I find myself compelled to offer some thoughts about the controversy associated with this year’s Festival of the Dead events. Sadly, this year’s parade was the smallest I can remember and I have to wonder if people avoided the event for fear of being labeled racist or for not wanting to contribute to the conflict in our community.
I have been coming to this event for many years and have used this event to help me mourn the loss of my mother, father, beloved animal companions and for many dear friends and community members who have died. I have marched in the event, stood and danced on the sidelines and have bared witness to the tender, sometimes joyful, and raw expressions of grief from our community members.
And although I think it is always a good thing to question and evaluate whether what are doing is beneficial or inadvertently hurtful, I believe this event is not a form of cultural appropriation, as has been suggested, but instead it is the very best and most well-intentioned integration of culture and art and spiritual traditions from our melting pot of cultures here in the United States, in an attempt to deal with an issue that is one of the most challenging we face.
If we look at many, if not most of our cherished traditions, there are pieces of cultural and religious traditions that are borrowed and used. All organized religions borrow heavily from one another, taking the pieces that that make sense to them and leaving the rest behind. Similarly, cultural events incorporate cultural practices that may not be specific to that culture.
One example is Christmas, which incorporates many pagan practices and folk traditions. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga, which are widely used in the United States to promote health, have their roots in Buddhism and Eastern traditions — while many of us who use these incredibly helpful tools may not embrace the roots of these practices.
As a Jewish woman who has lived in Missoula for the past 30 years, I have witnessed non-Jews utilizing, adapting and incorporating aspects of Jewish culture, using it for their own needs in respectful ways. This kind of borrowing and use of our culture does not hurt my community. It takes nothing away from me or my culture. It is not dehumanizing or hateful. In fact, it is an example of how much my culture and all of our cultures have to offer.
On the other hand, I have experienced a good deal of ignorance about my culture, as well as overt and covert racism. These experiences have been hurtful and alienating for me — and have challenged me to speak up about the pain of racism and prejudice. It is these kind of harmful and ignorant acts that we need to confront and stand in solidarity against as a community.
We live in a multicultural world. We should be celebrating this fact and encouraging one another to learn, share and respectfully use the very valuable aspects of each of our cultures. The Day of the dead parade is a loving, respectful and creative effort to help people cope with death and loss. And yes, it borrows and uses aspects of Hispanic cultures. It also borrows and uses aspects of other cultures as well.
Death and dying and loss are cross-cultural experiences. And for many, if not most of us, it is something we need help coming to terms with. And that means sharing and borrowing one another’s traditions and practices, and offering one another compassion for this very difficult human journey we are on.