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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280 Words on the Radical Non-Conformity of Cam Newton

I’m not a huge NFL fan. I follow the league in a roundabout way, since I follow college sports. All this to say: I was neither a Panters fan nor a Broncos fan when I watched the Superbowl. I’m still not particularly tied to a winner.

That’s not what’s been sticking with me. What stands out is the fascinating debate between Cam Newton and American consciousness.

Props to Jose Vilson for sharing this article from SB Nation, which had this quote:

“I don’t have to conform to anyone else’s wants. I’m not that guy. If you want me to be this type of person I’m not that and I’m happy to say that. I am my own person and I take pride in that.”

In an earlier interview with NBC, Newton said:

“I’m doing what I want to do, how I want to do it, and when I look in the mirror I see me.”

I understand why some folks are irked by Newton. I do, and don’t particularly fault anyone for that. I think, like many twenty-six-year-olds, he will probably grow and change as he gets older.

Stillthere is something radical, powerful, and exhilirating about something who so unequivocally is themselves, unwilling to twist themselves to the dominant culture’s demands. Like Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance and Formation video (and Jessica William’s marvelous response afterward), the notion that Black and other PoC people have to function along the same cultural systems as white entertainers is a false.

In a world where “professionalism” is often tied to whiteness (reading 1, reading 2, reading 3), it is thrilling to see culture figures actively and purposefully move away from that.

 

None of this is to say that I think this means we’ll get rid of existing cultures of “professionalism,” or that I don’t understand how it ties into existing American culture.

All I’m saying is that the more we make radical choices towards non-conformity, the closer we get to busting down the oppressive systems that often make non-conformity a threat against “American” culture instead of celebration of one’s individuality.

Image via The Root.

When You Realize You Are Complicit

The post initially ran in EdWeek Teacher as “The System Wasn’t Built for Us”


First, it was the lack of an indictment for Sandra Bland’s death. Then, it was the lack of an indictment for Tamir Rice’s killing.

As days and verdicts pass, I am only able to ask this question: if the basic structures built for “safety” will not protect us, then what will? 

Moreover, as a teacher, what does this question mean for my students and for me?


For students:  Students need the space to learn about and discuss these stories, as well as process what is going on. Thumbnail image for 17130711447_ca7635c0cb_o.jpg

I’ve seen some teachers say, “I don’t know how to talk about this, so I’m going to move past it.” That fear is understandable, but we must also understand that silence is compliance, and silence is violenceWhen the system is failing, we are compelled as educators not to act as “a cog in a wheel,” as John Dewey once said. We must support our students as they deal with and question the mechanisms in our society that allowed this to happen. We may feel rage (which can look like a lot of things), and that’s okay. Even acknowledging current events, as well as our own frustration and lack of answers can be powerful (Teaching Tolerance and Youth Radio had some great resources if you’d like to do a more in-depth lesson).

Even if your students, like mine, may not directly feel a personal connection to these stories, part of our job is to expose them to questions regarding the larger world and teach them to empathize with communities frustrated and hurt by these situations. For students with whom these events hit closer to home, it’s important to remember this, from Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between The World and Me:

…all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

If racism is a “visceral” experience, the space to heal from it is all more important.


dewey.jpgFor educators: We must begin to reframe our understanding of the system that we work in and, thus, are compliant in. Current events have only strengthened my belief that, frankly, the system wasn’t built for me and other people of color or people from marginalized backgrounds. The system will consistently perpetuate existing hierarchies of power.

Unfortunately, our current education system is one of those hierarchal structures. We can either remain silently and willingly compliant, or we can question and change the powers that be at work in our schools. The questions might appear small at first: whose values am I measure by in a teacher evaluation? Do my students feel like they have a voice at my school? Are the parents I work with feeling valued?

As we move forward, though, those questions will get bigger, and the commitment to the work gets stronger. Hopefully, all educators (and administrators and entire communities) will understand this: our job is not to feed content to students. Our job is to prepare young people to dismantle systems that are currently failing them, and help them uplift the voices, and ideas that showcase the best of their generation. 


Recently, Trent Gillis of On Being posted a reflection about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Christmas sermon. King’s feeling that we were a “bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without…” resonate now.  

The sermon goes on, though, to reminder us of the need for hope:

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.

I leave these words here, as a reminder of what we must hold dear in 2016. Our students still have dreams. We do too. We must continue to push so that those dreams can reach the full majesty of their potential.

 

Protest image via Flickr: Fibonacci Blue
Quote image via Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price.

 

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.

Cross That Line – On Viola Davis and Representation

When I was sixteen, I was sure I was going to be an actress.

I ended up initially getting admitted into USC as a theater student. There are lots of reasons I didn’t continue with a career in acting, the biggest being I realized I didn’t actually love it. It was also clear from my first few years in “the industry” just how few stories there were for people who looked like me. The ones that did exist were only showing in then-small theaters like CASA0101.

It also felt like the stories that did exist would never let someone like me in them. “You’d make it a ‘Latina story’ if I cast you,” one person told me, apparently meaning it wouldn’t be marketable. I was asked if I could have a more “cholo” or “ghetto” accent. This is what it means to be Brown in Hollywood (and I’m sure it was far worse for those who pursued the career more seriously).

I have no doubt these structural issues continue. This is why seeing Viola Davis’s Emmy Acceptance Speech last night warmed me so much:

Davis is… amazing. She not only wins, but she uses her platform to call out systemic racism in Hollywood. Davis quotes Harriet Tubman and provides historical context for her speech, and she shares the win with other Black women.

There is still so far to go, but the sixteen-year-old actress in me smiled. Her speech is a source of strength and light for all young actresses and women of color out there. Viola Davis’s win and her subsequent speech show us that change can and must happen, because we will keep demanding it. Stories from people of color matter, and we deserve to play roles in those stories.  As Davis points out, these stories have the power to “redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be Black.” Her win confirms that the power of representation to expand the mindsets we can have about ourselves (and that white media will have about us).

Her speech also reminds us of this important truth: the work continues, and we win when we call out tough truths and support each other along the way. Bravo.

#AmWriting, and Running, and Writing…

My students are writing right now and so am I.

Mostly, I’m writing much more because I’m excited to announce the Education Week has brought me on as one of their bloggers! The Intersection will discuss race, culture, and topics like that as it intersects (get it? *rimshot*) with education.

Beyond that, I’m running the Kauai Marathon on Sunday. I feel very unprepared, but we’ll see what happens.

Oops! Kids are done and so am I.