The One with the problematic Dia de Los Muertos

Raina Telgemeier, Ghosts (2016)

I love it when my oldest son and I can share a book together. As it happens I choose most books for him at the library, because a- at this hour he has a planned activity; b- I don’t trust him to read challenging books; c- he would only take home Mickey Mouse comics and mangas; d- I can browse middle grade literature shelves and I love it. I often do some night reading aloud to both boys these days, but not every night. I know I am kind of bossy but my son is only 9 (only?) and I know these times won’t last forever. Plus, don’t worry too much, he also goes to another library to fill up on Mickey Mouse to his heart’s content.

I borrowed Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier as much for me as for him. We had a great time reading the graphic memoir El Deafo by Cece Bell, and I knew I could trust my son to be open to hard subjects (with a proper treatment, that is). I have bought Telgemeier’s Smile for my workplace library but haven’t read it yet. I took a chance on her Ghosts, because my son is not yet a teenager, more like a tween, and the book deals with pretty heavy issues so that I wasn’t sure how he would receive it. The main character’s little sister has cystic fibrosis and the whole family needs to move to a new town for her sake. I didn’t know how much my son could understand about degenerative genetic disorders, but I found that Telgemeier did a good job being both sensitive with young readers and realistic with terminal illness and death and grief.

The other big theme of the book is the Mexican American tradition of Dia de Los Muertos, in an imaginary small town where friendly ghosts literally come back and mingle with the local population. Catrina and her family are Mexican-American but haven’t kept with traditions. Her new friends and neighbors enable her to reconnect with her identity. Ghosts in this story are kind and sensitive and nothing to be afraid of. Telgemeier is great with the difficult subject of death, of cultural acceptance, of sisterhood, and I was going to rate this book a whole five stars, until…

I ran into various critical reviews on Goodreads and on the internet about how her portrayal of Dia de Los Muertos and Mexican-American culture is not accurate at all. People said (I’m paraphrasing here) that the scenes set in a Spanish mission with ghosts of Native people are out-of-line because of the cruelty and oppression that Spanish Catholic missionaries used against them. It’s probably true, and I can’t be the judge of it because I know far too little about this history and this part of the world.

Call me ignorant if you want, but the whole concept of cultural appropriation was new to me. I didn’t know there was a word for that, and it’s little known in France. But I don’t like the idea that only Mexican-American people can write about Mexican-American experience. Writers should be able to write about experiences that are beyond their own lives, if they accurately portray facts upon which they base their fiction.

So my verdict? I still love the book, problematic or not. I’m grateful that people on the internet took the time to explain why and where it was wrong, but I think it’s still a worthwhile read for elementary kids.

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2 thoughts on “The One with the problematic Dia de Los Muertos

  1. Oh, gosh, I wouldn’t boil cultural appropriation down to “only Mexican Americans can write about the Mexican American experience.” One of the major problems is that marginalized authors have very, very few opportunities to be published and to tell their stories, and it’s really shitty when white authors tell those stories, get it all wrong, and make money off of it. Then you don’t have good or accurate representation of those cultural traditions, AND authors of color aren’t getting published — everyone loses.

    It’s more complicated when white authors profit off of representation of cultural traditions to which they don’t belong, but portray those traditions respectfully and accurately. I think in that case, it’s at least a conversation about who gets to tell those stories. But when the representation sucks and the writer doesn’t come from that background, I do think it’s worth criticizing and pushing back against.

    • How interesting! I’m a total newbie to this thematic and I can totally see your point. I just get (distorted) echos from the internet on the subject and what you explain is much more balanced than the vindicative, outraged tone of most Internet posts. Telgemeier is a big name in YA/middle grade graphic novel and I’m sure it was way easier for her to publish something on that subject that a Mexican American writer / artist.

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