Saturday, October 8, 2016

Cultural Appropriation and Dia de los Muertos

Here we go again, Every year I am asked where I stand on this topic and every year I send messages to the individuals asking much like I am about to write right now.

Here is my personal stance on this. Growing up in a third generation Mexican American family who was not big on celebrating Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, I didn't really have a great understanding for what the holiday really was about until I hit my college years. It was then, that I became exposed to more people of my Chicano culture and began to embrace the beauty of my culture and traditions on my own.

I absolutely loved the idea of celebrating the life of my lost loved ones with so many others during this time of the year. It made me feel close to them again. I felt a sense of love and peace. I could mourn and be sad and in the same moment laugh at all of the wonderful times we've shared.

When you lose a loved one the sadness never really goes away, it just becomes easier to live with day by day. Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican tradition that embraces death, mocks death and laughs at it. It's a way to accept the inevitable and be good with it. It's a beautiful holiday that happens to fall around the same time as the U.S. holiday Halloween.


Dia de Muertos originally was a holiday celebrated by the Aztecs over 3000 years ago. When the Catholic church moved in on their land they moved the original summer holiday to coincide with All Saints day and All Souls day. The first day is considered Dia de los inocentes (Little Angels day). It is believed that the gates are opened between the living and the dead on the 1st so that los inocentes or angelitos (departed children) can come back to visit us. November 2nd Dia de los Muertos the gates are opened again and everyone else can come back. Because everyone else can come back, los malos or bad souls can come back too, so we paint our faces as skulls so that the bad spirits will think we are dead and leave the living alone. Now, I'm going to stop right here for a second because to be honest with you I do not personally believe that souls of the departed can come back at all and this is why... in Genesis 3:19 God says this about death "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” and in John 11:25 Jesus says this about being born again "Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and in John 14:2-4 Jesus says this about Heaven  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

La catrina-

Now back to the tradition of dressing up and painting our faces as Calaveras or Sugar Skulls. Dressing up as La Catrina became an important part of the Holiday in the early 1900's when Jose Posada created her image and called her La Calavera Garbancera, It described a person who was ashamed of his native indian origins and dressed imitating the French fashion of the day and wearing lot's of Makeup to make their skin whiter. Artist Diego Rivera soon after created a painting called Sunday evenings dream where he named her La Catrina. Thanks to Diego Rivera and Jose Posada the skeleton lady soon became an iconic image in Mexico's culture and tradition in Dia de los Muertos.

Dia de Los Muertos VS. Halloween-

Let's understand why the two holidays are different. Mexicans from Mexico and Mexican Americans who were born in America mostly agree that the two Holiday's should not be intermingled. In Mexico the traditions are very sacred and respected. Dia de los Muertos is a way to show respect for the loved ones we've lost. Altars are built in the homes with photos, food, drinks, papel picado, caveleritas de Azucar ( colorful, beautifully decorated happy skulls made from sugar), incense, Pan de Muerto and fruit. They are each decorated with love and care sometimes months in advance. Graves are decorated with candles and Marigold flowers because the scent of the flowers is believed to guide the spirits back home.

 If you know anything about Halloween you would understand that it is about dressing up in scary costumes which include witches, spiders, webs Jack O' Lanterns and skulls to go trick or treating or at least that is how it's been adapted for the last 250 years or so in America. This has nothing to do with a night of remembrance and respect for the dead and this is where cultural appropriation starts.

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defined cultural appropriation as follows:

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.” (excerpt from Race Relations)
 If you are not Mexican and have decided to paint your face as Calavera or Sugar Skull, then you must understand what that means by showing respect for the tradition. Using it as a costume for Halloween is not necessarily being respectful and is seen as offensive to some who celebrate Dia de Muertos. You can't take an element from someone's culture held in such high regard and turn it into a costume without offending some people from that group. Take for example the indigenous people of America, It would be seen as offensive to some if you showed up in a feather headdress and said you were Tanto for Halloween. There are no webs, no spiders, no Jack O Lanterns, no pumpkins, no witches, nothing dark, scary, bloody or gorey in regards to Dia de Muertos. It is all beautiful and happy.  To incorporate any of these elements can be seen as offensive or disrespectful.  

 As an artist I am asked frequently to paint Sugar skulls for clients on Halloween. I don't say no, I take it as an opportunity to share the history and beauty of the Holiday with them. Because I come from a family who didn't really hold onto the tradition I understand wanting to learn about it and embrace it and so it has been my mission to help educate those who even show a mild interest in the holiday and tradition of such a beautiful culture. Why wouldn't you want to celebrate the lives of your loved ones through their departure? Accept death and not be afraid of it? 
 I ask you to consider showing respect for the Mexican culture this season by staying true to the beauty of the Holiday and learning about the history. It's not about painting your face as a Sugar Skull as part of a costume for Halloween and instead it's about a celebration of life through death. I urge you to go to the grave sites or a Dia de los Muertos celebration and experience the reality and beauty that is Dia de los Muertos.
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