Sometimes, I think it’s a fine line to walk.
I’m 1/2 Cuban. Some of my great grandparents were pretty eccentric spiritual Santerians (food out for the spirits, chicken sacrifice, etc), but that was never really a big part of my own life - I honestly heard more about Santos at 100% Cuban friends’ houses later on, where it was an actual family religion kids were exposed to and not just something the older people did. Chickens everywhere was a normal thing for me as a little kid (they’re still everywhere in Key West where I’m originally from) and I remember the food out and stuff the few times we visited, and my Dad being kind of half-cynical, half-creeped out by “all that hoodoo.” My own great grandparents celebrated Dia de los Muertos as part of their faith, but I didn’t know that at the time.
I fell in love with Anne Rice’s (fictional, white lady author) version of bayou voodoo and Catholic theology all twined together, New Orleans style, as a teenager. A teenager who didn’t even speak spanish, being raised by my white mom and stepdad except for vacations I’d spend with the other side of my family. Those books were when I first heard of All Souls Day and All Saints Day.
I learned about Dia de los Muertos a couple of years later, as a young mother watching an episode of Reading Rainbow that centered on Guadelajara, with my toddlers. I thought it was beautiful, meaningful, probably even “exotic” (I know, I know…) but also familiar and awesome, because hispanic people in general are dramatic, colorful, ritual-oriented sorts of peeps a lot of the time…
Throughout my own mid-twenties, I really grappled with whether or not to be Catholic. That was independent of the rest of this for the most part, except to say that I started to understand the real meanings and practices of All Saints and All Souls Days, as well as the offshoot holiday of Dia de los Muertos, theologically instead of just on a wikipedia level. At one point I took my dead grandmother’s name in, to have her remembered during Mass for All Souls Day. And it started to seem meaningful to me that Catholicism is for the most part the religion of “my people” - my own relatives as well as the community of people who look and eat like me, where I live (South Florida). I went to Thanksgiving gatherings back on the island and had my flamboyant uncle stumbling drunkenly off down the street to give thanks at St Mary’s in the middle of the night, because they’re always open, while the neighbors threw salt over their shoulders and rolled their eyes at him.
Everything I learned about All Saints, All Souls and Dia de los Muertos really resonated with me a lot - which could be because of my roots, or could be because I’m the type of almost-hipster that really likes True Blood, which is full of “hoodoo” (which most people call brujaja, here in the greater Miami area).
As a 26 year old, I almost died. It was a pivotal time that split my life into “before” and “after” my emergency surgery, time in the ICU, and so on.
When I “woke up,” from that nightmare, and started really coming back to life (which is also when I started attending RCIA classes with more interest in actually converting to Catholicism, and taking my kids to like 2 dozen Masses per holiday week, and dropping my Ma’s name in the remembrance bowl), I handled a lot of things in my life differently.
One small example of this is, I decided I wanted a tattoo. A calavera/sugar skull tattoo. Because I know death is real now, and it makes life feel differently, and I think that’s a cool looking version of a skull with deeper spiritual meanings than just a standard skull. Calaveras are intentionally customizable and designed to be personalized with things that reference someone specific. I sat down with my Mexican/Peruvian tattoo artist friend who has actually attended Dia de Los Muertos celebrations in Mexico to design what mine would look like. I’ve basically just been waiting for him to be in the state again, to do it, ever since - because neither of us want anyone else to (albeit mainly for artistic/friendship reasons and not anything to do with calavera authenticity, which is not even something I’d considered before the past week).
Recently, though, I’ve been seeing TONS of social justice and racism advocacy tumblrs reblogging and commentating on the scourge of hipsters appropriating dia de los muertos left and right without knowing anything about it, and tattooing sugar skulls all over themselves that aren’t even accurate to how sugar skulls are supposed to be (which I find interesting since even my devoutly Catholic, 100% Mexican friend Veronica, who grew up celebrating every year of her life as a minor before emigrating, talks about the regional differences and the ways that it’s an international holiday and how each family she knew always had their own style…) One of these people referenced how none of these kids getting tattoo’d have been out there scrubbing the headstones in the graveyards and, well… neither have I. I originally learned about this holiday by name on freakin’ Reading Rainbow, for crying out loud.
So am I one of “those people”? The American Apparel models with feathered headdresses? Yeah, obviously. Also, no, not at all. Both, I guess, or maybe neither.
It’s pretty hard to unravel. Part of me wants it a little less just knowing it’s such a trend, now. I don’t want it to be like having tribal barbed wire around my upper arm or a butterfly at the small of my back, in 10 years.