El Espace is a column dedicated to news and culture relevant to Latinx communities. Expect politics, arts, analysis, personal essays and more. ¿Lo mejor? It’ll be in Spanish and English, so you can forward it to your tía, your primo Lalo or anyone else (read: everyone).
At the end of 2016, in between jobs and ready for a change, I moved back to the Dominican Republic for a few months. Every night at my tía’s home in Santo Domingo, I watched her and the other women and girls on my dad’s side of the family brush out their curls, braid their hair and wrap it into the same Princess Leia-style buns to sleep. They’d inherited this bedtime ritual from my grandmother, who died in the early ’90s and whose long mane of pelo bueno was legend in my family. (Ugh. I know. But even if it shouldn’t be a thing, it still is.) I envied the shared communion of this small gesture, which I’d never witnessed growing up in New York: their jalónes had historia.
Inevitably, we leave parts of ourselves behind when we emigrate — traditions that are too hard to keep up; foods for which the right sazón is nearly impossible to find. But Mexican-Americans (and Pixar) have taken the Day of the Dead and made it a distinct part of American culture too. In many cities, especially those with large Chicano populations like Houston and Los Angeles, altars honoring deceased ancestors and loved ones with food and mementos have popped up on street corners and in shops in advance of the holiday on Nov. 2.
In Dallas, for example, where about a third of the population is Hispanic and primarily of Mexican descent, Maroches Bakery, in the Bishops Arts District neighborhood, has become known for its Day of the Dead community altar.
Each year, Manuel Tellez, who has run the shop for 18 years, asks local artists to contribute, and invariably, they turn up with painted tequila bottles, vibrant skull drawings and lucha libre homages.
When I spoke to Tellez on the phone, he was busy fielding orders for the Day of the Dead’s signature pan de muerto, a sweet roll brushed with egg wash and dusted with sugar. “We open at 1,” he was telling a customer. “The bread will be ready by 6.”
Tellez is insistent on making pan de muerto the traditional way, without any artificial ingredients to speed up the process. It’s part of his effort to keep Mexican culture alive in a quickly gentrifying city. When the customer in the shop seemed to grumble about the wait, Tellez simply said: “That’s how you roll in this area.”
Tellez moved to the United States when he was 18, and though his family did not celebrate the Day of the Dead when he was growing up, he adopted the custom as a nod to his heritage. “Convertí la pastelería en un lugar más multifacético,” Tellez said, referring to his reimagining of the bakery as a cultural space where locals can discuss arts or politics.
Both Tellez and Cindy Pedraza Puente, who co-owns CocoAndré, a Mexican chocolatier that creates artisanal chocolates for the Day of the Dead in Dallas, said that not everyone in their community embraces the tradition wholeheartedly. Pedraza Puente said her mother was a Sunday school teacher and some of her fellow congregants — many of whom were second- and third-generation immigrants — found it hard to reconcile their Catholic faith with the Day of the Dead traditions. When the animated movie “The Book of Life” came out in 2014, Pedraza Puente said she noticed that more people wanted to dress up like the movie’s characters, but she hopes to teach people that the Day of the Dead “isn’t a costume.”
“This is an actual tradition with roots, and it means something,” she said. In its honor, she throws an annual party attended by hundreds of people.
Fred Villanueva, another Dallas local who owns AshStudios (which he described as “a black and brown space”), said that he attempted “to show great respect to the Aztec and the Mayan codices that came before us” through the altar he created for the Latino Cultural Center, adding that part of his offering was the artwork itself.
Here are more stories to read this week.
What samba has been missing: women.
In 1930s post-slavery Brazil, “baianas,” or community aunties, started hosting sambas in defiance of policies that cracked down on Afro-Brazilian religious customs. But when the circles became more mainstream in the 1950s, women were relegated to the background as dancers and the lyrics became increasingly misogynistic. Now, all-women samba circles are pushing back against sexist tropes. “This is a big moment in the history of samba,” said Kelly Adriano de Oliveira, a scholar on the history of women in samba. After all, Brazil’s samba circles were first rooted in resistance.
Oaxaca is where it’s at. Let’s go?
Meet the women rappers carving a space for themselves in Oaxaca’s hip-hop scene. This musical cohort of women meets monthly in the city’s main square to freestyle about issues like poverty, gender inequality and the disenfranchisement of indigenous communities. The solidarity isn’t just about community. “The men can become aggressive with us,” one woman said.
Separately, but on the topic of Oaxaca, this is a quick and fascinating history of how artisans in one village expanded their pottery offerings beyond the practical. It’s also just a really lovely look into how the people of San Marcos make their red-colored ceramic cookware from mountain earth, over enormous fire mounds.
This is my favorite paragraph:
No one wants an ancient tradition to vanish, but most do and more will. After all, it’s not the object that matters — those comales are made of just earth, water and sand. Yet each is slightly different in shape and texture, owing to the hand that formed it, and distinct in its random markings, with traces of smoke and soot from the firing. They are, in fact, very beautiful. It seems the more basic the process, the more magic the object can hold.
The candy factory of your dreams is in Colombia
For a candy fiend like me, it doesn’t get much better than this story by the novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras about the Colombina factory where sweet Bon Bon Bum lollipops (and dreams!) are made. “They are as central to growing up Hispano as receiving your first merengue lessons on New Year’s Eve from a drunk tío or tía who insists your life depends on your ability to sway your hips with swing,” writes Rojas Contreras. Listen: those merengue lessons are a rite of passage! Maybe you can relate.
The Catholic Church is trying, y’all.
After a nearly monthlong gathering, a group of bishops presented Pope Francis with a document calling for the increased inclusion of women and young parishioners in the church. “The absence of women’s voices and viewpoint impoverishes discussion and the path of the church,” said the document. Amen, right?
Still, some believe the final document fell short, in part because it dropped a specific appeal to protect L.G.B.T. people. That acronym was used in a previous draft, but the final was more vague in renewing the church’s “commitment against every discrimination and sexually based violence.” Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, an advocacy group for gay Catholics, said that if one of the auditors they’d brought in between the ages of 18 and 29 had been gay, perhaps the Vatican would have had a more complex understanding of L.G.B.T. concerns.
The Latinx vote matters. So why aren’t politicians reaching out to them?
Ahead of the midterm elections on Nov. 6, a polling firm called Latino Decisions found that 55 percent of Latinos nationwide said they had not been contacted by a political campaign this year. That’s pretty surprising, considering that the Latino demographic is frequently cited as a priority voting bloc (and this year is no different). Why the disconnect? Well, for one, there’s the issue of politicians not really knowing their audience.
“To paint all Latinos with the same brush, as being Democrats and having progressive views on issues, even on immigration, is a little bit too simplistic,” said William Frey of the Brookings Institution. “Organizers have to get into the nuances of various Latino populations.”
If you’re looking for something lovely, I recommend this essay by John Paul Brammer, a Mexican-American writer, about rewatching the 2017 Pixar movie “Coco.”
“I teared up at the very beginning of the film, when I first set eyes on Coco sitting in a wheelchair, wrinkled, in a state of forgetting,” he wrote for the publication Them. “My abuela suffered from dementia before her death, and as with any successful magic trick, I believed I could reach out and touch Coco’s hand, which would surely feel like my abuela’s, and ask her if she knew me.”
I’m not crying! You’re crying! (Ok, but seriously, who else wants rewatch “Coco” immediately?)
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