Updated: Feb 26
The latest Time Magazine reports how a new exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art aims to rectify the oversight of the impact of Mexican muralist on American 20th century artists, who heavily “borrowed” Mexican artists’ themes and methods. For example, “The Flame” by Jackson Pollock appropriated the skeleton and fire from Jose Clemente Orozco’s “Prometheus.” For example, William Gropper’s WPA commissioned “Automobile Industry” was heavily influenced by Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals.
As Myriam Gurba says in her memoir, “Mean,” White people love to appropriate things. The Cambridge Dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” For example, I, a white woman brought up in the segregated south, have a substantial collection of calaveras. Although I’ve tried to understand and respect this tradition, like many white people, I’ve appropriated Dios de los Muertos as my own.
How did this happen? When I was fourteen, Douglas Aircraft closed their plant in Charlotte and transferred my father to Santa Monica. We drove across country and rented a house in Reseda. I was very confused by this version of California. All those Beach Boy songs and Gidget movies had given me the impression everyone lived on the beach. Reseda was in a hot, smoggy valley. The kids at Northridge Junior High School asked if I was surf or grease. “Can I be both?” I asked, knowing I was neither.
The family who lived across the street was Mexican American. My mother and I watched their extremely handsome teenaged son from our living room window. “He just exudes sexuality,” my normally prim mother said in a rare and uncharacteristic moment of truth and longing. Our small family was lonely and out of place, geographically isolated from our grandmothers, cousins, aunts and uncles back in the Carolinas. My mother did her best to acclimate. We went to a Posada on Olivera Street at Christmas. We drove to Tijuana on Easter break. She bought avocados which we hated because we didn’t know we were supposed to wait until they ripen to eat them.
A year later we moved to Fountain Valley which was closer to the beach and more similar to our white neighborhood in Charlotte but never felt welcoming. The kids at high school had formed tight cliques and I had no friends for almost a year. I got mononucleosis so I wouldn’t have to go to school. I finally found two girls who were also outsiders from Texas and Canada. Life was grand until we graduated and went on to different lives. I was alone again.
I got a job at the post office in Santa Ana where Hector Godinez was Postmaster, the first Mexican American Postmaster in the United States. Godinez made a point of hiring and promoting from the community and I was immediately attracted to the Mexican Americans I worked with. They were from what felt to me like the real California, they had histories, they could tell stories, they knew each other’s parents, and where to get the best tamales (and how to eat avocados!) They invited me to elaborate weddings and dramatic funerals. I had never been inside a Catholic Church. I grew up as a Methodist, believing that Catholics worshipped false idols, but now, at weddings, baptisms, rosaries, and masses, I admired the carved saints, the stained-glass stations of the cross, the ornate swinging cannisters of incense, the mariachi music reverberating up to arched ceilings. Instead of being seen and not heard, children ran up and down the aisles laughing and crying. Emotions were openly displayed, something I’d been taught to choke back. I was sold.
White people love to appropriate things, most likely because we can. Sometimes we might simply be lonely and looking for community. Sometimes our own culture feels distant and colorless. I have a Spanish surname now from marriage. I can make a decent flan. I like to think I approach other cultures with dignity and respect, but I make mistakes. I misunderstand.
Which brings me back (again) to the novel “American Dirt.” I was critical of this novel yet still admired its page-turning quality, how the tension kept building. I failed to see that this tension was built on real people’s trauma. One scene in particular haunts me, the story about the boy who died in the Tijuana dump. As I’ve already pointed out, author Jeanne Cummins “borrowed” Luis Alberto Urrea’s story about a boy who died in the dump in Tijuana. Ms. Cummins called her character Ignacio and described how he was squashed by the back tire of a garbage truck, compressed into the garbage beneath him, and crushed just enough that he survived for three dreadful days. According to Ms. Cummins story, “Ignacio is still there in el dumpe, buried beneath a sky-blue hand painted cross with his name.”
I was horrified initially by Ms. Cummins plagiarism, but I realized when I actually read Mr. Urrea’s “Dompe Days,” from his book “By the Lake of Sleeping Children” that I’d missed something much more crucial. This is not a fictional story. Mr. Urrea reported on what happened to a real boy named Eduardo. He describes how Eduardo’s death unified the dump people. They did not leave him in the dump for three days. They refused to bury him in the trash. They collected money, bought him a suit, hammered together a coffin, and laid his twisted body out to be mourned. They loaded him and his mourners in a truck and drove across the hills, through small valleys to a graveyard. The grave diggers cried so hard they almost fell in.
Ms. Cummins appropriated the story but didn’t give her character the dignity and respect he deserved. She didn’t try to understand. White people love to appropriate things and most of the time, we get what we’ve taken wrong.