A few months ago I found myself searching for ways to celebrate my heritage through the arts and could not help but wonder what could be done in the Latino arts scene to reflect the variety of the experiences of locals, without Tacobellizing them. Nopal is a local organization at work to put Latino arts on the forefront while learning to chip away at this monumental cultural disconnect.
When searching, it's not hard to find Nopal, the group that organizes the Day de los Muertos event at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. Upon seeing people's interest in the Day of the Dead holiday, Daniel del Real, a local artist and founding member of Nopal, saw an opportunity to teach others about the beloved tradition while inviting those who actually celebrate it to partake in the performance.
But planning it was no small task. Many people know about Day of the Dead or are at least familiar with some of its symbolism without really understanding the complexities and significance of it. In many cases, this beginner's familiarity has been a source of cultural appropriation and misunderstandings for those who fall in love merely with the aesthetics of the holiday.
"Sometime during our planning of our last Day of the Dead celebration it became apparent to me that we have an obligation to preserve our culture," says del Real. As volunteers of different backgrounds came to volunteer with Nopal during their event, they brought with them their ideas of what Day of the Dead was, "It was a constant battle with trying to educate and correct our volunteers on proper symbols, traditions and meanings behind this holiday," del Real says.
At the start, Nopal did not see itself as an organization that would spearhead cultural awareness. But while promoting the amalgam of Latino experiences, del Real understood that he had a responsibility not only to bridge culture, but to educate others (non-Latinos and Latinos) about it.
"My original goal was to just create programming and showcase Indy's Latino artists ... [Education] became a responsibility with time," he adds.
The disconnect that's present unfortunately widens further when language barriers are tacked on. "It becomes almost inaccessible for Hispanics," says del Real. So while there is no easy way to create a bite-size version of a centuries-old tradition, the barriers can be broken by the conversations and the nature of how they bring groups together to start a dialogue about its aesthetic appreciation. "We are proud of the diversity within our member and volunteer groups," he says.
Storytelling has the ability to reach all kinds of people, in this case all Indy residents, not just the crowd that expects to be served margaritas and guacamole whenever Cinco de Mayo rolls around. Everything I know about my family I know because people have been sitting down to talk for generations. Through me and others in my family, these stories, traditions and recipes have lived on, and I have a sense of identity that is bigger than myself.
I don't see conversations on storytelling and identity as mere existential ponderings; I see them as a component of citizenship. A city is a place we inhabit, and all who reside in it are part of its story. Some can tell it from the beginning, and others will point to a time folded over that reads as its start. Once upon a time immigrants came to Indianapolis ... and Nopal seeks to tell some of their stories, including the happily ever afters.