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San Francisco’s Day of the Dead procession, which last year attracted anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 (I know, that’s a big gap! Like almost everything else that one looks to quantify in terms of change in the Mission, the response is colored by the agenda of the responder) is set to be even bigger, following right on the heels of our World Series win and being cross-promoted with Halloween bar-hopping. Let’s use the numbers from the Marigold Project website, which sponsors the Festival of Altars in Garfield Park. They projected 15,000 participants would attend event, in the 26th year of the celebration in San Francisco. When I first attended 15 years ago, my children were small. It was mostly a neighborhood celebration and we lived just a few block away from Garfield Park. The procession and subsequent gathering was family-oriented and, in keeping with the nature of Dia de Los Muertos, a cross between celebratory and respectful.

Over the years, as the fascination with the Latino culture of the Mission grew, so did the crowds. Which in and of itself, is not a problem. Many wonderful opportunities for mutual understanding and appreciation abound, as with the sugar skull making classes at Galeria de La Raza and the Pan de Muertos that appear in the Mission panaderias (bakeries) this time of year.

 99- pan de muerto (1)

Photo by Adriana Almazan Lahl from Celebraciones Mexicanas, History, Traditions and Recipes

But the nature of San Francisco’s interpretation of the holiday also changed; a change which has paralleled the change in the neighborhood, itself. It is exciting see to the cultural exchange, to see so many people who are not of Mexican heritage learning about and embracing something that is so Mexican at its core, something that speaks so clearly to the nature of a people. Every year, in my column in the Examiner.com, I have taken the opportunity to share something else about Day of the Dead, history, recipes, traditions. What a wonderful window to understanding. But is there understanding? Do those who participate seek to learn and appreciate, or just to imitate? This is the question at the very heart of cultural appropriation.

Wiki defines cultural appropriation as, “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, specifically the use by cultural outsiders of a minority, oppressed culture’s symbols or other cultural elements”. Jarune Uwujarena puts it very well in her blog, Everyday Feminisim, as she seeks to explore The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation“using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.” Keep this in mind when selecting your Halloween costume this year.

As a food writer, I find myself at the precipice of this phenomena because food is so very often the door through which we first walk when learning about another culture. Tell me that your first experience with anything Mexican wasn’t with a taco? In fact, the motivation for my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes (co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl) was just this. Not only did I see an opportunity for people to learn more about an amazing culture and people through the food they prepare, I was really hoping that somehow, this would bring us all closer. And here, I find myself asking, is sharing this celebration of Day of the Dead bringing us closer, or dividing us? Are we exchanging, or appropriating?

This year, more than ever, this word “appropriation” is especially loaded, as actually homes in the Mission are being appropriated at an alarming rate. The buzzword “gentrification” is so loaded that it prompts rock-throwing at tech employees riding “Google busses“. And its not just because rents are rising. Its something in the nature of the people who are moving in, expressed so well in a recent New Yorker article about the now-famous “Playground Incident”. First, the article’s author, Julie Carrie Wong, quantifies the problem, “… wealthy, predominantly white tech employees […] have been pouring into the formerly working-class immigrant neighborhoods, driving up the cost of housing, and giving the landlords increased incentives to evict longtime tenants from rent-controlled apartments. (Between 1990 and 2011, the Mission District lost fourteen hundred Latino households and gained twenty-nine hundred white ones; during the same period, the black population of the city was cut in half.) And then she qualifies it, depicting this exchange, in which, “A college student named Kai, who seems to be the leader of the neighborhood kids, explains the pickup rules [for soccer games in the park] (seven on seven, no time limit, whoever scores first keeps the field) and asks the men how long they’ve lived in the neighborhood. “Who gives a shit? Who cares about the neighborhood?,” one of the men mutters off-screen.

So the question becomes, do the throngs of folks coming to Day of the Dead celebrations in San Francisco’s Mission district “give a shit” about the culture of the event? Are the appreciating or appropriating?

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