illustrators: Raina Telgemeier and Braden Lamb
Indigenous, Mexican American
Poorly conceived, abysmally written, and apparently neither well-researched nor fact-checked, Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts, which saw a six-figure first-print run, garnered record sales even before its official release. Favorably reviewed by all of the major trade journals, a thoughtful reading of Ghosts may well answer the question about the difference between “multicultural celebration” and “multicultural appropriation.”
Presenting a Mexican American family that includes a child with a profound disability, Ghosts would appear to be a celebration of multiculturalism. Sixth-grader Catrina Allende-Delmar and her younger sister Maya and their family are moving from sunny Southern California to a cloudy northern coastal town called Bahía de la Luna. Maya has cystic fibrosis and the family has been told that the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea will be good for her. As the family moves into their new digs, they meet their neighbors, the Calaveras family. Carlos Calaveras tells them that the town is densely populated with ghosts.
Let’s stop here for a moment. It wouldn’t be a stretch to opine that no Latino family in the world would be named “Calaveras,” which means, “skull,” any more than, as Laura Jiménez points out, there would be “a family named Advent Calendar living in a town with a reputation for elves.”
Cat and Maya’s mom, Leona, is an assimilated Mexican woman who has married a white guy and turned away from her people to the extent that she doesn’t speak any Spanish and wishes she could cook Mexican food like her mother used to but can’t. It’s the offer of authentic Mexican food in this story that tempts the girls to accompany Carlos on a tour that includes the local mission, which has been abandoned and is, like the rest of the town, full of ghosts, because ghosts like to hang out in foggy places.
Cultural Appropriation 1:
The California Missions
After a long trek, the three arrive at the ruins of a local mission, where they encounter tombstones and a large crowd of ghost-like creatures, who entrance Maya but totally freak out Cat. Carlos speaks Spanish to the ghosts because “most of the people buried here were from Mexico, so they like it when you speak Spanish to them.” Since these ghosts are “a little shy around people they don’t know,” Carlos hands Maya a bottle of orange soda and a bottle opener, which immediately attracts the ghosts, who happily morph into friendly skeletons who embrace and tickle a giggling Maya, who thinks they’re “awesome.” When Maya has a sudden coughing episode because the ghosts have, according to Cat, “stolen her breath,” the mission tour is done. That’s it. The missions are the homes of shy, Spanish-speaking ghosts from Mexico—not the Indigenous people who really worked at the missions and were forced to speak Spanish, the language of their oppressors—who dance around and will do anything for a bottle of orange soda.
Here’s how the author describes her relationship with the California missions (from her blog):
“I like exploring old abandoned places and mysterious towns. I love skeletons. I love stories with magical realism in them.”
That’s it. All of her research about the California missions seems to have been boiled down to her love of old abandoned places and skeletons. Telgemeier lives in California. In September of last year, Pope Francis journeyed from Rome to Washington, D.C., to canonize Fr. Junipero Serra, who created the brutal California mission system. Fewer than ten minutes of research by Telgemeier or anyone else would have uncovered tears and protests from thousands of people descended from the “Mission Indians.” It also would have uncovered this information:
During the period from 1769-1848, some of the most stable societies in human history had to contend with warfare, disease, and colonization—resulting in a population reduced by over 90% in fewer than two generations. It would not be a stretch to compare the Indian Holocaust of the California Mission system with the Nazi Holocaust in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. It would not be a stretch to compare any of the California Missions to any of the European concentration camps. But, since its inception, the teaching in California schools of the California mission system, or worse, of the “Mission Indians,” has always been a political and religious hot potato.
In 1987, in an attempt to derail the impending canonization of Junipero Serra, Rupert Costo (Cahuilla) and Jeannette Henry Costo (Cherokee) edited The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, which was published by the non-profit Indian Historian Press in San Francisco. This book, which contains an excellent chapter called “The Indian Testimony,” remains the cornerstone of educational work about what occurred during the Mission Period. Here is an excerpt from “The Indian Testimony.” It’s called “The Crying Rock—Where They Killed the Children,” told to Rupert Costo by Rosalie Robertson (Kumeyaay), who learned it from her great-great-grandfather:
One way they had was to get to the people through the children. They would take the children up on the cliff and drop them down the cliff and killed them. And that went on. You can get some of the people to show you just where that happened. Where they threw the children down and killed them, they call that place the “Crying Rock” today.
A lady asked me why they did that to the children. And we know it was done to make the parents do what they were told to do. They didn’t want to do what the padres told them to do, so they forced them to do these things; if they knew the children would be killed they would be more likely to mind the padres.
But there’s so much more. Here is part of Wendy Rose’s poem, “Excavation at Santa Barbara Mission”:
They built the missions with dead Indians.
They built the missions with dead Indians.
They built the missions with dead Indians.
They built the missions with dead Indians.
Literally. The bodies of Indians who had died or been killed were cemented into the walls and body parts were mixed into the masonry and dirt used to build and repair the missions. Can you imagine the horror of, not only not being able to bury your beloved dead in your traditional way, but actually using their body parts as building material?
My friend and colleague, Deborah Miranda, wrote about the generational trauma of the California missions in her blog, Bad Ndns:
[All] of my relatives and I live in a secular world that is pocked by the scars of everything that happened in the California missions, including the devastation that Mission Mythology spreads among Natives and non-Natives alike.
Had she chosen to include in her story anything even approximating the real histories of the Indigenous peoples enslaved in the California Missions, Telgemeier could have perused the following books and materials:
Castillo, Elias, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions. Craven Street Books, 2015.
Costo, Rupert, and Jeannette Henry Costo, eds., The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide. Indian Historian Press, 1987.
Haas, Lisbeth, Saints and Citizens: Indigenous Histories of Colonial Missions and Mexican California. University of California Press, 2014.
Lightfoot, Kent, Indians, Missionaries and Merchants: The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers. University of California Press, 2006.
Miranda, Deborah A., Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Heyday Books, 2013.
Sandos, James A., Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. Yale University Press, 2008.
“Saying Our Share: Surviving the Missions,” special issue of News from Native California, vol. 28 #2, winter 2014-15.
And. A quick Google search would have come up with literally hundreds of news items, articles, and essays, many from a Native perspective. Here are just a few:
“Indian Resistance to the California missions” http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/525
“The dark, terrible secret of California’s missions” / SF Gate http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/The-dark-terrible-secret-of-California-s-missions-2685666.php (11/8/04)
“Indian Country Diaries. History. California Genocide / PBS”
“It’s time to acknowledge the genocide of California’s Indians” / LA Times http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-madley-california-genocide-20160522-snap-story.html (5/22/16)
“Jacque Nunez explains beginning of genocide” / California Missions / California Museum and Cultural Center /https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QOuuPXklGQ (8/7/13)
And, definitely not least, Deborah A. Miranda’s blog, http://badndns.blogspot.com/, has a wealth of information for educators, children, and others who really want to know.
Cultural Appropriation 2:
Día de los Muertos
Here’s how the author describes her relationship with Día de los Muertos (from her blog):
I’m really interested in holidays (like Halloween and Día de los Muertos) that celebrate spirits in different ways. I attended San Francisco’s Día de los Muertos procession and Festival of Altars while I was working on GHOSTS, and everything I saw and experienced made its way into the book in one way or another. It’s a very respectful, reverent, and beautiful experience, and everyone brings their own story and history to it. Traditionally, it was celebrated in Mexico, and while there are many common themes and motifs, every town and region has their own take on it. I researched multiple traditions and sources, and the town of Bahía de la Luna celebrates it in its own unique and special way. If your town celebrates Día de los Muertos, I encourage you to learn more about it!
The purpose of contemporary Día de los Muertos festivities, which involves the whole community, are to remember and honor the ancestors, to entice and welcome them home, to invite them to visit among the living for a while, before they have to return to the land of the dead. Traditionally, the souls of children who have died are welcomed home on November 1, and the souls of adult family members, on November 2. In some places, especially in Mexican towns, the ceremonies are elaborate and religious, involving both Indigenous and Christian traditions. But in both towns and urban areas in Mexico and the US, there are usually parades, celebrations at cemeteries, and elaborate altars set up in homes—with pictures of the ancestors, fragrant and beautiful marigolds, and delicious foods, drinks, candies as well as toys to let the visitors know they are welcomed. It is only after the souls have absorbed the essence of the food and returned to the land of the dead that the families may eat and drink what’s on the altars. The souls may present themselves to families in any of many forms, including hummingbirds or the scent of flowers, or the music of a favorite song. But the souls of the dead are not ghosts. They do not float around and they do not touch people.
In Ghosts, Catrina dresses up as La Catrina for “Halloween / Día de los Muertos.” But. Halloween and Día de los Muertos are not the same, not even similar. And. La Catrina is no ordinary “ghost” and has nothing to do with Día de los Muertos. She’s a creation of José Guadelupe Posada (1852-1913), who became a political cartoonist during the Mexican Revolutionary period. His satirical work mocked the Mexican upper classes, members of whom, even in death, stubbornly refused to surrender their wealth. For a Mexican or Mexican American child to personify “La Catrina” would be the equivalent of someone who is African American dressing up as “Amos” or “Andy,” caricatures of Black people. During contemporary Día de los Muertos parades, children and teens sometimes deck themselves out as skeletons (and may even be carried around in mock open coffins out of which they toss candy), but they don’t costume themselves as specific people.
As Laura Jiménez writes, “In Telgemeier’s graphic novel the ghosts have a bit of an obsession with orange soda in a bottle. The dead basically want to party all night long, drink orange soda, and don’t seem to care if they are with family or just randos on the street.” Ghosts and spirits and souls are not interchangeable, yet Telgemeier has made a mishmash of them. “The end of the book,” Jiménez continues, “is full of music, flying, an inexplicably dead lighthouse attendant, and a black cat who delivers Mexican food. If you are teaching kids about Día de los Muertos, please look elsewhere.”
I imagine that the black cat who delivers Mexican food on the last page—and who makes brief appearances by crossing Maya’s path several times—is supposed to be the children’s departed abuela, demonstrating her love for her family through food. One of the clues is the photo of Abuela, smiling, on the altar nearby. But. This is yet another unnecessary cultural anomaly. The Mexican and Mexican American souls who visit among the living at Día de los Muertos aren’t shape-shifters. They’re just not. And they don’t prepare (or deliver) food for the families—even families who are so thoroughly assimilated that they just can’t figure out how to make decent tamales. The families prepare food for the souls to enjoy. What a mess.
Had Telgemeier wanted to portray an honest interpretation of the cultural facets of Día de los Muertos, she could have perused many excellent books for children. They include, but are not limited to:
Ancona, George, Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead, photographs by the author. HarperCollins, 1993.
García, Richard, My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits / Los espíritus de mi tía Otilia, illustrated by Robin Cherin and Roger I. Reyes, translated by Jesús Guerrero Rey. Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1986.
Morales, Yuyi, Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Alphabet Book, illustrated by the author. Roaring Brook Press, 2003.
Morales, Yuyi, Just in Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book, illustrated by the author. Roaring Brook Press, 2008.
Salinas, Bobbie, Indo-Hispanic Folk Art Traditions II: The Day of the Dead and other year-round activities, illustrated by the author. Piñata Publications, 1988.
Toledo, Natalia, and Francisco Toledo, Light Foot / Pies Ligeros. Groundwood Books, 2007.
Tonatiuh, Duncan, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, illustrated by the author. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2015.
Weill, Cynthia, Mi Familia Calaca / My Skeleton Family, art by Jesús Canseco Zárate. Cinco Puntos Press, 2913.
Telgemeier’s work is not “celebration of diversity.” It’s not “multicultural.” It’s cultural appropriation at its worst—the denial and diminishing of the real histories and cultural beliefs and practices of the peoples of this area. It’s privilege without responsibility. With all of its engaging art and pretense of fun and wit and humor, and despite all of its laudatory reviews, Ghosts is a contribution to the erasure of the Indigenous peoples and those who are “mixed” with the blood of the conquerors and the blood of the conquered. And it’s a contribution to the exclusion of young Indigenous, Mexican and Mexican American readers who might be sucked into a graphic novel that purportedly shows their own histories and cultures.
Trafficking in stereotypes can never be condoned, no matter how eye-catching the art, no matter how fast-moving the plot, no matter how humorous the dialogue, no matter how pure the writer-artist’s intentions. Contributing to the erasure of a people is not OK. It is never OK. It never will be OK. Ghosts is not recommended.
Míl gracias to my friends and colleagues, Maria Cardenas, Judy Zalazar Drummond, Pat Enciso, Laura Jiménez, Deborah A. Miranda, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, and the work of Yuyi Morales, Debbie Reese, Reading While White, and so many others.
 Laura Jiménez, booktoss.wordpress.com (2016).
 Costo, Rupert, and Jeanette Henry Costo, The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press, 1987.
 The entire poem can be found at Deborah A. Miranda’s blog, http://whenturtlesfly.blogspot.com/2009/09/wendy-rose-hopimiwok.html
 What became known as “El Día de los Muertos” began about 3,000 years ago as an Aztec celebration, which the Spanish conquistadores forcibly Christianized in order to subjugate the Indigenous peoples of what is now called Mexico.
 Laura Jiménez, ibid.