking about how the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria were bastions of adventure and discovery, and it was the first time anything that vaguely smacked of my home heritage had a place of honor in the history books.

I am Mexicana and Filipina. I have been raised to be proud of the centuries of ancestors who came before me. Both cultures place a strong emphasis on not forgetting familial and cultural history.

torresfamI also come from two “conquered” peoples. Spain—Columbus and men cut from the same cloth— came to both and did unspeakable things. They also, perhaps horribly, mixed bloodlines with those countries. They mixed culture, music, language, and food with those people. I am a “Torres” on my father’s side, and an “Estrada” on my mother’s. A photo of my paternal grandfather and great-grandfather are undeniably Spanish-influenced; the family moved to Guanajuato from Spain in 1765.

I want to hate everything about the conquistadores, yet they influence so many things I celebrate. I speak Spanish, I have a Spanish last name and undeniably Spanish blood passed on as a result of the conquest. I have danced the Maria Clara, twirling a lace mantilla that represented a “beauty” and “elegance” forcibly placed upon a nation of Filipinos.

I know, now, that the dance and the language and the food come as a result of horrendous oppression, yet I still cannot help but live that culture daily. As Richard Rodriguez once wrote, “I am the same distance from the conquistador as I am from the Indian.”

Of course, I read that quote and also realize that I am one of the millions who have and are still embodying this duality, this internal war. I am certainly not the first. Rodriguez finishes that line with the reminder that “righteousness should not come easily…” to any of us.

I don’t claim to be a pillar of righteousness, but attempting to figure out where I am placed in the tangled web of this timeline is new to me. It is strange to honor a history, all the while knowing its existence comes on the backs of an oppressed people. It is also difficult to properly place my anger on something that feels so much a part of who I am. It feels impossible to be Mexicana and Filipina and not be Spanish as well.


This is frustrating, but I am ultimately grateful. The internal war I fight now only fuels my fire.

This is the danger of erasure. It is criminal that, as a child, Columbus was the closest I came to Spanish role models at school. We must teach the truth about those periods in history so that we do not venerate those who are unworthy of such a place in it.

We also shouldn’t allow students to live in a world where the only history we present is one that paints them as a “conquered” people. I don’t want my Latino or Filipino students to see their cultural history only pockmarked with death and oppression. None of our students should only be shown the single story where their people “lose.”

I had, more recently, looked at the history of both cultures as “tragic.” With a furrowed brow, I condemned the act of the conquistadores on the “poor natives,” wondering what we would have seen had they not been allowed to plunder as they did.

I still feel that way at times, but now I am also filled with an intense pride. Mexicanos and Filipinos cannot be defined by our oppression: we are the result of adaptation and survival. We were conquered and endured and created something beautiful in the process. We took horror and tragedy and turned it into song, dance, food and, somehow, joy.

That is something to celebrate. That is the history that flows in my veins and fuels me each morning as I work. This day, I condemn the acts of the conqueror and refuse to center on them. Instead, I will work to re-center and celebrate the stories of the people who rose from those flames and danced.