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 in John 11:25 Jesus says this about being born again "Jesus said to her,
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.