All Souls Night organizer takes serious look at cultural appropriation

"White folks, please don't borrow/steal from any marginalized people for ideas!"

Mexican Dia de los Muertos
Getty Images

For the most part, Saturday's All Souls Night event at the Depot will be what has drawn hundreds of attendees to the event for the past decade: the one-square block procession with a soundtrack by a Twin Cities brass band, the burning of bad ideas, and the larger-than-life puppets that organizer Mary Plaster keeps in her company.

While the event was originally inspired by Dia de los Muertos - Plaster spent four years living in Mexico - this year, she said she is hoping attendees will research their own heritage.

"There were a few people from the Cities last year who thought we were getting dangerously close to appropriation," Plaster said, and it was a charge she took seriously.

So, for instance, while there will still be skeletal face-painting, sugar skulls will be reserved for people who understand the significance of the Mexican tradition.


A fire dancer performs at the Duluth All Souls Night celebration in 2017. File / News Tribune

All Souls Night, this year with a theme of "Respect," in honor of Aretha Franklin, starts at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Duluth Depot. There will be poetry, Alex Loch as a skeleton aerialist, fire dancers and more - including the larger-than-life Maximus, a skeleton marionette. Duluth-raised artist Venus DeMars performs at 8:30 p.m.

In preparation for this year's event, Plaster met with university-level diversity and inclusion professionals and read a lot of articles about appropriation. She hosted a screening of "Coco," a Pixar film about Miguel, a young guitar player who travels to the Land of the Dead and learns the secrets of his family's disdain for music. The animated film is set around Dia de los Muertos, and the screening was followed by a panel discussion.

The Duluth All Souls Night Facebook page includes All Souls Night information, death comedy and skeleton jokes. It's also where Plaster shares articles ranging from: "Why discussing cultural appropriation isn't just being told what you can't do" by Everyday Feminism to "Death, Dia de los Muertos, and an Invitation" and "Humanity has destroyed 60 percent of the animal populations since 1970: Report" from Daily Beast.

Enrique Mezza, a Chicago native whose parents came to the United States from Central Mexico, found a slice of home at last year's All Souls Night event. He had recently moved to Duluth and was experiencing culture shock, he said.

"I walk into this space that offers my culture — even though it's not just my culture," he said. "I saw ofrendas, and I was beyond myself."

He isn't hearing appropriation claims within the local Mexican community, he said; it's from the outside.


Mezza credits Plaster, whom he refers to as his Mexican white aunt, as inspiring his own work at the Zeitgeist atrium. The area is filled with altars, banners and large-scale pieces inspired by Dia de Los Muertos. The exhibition is available through November and later this month will have a movie-dinner tie-in.

When Plaster first started this, she said she was excited to host an event that shifted from Hollywood's version of Halloween to something that celebrated ancestors and grief. It grew to include political statements - both nationally and locally. During the burning of rotten ideas in one of the first year, someone set fire to the idea of a downtown skateboard ordinance.

Plaster defined appropriation as taking things from another culture, while dismissing other parts of the culture. For instance: An active campaign to keep Mexicans out of the United States, but adopting the colorful skull imagery.

"White folks, please don't borrow/steal from any marginalized people for ideas!" Plaster wrote on the event page. "We request dressing for a funeral or as a plain skeleton."

This is the time of year when a lot of cultures celebrate the dead, she said, and in some similar ways.

"It's amazing how many cultures acknowledge the same things," Plaster said. "All the leaves are dropping and becoming naked trees, light is getting darker, some people have seasonal affect disorder."

Among the visual aspects of the event is Maximus, a looming skeleton marionette created by Plaster and Christopher Lutter. Through her research, Plaster - who described herself as 98.5 percent northern European - discovered a group that meets at Carmody Irish Pub and together considers Irish language and traditions.

"We carved turnips together," she said. "That's where jack o'lanterns came from."



What: All Souls Nite

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Duluth Depot, 506 W. Michigan St.

Tickets: Suggested $10 donation

= = =

What: "Day of the Dead Exposition," an exhibition of work by Mexican-American artists

When: Through November

Where: Zeitgeist Arts atrium

Tickets: Free

= = =

What: "Spirit of Duluth: Dinner and Film Series"

When: 5:30 p.m. dinner of tamales and tres leches dessert; 7:30 p.m. screening of "Hecho en Mexico" on Nov. 12

Where: Zeitgeist Arts Cafe, 222 E. Superior St.


Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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