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 Small Sprigs of Hope

This post starts with a life update, since it’s been a while.

This past week was Halloween. Normally, Halloween is a bit upsetting. It’s usually got a lot of crappy, racist/sexist/culturally appropriative costumes that make me squirm or make me angry. This year, though, Halloween was pretty great.


My students were adorable; every costume was fun and not offensive. Huzzah! The only Día de Muertos display came from our Spanish teacher, who dressed as La Catrina and taught kids not already in her class about the actual holiday.

Later that night, my guy and I went out in Waikiki which, while crazy, was actually a pretty great time.

Then, of course, I just had to go on facebook.

Which, you know, wasn’t so bad at first! After understanding what facebook is for me, I’ve come to either just accept things or hit that “unfollow” button, so I can sort of disengage (which I imagine others have done to me). I don’t want an echo chamber, but I think ensuring my space and time are what I need is also healthy.

Then, I stumbled onto the page of someone I had unfollowed already. I should’ve known better because the first few posts already had me like

and then reading the comments I was all I sighed and felt some part of my psyche beginning to suit up. I felt compelled to call them out (and perhaps complicit if I didn’t). Everything I was seeing was so against what I believe to be right, and I have spent so much time in the online world having these discussions, that I instinctually began readying myself to join in a sprint of having this conversation.

Then, I stepped back for a second and thought,

Did I really even know this person? Did I actually care about their opinion or if they changed? If I had unfollowed them in the first place, why was I about to jump into the pit of ridiculous argument with no real outcome? Was it worth my time, energy and frustration?

So, I did something different.

There was something so freeing about this moment. Part of it was that, as I’m growing up, it’s good to realize that I don’t need to deal with everyone. Some people just need to be let go.

The other, though, is that I found a small sliver of hope where I often struggle. I normally see conversations about appropriation or privilege and cringe. I feel angry and, mostly, helpless.

Lately, though, there’s been a shift within me. The more I see people having these conversations, those of echos of hope have started to reach me. Even more importantly, though, is that the more I have these conversations with my students, the more confident I feel that we’re pushing each other towards actual change. 

Last week, as my 7th graders read The House on Mango Street, they got a brief lesson on White flight. Today they’re exploring gender identity and expectations. My 9th graders are deep into To Kill a Mockingbird, and already making connections about bias, perception, and racism. They are pushing me to think more deeply. They are asking the questions, and even if we don’t agree, I’m so proud of them for thinking about it.

So, that’s fine, person on Facebook. Let your fragility allow you to be complacent as a half-way “ally.” Accept cultural appropriation and enjoy the commercialization of my people this Halloween.

For now.

I’m not stressing. On a larger scale, I am feeling more assured in Dr. King’s words about that long arc bending towards justice.  I am believing, more and more, that tides will turn. I am hopeful for the day when what you perceive as “small potatoes” will get called out as signs of larger beliefs we don’t accept anymore. So, someone else can teach you another day.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll be one of my students.