A Look at Ghosts

I am a half-Mexican female who was born and raised in California by an Armenian mother. My mother asked my father to teach me Spanish and he refused because I was in America. That is my background. My father was somewhat self-loathing.  He didn’t speak Spanish unless he had to and wouldn’t talk about our family.  But I still had part of my Mexican culture. I live in California where the word Mexican is commonplace, tacos are a must, and Christmas means tamales.

So why am I sharing this? Because it’s who I am. It’s part of my journey and experiences I bring with me as I watch television, movies, and read books. It’s what I carried with me as I read Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier. I wasn’t aware of this book until @storytimekatie asked if any Latina librarians had read it and had opinions.  I was more than happy to give one, but didn’t have the book so @YaLibrarianDrea sent me her copy so I could read it.

So I read it and I didn’t feel right. The made-up city is an actual city in Mexico. Every Californian I know has eaten a tamale since they could chew. Tamales are the Christmas present we all can’t wait to get. I’m half-Mexican with a white mother and I’ve been to several tamale making parties.  My mom helped make masa with one of my uncles. So I had a really hard time believing the half-Mexican main character with a Mexican mother would have never had one until she moved to Northern California. I took the issue to my teens to ask their opinions and they got very riled up about how unlikely that was.

It seems the main character, Catrina, is named for the La Calavera Catrina:


She was designed by José Guadalupe Posada. There is a depiction of her in Ghosts (in the farmer’s market), but there is no mention or credit for Posada’s work. I found that odd because Posada and his Calaveras were the subject of a Sibert and Pura Belpré winning book, Funny Bones. His work is synonymous with Dia de los Muertos.  

Then I got to the Dia de los Muertos aspect of the story. If you are unaware, Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of the dead to help support their spiritual journey. Families of the departed clean and decorate graves with ofrendas (altars) with usually marigolds. Toys are brought for dead children and tequila or atole for the adults. The deceased’s favorite candies can also be placed on the headstone. All these activities take place in the cemetery where the loved ones are buried, but this did not happen in Ghosts. It is a watered down version of Dia de los Muertos suited to the author’s needs.

Raina writes excellent stories about sisterhood and Ghosts is no exceptions. The bond between Cat and Maya is amazing. I also understood the reasons for ghosts in the story: to show Cat that if Maya leaves, she will never truly be gone, but ghosts don’t have anything to do with Day of the Dead. Spirits do not come and fly with you and take you on adventures. They don’t make you feel better about their death. The point of Dia de los Muertos is for the living to help support the dead.

I loved the idea of the ghosts in the story.  How excited they were by the kids, how they made Cat feel better in the end. But I don’t understand why Dia de Los Muertos was even used in the book. The story would have been just as good and powerful without the call to Dia.

Why use so much of Dia de Los Muertos and blatantly get it wrong? Borrowing from other cultures to tell your story may seem minor, but it can be harmful to people of that culture. It’s very disconcerting to see images from a party given by the publisher with someone painting attendee’s faces like sugar skulls. Sugar skulls represent the departed spirit. I wasn’t at the party, so I am not sure if that was imparted to attendees, but all I saw was cultural appropriation.

I know this book will be popular. I know every library will have a copy or two. I just ask that you read it will a critical eye and admit that it’s not the best representation of Dia de los Muertos (for that try Dia de los Muertos). I am sure there will be those who will dismiss my concerns, chastise me for missing the point of the book, or not realizing it’s magical realism (I do), or for taking it too seriously. Latino culture is rarely present in books. By dismissing my concerns, my voice, you are trying to silence me.


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