My mother is Mexican and Spanish, and I grew up in Los Angeles, a city that is steeped in Latino culture. My abuella came from Mexico to America in a covered wagon in 1918, and my daughter and I had the good fortune to hear this story from her directly. Despite all that, my own upbringing was pretty American. My family still continues our tradition of making turkey tamales on Thanksgiving, which we’ve done since I was a little girl. I love Sandra Cisneros because her writing captures the feeling of my family in such a poetic and sentimental way, and I can speak Spanglish at a toddler level. That’s about as Mexican as I get.
Similarly, my father was Native American (Cheyenne-Arapaho) and ??. He identified with his Native roots, and drew most of his spiritual and ethical principles from that. You know, the idea that “we are all connected” and we should walk in balance and with respect for mother earth. I don’t mean to cheapen those ideals with buzzwords and catch phrases — I’m just trying to convey the concept quickly. My dad’s art and ideals were deeply influenced by his Indian heritage. He passed that along to me to some degree, by taking me to pow wows and teaching me what he believed in; but I didn’t grow up on a reservation or anything. I grew up roller skating along the beaches of Santa Monica and Venice 😉
These cultures are certainly a part of me, they reflect my family and my history. They have colored my perspective, and helped to shape my thinking; but I didn’t really live them the way a first generation Indian or Mexican person would. As such I view them as my heritage, rather than my culture — if that distinction makes any sense.
There are aspects of each that resonate with me. Little fragments that I like to keep alive in my own way, however diluted. For example, my dad’s people had a great reverence for life. When they hunted, they took only what was needed, and made an offering to the spirit of the animal to express gratitude for the nourishment and sustenance it provided. Their respect for that animal’s life motivated them to use every part of the body. In keeping with this, I smudge every hide that I use in my leatherwork with sage, and silly as it may sound, I thank that cow for the sustenance (income) it provides. I do my best to use every scrap, so that nothing is wasted.
My mom’s ancestors have a beautiful way of viewing death. Every year in Mexico (and much of California 😉 the people celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It is not as morbid as it might sound. Rather than mourning the death of loved ones who have passed, this holiday (which actually spans two days) is intended to celebrate, honor and remember those who have passed. I’ve always appreciated this holiday, for that sentiment and also for the beautiful artwork that it inspires.
This year, it is especially important to me, as I’ve lost several friends and family recently. Most notably, my father. Even though we knew it was coming, it still hit me pretty hard. We did not have a perfect relationship — in fact, we butted heads a lot — but I always loved and respected him. I’ve been doing DotD inspired stuff for some time, but even more so over the past year. Silly as it may sound, it has helped me to work through my grief for my dad and to focus on the positive. It reminds me to honor what he taught me, and to value the aspects of him that live on in me and in my daughter.
I am going to go out and grab some marigolds and candles today, so that I can create a special altar in his memory. I’ll add pictures of him and sage that he picked, along with photos and mementos of my grandparents and my friend Mahala, who died of cancer last fall. I’ll spare you the full roster (suffice to say that it is long) but know that it reflects much love for many wonderful people who have added to my life. Meanwhile, I’ve created this virtual altar over on Etsy. My online ofrenda: