Thursday, October 30, 2014

Heads Will Roll


Original illustration by Stephanie Smelyansky  

There’s two types of skulls in my book: calaveras, and the rest of them.

I personally find typical skeletons depressing, grotesque, and taboo. Where’s the fun, the hope? I find so much more inspiration in calaveras. Maybe I’m just obsessed with calaveras because they’re so colorful or maybe because I’ve watched The Corpse Bride so many times that I find subterranean maggot parties fun. Calaveras take the macabre and literally sweeten it with sugar and adorn it in color. They allow for death to be celebrated as a greater part of the circle of life.

Well, I may adore calaveras, but the younguns in Mexico do not. In Mexico, calaveras are a usual part of Day of the Dead celebrations, which commence on November 1 and run through November 2. The Day of the Dead is an annual holiday that honors the dead with custom-made altars filled with marigolds, favorite foods and beverages, and calaveras. The holiday is festive and happy. Yet Mexican teens are rejecting it with the full angst of Harry Potter a la Order of the Phoenix.

According to the Mexican newspaper El Occidental (apologies for the Spanish language article), Mexican youth are falling out of touch with Mexican traditions, specifically the Day of the Dead. The United States heavily influences what youth consider "cool" in Mexico and as a result many Mexican teens are drawn to American traditions such as Halloween. Nowadays, many kids walk through the streets on the Day of the Dead asking, "where's my calavera?" a play on the American "trick-or-treat." Some Mexican kids dress up in costumes like American kids do for Halloween. Yet I, as an American kid, want to dress up as a calavera*.

It may be difficult to understand why Mexican kids would reject a tradition as rich as Day of the Dead. To a Mexican teen, however, there's probably nothing particularly unique about Day of the Dead because it's such a normal part of their culture, same way Halloween doesn't feel special in America. And just North of the border lies a giant behemoth that floods social media with what “cool” should be. The macabre has no funny place in the hearts of Americans, and as Mexican teens absorb media from their Northern neighbor, they too lose their respect for death. The desire to fit into a global community feels synonymous with leaving one's own cultural identity and assuming another one, one built by the US. All because different feels special.
And maybe I and other American teens like Day of the Dead celebrations and calavera skull makeup because it's different from typical Halloween ghosts and witches, which in turn makes us feel special. I want to say that American teens dress up as calaveras completely out of respect for Mexican culture, but in reality many do so to just to feel unique. I and other US teens are no different from the Mexican kid across the Rio Grande in that regard. On both sides of the border, kids are trying to establish their identity and it’s hard to feel like an individual when everyone is doing the same thing. The spookiness and horror of Halloween resonates with some Mexican kids as much as the light hearted festivities of Day of the Dead resonate with myself and other Americans.

On both sides of the border, we’re just kids who are still trying to make heads and tails of who we are and where we’re from. We’re experimenting and exploring the world from different viewpoints, even if that is from behind a calavera mask or a witch’s hat.

I painted my face to look like a calavera using Target facepaintI used Michelle Phan's tutorial as inspiration for the look. If anyone wants to replicate the calavera look, please do so respectfully of the cultural heritage of the holiday. 

*Before anyone accuses me of cultural appropriation for wearing calavera makeup, please note that I have a deep respect for the holiday and I truly admire the message behind calaveras and Day of the Dead and makeup is just a medium through which I chose to express my admiration.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

School Spirit

Photo by Stephanie Smelyansky
I felt slightly bombarded by crepe streamers and overly-revealing togas last week. Everything was in the name of good fun however because it was homecoming week. It was that archetypal high school spirit fest that unites the entire student body via spirit days, the pep rally, the parade, the football game, and the dance.

Except there was no football game.

Now I’m not that super peppy person that goes to every football game and sits in the student section amidst the sweaty mob of my peers, but even I was a tad upset about the lack of the football game. For me, it’s always been the football game that’s been the most exciting aspect of homecoming rather than the dance or the pep rally. There’s no stress about buying shoes, or figuring out who to vote for for the queen’s court. The football game has always been something I could just enjoy with my friends in the marching band section of the bleachers.

What I loved most about the football game was that it was the one time the entire school’s student body felt united. We aren’t split up into grades at the game like we are at the pep rally. The student section is too dense for cliques to mark their own territory. The football game forces the student body to actually act as one body and not several smaller entities that enjoy the walls of my high school. I was afraid we’d lose that feeling of unity with losing the football game and maybe it’s just my overly deep analysis of homecoming but I feel like we did lose something without the football game. For instance, the marching band was doing a half time show on the field as if we did have a football game and in the middle of it we hear a “freshman suck” chant start. I saw some cliques start sitting in new spots, away from the student section, because there weren’t community spectators there to take up those seats. And in the week leading up to the pep rally and the dance, I’ve never seen fewer people dress up for spirit days. Where was the school that prided itself on being one community?

I’ve realized over the past week that school spirit is a large formative part of my high school experience; it’s the only thing I’ve shared in common with the jocks, the popular kids, the bandies, and the mathletes all at once in a "The Breakfast Club" sort of way. Regardless of clique, ethnicity, or personality, school spirit is unavoidable at my school. No matter where I went at my school, I always felt like I was part of a community. Before, I thought that the community consisted of the select group of peers I interact with outside of class. Now, I realize that the community is the entire school because the entire students body determines the cooperative attitude of the school. When the source of our homecoming spirit, the football game, was taken away, the student body lost a reason to look out for one another, to care about everybody and in turn it descends into Mean Girls-esque clique warfare.

School spirit is that cliche, love-it-hate-it element that in a way is universal to the American high school experience. Without school spirit, I feel like students miss out on feeling like part of a community at a time when they need that feeling most, which is maybe why school spirit is such an archetypal element in media aimed at teens. School spirit is the pacifist element that reminds students that we’re all just teens going through the same roller coaster ride together, so we might as well enjoy it together too.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Welcome: Searching for Magical Youthify Fairy Glitter

Youthemism (n): colloquial slang word or phrase spoken by teenagers; aspects of youth culture.

Original Illustration by Stephanie Smelyansky
Hi, I’m Stephanie, and I’m scared. I’m scared because in a few weeks I’ll be eighteen, which means I’ll be an adult, and I’m not ready to be an adult. As the days trickle down towards my eighteenth birthday, I’ve become more and more nostalgic for my teenage years. I find myself glorifying the past and wanting to relive it (upon further thought, the acne riddled days of my early teens are something I’d rather forget rather than relive). There’s something magical in experiencing the world from the lens of a youth, teenager or young adult. At that age, people already have a set of morals and beliefs but simultaneously are incredibly impressionable; the naïveté is a function of trying to make sense of the world. Like, that lens is so magical that Urban Outfitters should co-opt it as a wonderful bottle of fairy glitter. And if Urban did sell it, I’d buy out the entire stock because that world view is what I’m scared to lose. And as I get closer to the big one eight, I find myself latching onto the youthemisms that shaped me into who I am today.

Youthemisms is my literary attempt to stay grounded and connected to the lens of youth, one filled with naïveté and curiosity, as I grow up. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to remain a child forever, but at least I can maintain a childlike charm and interest in the world, at least while I’m still figuring things out. As a fledgling adult, I’m curious about how my interpretation of culture, events, and life in general has shaped me as a person, as well as how these aspects shape other teens and young adults. Youthemisms seeks to explore the cultural influences that have affected me and my peers, ranging from Beyonce to the iPhone. I started Youthemisms because, well, I had to for an English project. But I started this blog specifically and not one about cute cats because I’m hoping it will help me make sense of the world during probably one of the most exciting and stressful parts of my life.

I feel completely unprepared to be an adult, but I’m one of millions of other kids still figuring out who they are and what their place is in the world. Maybe writing about it will help me find my place in the world or maybe it will help someone else. If anything, I hope writing about being young and growing up will keep the child within alive.