Build Bridges Not Walls
My friend Brennan Pierce once said, “Denton’s like Kanye West. Denton loves Denton” 33.3 degrees North and 97.2 degrees West sits a destination that is an eclectic mix of perspectives, taste, and entertainment. It’s not a perfect town, (or has this city grown too big to be called a town anymore?) but this love for all things Denton shouldn’t provide a bulletproof shield from criticisms. Right now, a hallmark event of Denton known as Day of the Dead Fest is facing growing criticisms and a protest against cultural appropriation.
Intellectual discussion is important and will play a key role in this debate. I recall city leaders such as Kevin Roden, Greg Johnson, and Dalton Gregory often mention how they can have strong disagreements with each other yet still maintain more than a modicum of respect for each other. It’s going to take healthy discussion rather than social media snark and bad attitudes to build understanding between different perspectives. Denton-based message boards should be above the shit shows that YouTube comment sections turn into.
I had the opportunity to chat with both the founder of Day of the Dead Festival, David Pierce, and members of pledged protesters set to make a statement this coming Saturday. And, who am I? I’m a Hispanic male born in Midland, Texas who didn’t know about Día de Los Muertos until a high school Spanish class. I accidentally minored in Spanish at UNT because I continued taking advanced courses so I could learn more about the culture I descended from. I’d like to think I’m not the only one who’s had an Americanized upbringing with a yearning for getting in touch with ancestral roots. Anyway, I’m here to present the differing views of Denton’s Day of the Dead as honestly I can.
First, I’m incredibly thankful Denton isn’t like the fictional town called Spectre in the movie Big Fish.
This town always seems ready to burst at the seams thanks to the mainstream pursuits balanced against the counter culture largely driven by transient creatives attending college. Hell, Oaktopia was recognized as possibly the best DFW festival while a wildly successful counter event was held at the same time in house venues across town. Even outside the entertainment aspects of this town, there are wildly varying attitudes on the business and environmental standards of Denton.
Go back to 2009, David Pierce has put together an entertaining Halloween event meant for the whole family. Something both he and his town will be proud of. That was the year Cirque du Horror launched at Dan’s Silverleaf. “When I came to school here for music, one of the things I realized right away was how unique the city was,” Pierce says. UNT brings in musicians from all over the world that mix into a scene churning different origins of influences. “So in my humble opinion, a festival like this is very Denton."
In 2011, there was the idea of adding a block party element to the Cirque du Horror show. That was the year Pierce’s annual macabre variety show turned into Day of the Dead fest, and he wasn’t without hesitation in wearing that festival name. Being of Hispanic descent himself, he consulted with his family and members of the community on whether or not it would be appropriate to have a Day of the Dead festival that also incorporates traditional elements of Halloween and Fall Harvest. Since then, connections have been built with Denton’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Denton Arts Council. The 2016 festival will include Latinx groups such as Teatro Dallas, Cholo Rock, and Mariachi Quetzal. If you have all this Hispanic collaboration then surely the festival isn’t about perpetuating Hispanic stereotypes. right?
Or is it?
A few years ago I showed up to a Halloween party as Speedy Gonzalez. I was called out by the former manager of Taqueria Picante, Petra Wilde, for wearing my culture as a costume. I could have made a defense that I’m of Mexican descent, but I didn’t. I took it to heart and I took the time to look around that party and see a few others in attendance wearing poblano hats, serapes, fake mustaches, all while yelling out things with a horribly fake Spanish accent. As Wilde said, “my culture is not a costume.”
One might ask where do you draw the line? Is cultural appropriation identified like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart identified obscenity?
“I know it when I see it.”
It’s difficult to define a set standard, but a person’s feeling should not ever be written off. A person’s feelings are not invalid just because you disagree. The runners of Day of the Dead Festival do have numbers behind them. It would be easy to discard this weekend’s protesters as the voices of the few. It would be easy to say they are transient college students that don’t understand the community of Denton has put together an event that brings families out en masse. What could possibly be wrong with structuring an event around family and community?
“The thing that bothers me the most is that there is want for our culture but they don’t want the actual people that come with the culture,” says Mueve member Araceli Cruz. Although Pierce strives to incorporate authentic elements of Day of the Dead, protesters feel there is a vibe that the fest is coming from a white space inviting Latinx members in for a pseudo validation. Is this fest truly reaching out to the other side of the train tracks to celebrate a spiritual event that began with a culture that is continually oppressed not only in society, but in how texas history is taught in classrooms. Day of the Dead has become so chic that some regional art teachers instruct elementary students to make sugar skulls without teaching the historical context of where that imagery comes from.
Then there’s the common response to any reproach: "we might as well stop celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest." UNT Anthropology grad Preston LaFarge says, “It’s interesting to use St. Patrick’s Day as an example of transformation. When in reality a lot of people from Ireland have a problem with the way that is celebrated in the United States.”
People tend to think these complaints are only about specific holidays and proper celebration. LaFarge adds, “It’s about being a member of a marginalized community that is constantly being stolen from, killed, hated, insulted.”
As I stated before, I had no Mexican-American studies while going to grade school in Texas’ public education system. When this topic finally is considered for education, the offered textbook painted Mexicans as lazy separatists that resist assimilation into American society.
This may shock you, but the Wikipedia page for Calaveras doesn’t offer the best explanation of their historical significance, either. LaFarge shared a 1910 etching of La Calavera Catrina by Jose Guadalupe Posada which was a reaction to the violence of the Diaz regime and subsequent revolutions. South Texas received emigrants during this time of turmoil and the images intersected with the intended meaning of Día de Los Muertos. LaFarge states, “The Día de Los Muertos rituals keep those people in my life and connect me to the generations before them as well as to a spirit of resistance and revolution.”
One of the most beautiful things in the world is when someone can share their culture to build bridges while maintaining a distinct ownership of their own identity. But then the beautiful thing America likes to point to is how the country is one great melting pot. So how did we end up here? Denton’s Day of the Dead from the beginning was meant to welcome that melting pot while also being family friendly. However, the Latinx community is perceiving the event as culture theft that offers a watered down version for the sake of making money.
It should be noted that Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival is officially a non-profit organization. (And we should all know by now that the bigger downtown festivals don't make money, instead tons of it is typically spent and lost in order to 'put on the show'). Vendors may sell products well, but they do have to pay a sizable fee to participate. To my knowledge, we’re not going to see David Pierce backstroking down Hickory Street in a sea of Benjamin Franklins.
I’m not writing this to present an authoritative voice on exactly how Day of the Dead should be celebrated. But, I do think that Denton has a unique opportunity to be the standard for celebrating ethnic cultures in a relevant way. That could mean making a name change if the fest isn’t purely going to be about Day of the Dead. It could also mean making a stronger effort to be more inclusive, present the educational side in more of a direct marketing approach instead of having the only educational aspects hidden at art galleries. This year is the first time an actual protest is happening, but it’s not the first time the fest has been asked to change their name.
I get it. The fest is already a big hit. Not only do Dentonites love it but people come from out of town come to enjoy this festival, and put their money into our local businesses. But, not everything is about money. I went into my conversation with Pierce expecting to walk away disgusted with the direction of the event. Instead, I walked away with huge respect for a family man who loves entertaining people. I especially respect him for listening to my suggestions on what could be done better without writing me off. I suggest anyone who partakes in Denton’s Day of the Dead fest does the same when listening to those who challenge the event as being cultural appropriation. Educate yourself and build bridges. As the great Verna Myers once said, “diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusiveness is being asked to dance.”
Header image design by Brittany Keeton