Día de los Muertos: It’s a Memorial, Not a Halloween Festival

An adult man and child wearing calavera make up for the annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos in the Mission District of CA.

People celebrate Día de los Muertos in California’s Mission District, which has a high population of Latinx people. This is an annual celebration in the Mission District that many California Latinxs participate in. Photo by Danishdynamite via Flickr

Día de los Muertos is a much-loved holiday in Latinx*, primarily Mexican, culture. On this sacred day, we honor our loved ones who have passed on. Although the holiday is called the Day of the Dead, it’s actually two days: one to honor the spirits of dearly departed children and youth and the second to honor the spirits of our adult loved ones who have passed on. Unfortunately, though this holiday is highly revered and completely unrelated to the white traditions of Halloween except for the timing, many people outside of this culture mistakenly believe there is a connection and have decided to incorporate this spiritual tradition into their costumes and party decorations.

I am here to ask you, ever so kindly, to not do that.

Along with costumes that include elements of (or flat-out are) blackface, yellowface, brownface, and racial stereotypes, appropriating Día de los Muertos traditions into your Halloween costume is just generally a terrible idea and is highly offensive. (Probably not as terrible as outright painting your skin to look like another race, but still terrible.) One, they’re unrelated holidays. Two, it’s not your culture; leave it alone.

A presumably white guy with red hair dressed in stereotypical "Mexican" clothing with poorly painted on sugar skull makeup.

If you aren’t directly connected to the culture, don’t appropriate it, and especially don’t incorporate it into your Halloween costume. Photo by Allisonallison via Flickr

The calaveras, better known as “sugar skulls,” are the most appropriated part of Día de los Muertos. People have painted their faces with calavera designs such as the Caterina (which is the calavera representing highly esteemed and upper-class women), companies have decorated their stores with calaveras, and the commonly used designs from the skulls, which are common folk-art styles and patterns, have been used in a variety of ways to be more spooky and eccentric for Halloween. Calaveras are not the only important aspect of this holiday, however. On this sacred holiday we also bake pan de muertos, a type of sweet bread, and other special treats, especially the favorite foods of the deceased loved ones we are honoring. We set up altars honoring the deceased, with things like pictures of them, candles, and special, sentimental items or trinkets associated with them.

I am half Mexican and grew up with my white family (my parents are divorced), so I learned about Día de los Muertos through school and my own research. When I was younger I wanted to celebrate it because it was festive and seemed cool and spooky and like something that would make me seem interesting and worldly. As I grew older, however, I came to realize that Día de los Muertos is a sacred holiday; it’s not something to accessorize your life with. When my abuelito (grandpa) died almost seven years ago now, I wanted to do something to keep his memory alive in my life, to honor how special he was to my family and me. It wasn’t until five years later that I finally started celebrating Día de los Muertos by making a small ofrenda, or offering—an altar with my abuelito’s images, associated trinkets and goodies, and candles, to honor his memory. It took me five years to create, because when it comes to honoring your loved ones and the culture you share with them, you want to make damn sure you do it right, that you do justice by both. It took me five years—in some ways 23 years, if we count all the years before my grandpa died too—to partake in the culture of my family because I wanted to make sure I did right by our culture and by my loved ones.

A typical ofrenda, with photos, flowers, and candles.

A typical ofrenda, with photos, flowers, and candles. Photo by Susan Hayek Kent via Flickr

So to see people then taking that same culture and bastardizing it infuriates me, and to say it hurts is an understatement. What is so terrible about appropriating this holiday and its traditions is that once Día de los Muertos is taken out of its (highly spiritual and cultural) context and stripped of its sacred meanings, it becomes nothing more than another overused and commodified sham. There is so much more to this day than dancing skeletons playing guitars, and to whittle it down to such and commodify it as such is a disgrace to Latinx culture and the meaning of this holiday.

(The example above went out on the social media feeds for Patina last year. Say it with me: Día de los Muertos is not Halloween. Día de los Muertos is not “spooky” or creepy.)

So if you are not part of this culture, for the love of all that is good and decent, do not paint yourself like a “Mexican greaser skull” for Halloween—yes, people have referred to calaveras as such, and no, it is not accurate—or put up calaveras as some kind of decoration from a culture that isn’t yours. When it comes to avoiding cultural appropriation, things can get sticky, but generally, three questions can help clear things up. Next time you want to incorporate another culture into your life in any way, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is this a culture that I belong to or have been invited into? i.e., Is it part of my heritage, or has a friend or family member invited me to to be a part of a cultural practice?
  2. Do I understand the history and meaning behind this cultural thing that I am incorporating into my life, and am I making sure to accurately represent this meaning?
  3. Does my incorporation of this cultural thing support the people from this culture? For example, am I buying items from or associated with a culture directly from the people of that culture, providing financial support?

As long as you can answer yes to all three of these questions, you can rest a bit easier that you are interacting with cultures respectfully. So do your homework, go forth, do unto others, and just generally don’t be jerk.

* Latinx is the all-gender inclusive form of the commonly used Latino/Latina. Latinx is used to include men and women, as well as people across the spectrum and who do not identify with any gender. (Click to go back to the top.)

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