Yesterday, we dressed up our children and maybe donned a costume ourselves, to trick-or-treat for Halloween, before sharing photos across our social media feeds. In my own timelines, I saw headline after headline telling us that culture is not a costume and how white people dressing as a Dia de Los Muertos sugar skull is racist and offensive, alongside others sharing tips for crafts celebrating the holiday and tutorials for face-painting.
The links denouncing the “appropriation” of a sacred cultural holiday were shared, for the most part, by white people speaking out about the concept of white privilege. The links sharing tips for crafts and tutorials were shared by Mexican-Americans. I am writing this to tell you that while white privilege does exist and cultural appropriation is a real problem, I do not think either concept applies to white people taking part in celebrating Dia de Los Muertos.
Let me be clear: I am not offended if you are not of Latino/Latinx decent and you have embraced Dia de Los Muertos in any way. My problem is being told I should be offended and having others getting mad on my behalf without asking my feelings first. Do not assume. I'm fine voicing my opinion when I'm actually offended by something.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t come to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos until adulthood, or maybe it’s because my circle of friends is so incredibly diverse. No matter the reason, I find myself speaking out on behalf of refocusing our collective efforts on cultural education as opposed to an across-the-board ban of any and all cultural costumes deemed to be appropriation. Intent speaks volumes. Respect for the traditions and costumes of another culture is something I will stand aside and make room for. I won’t speak for other minority groups regarding sacred celebrations and traditions turned into a cheap, stereotypical costume, such as the Moana costume that Disney recently took heat for before pulling it from the market, but I think Dia de Los Muertos is different.
At its core, the Day of the Dead celebrates life and our everlasting connection with our loved ones who’ve passed on. While steeped in indigenous beliefs and traditions, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for the world at large to let go of the fear so often associated with death.
By the time I first painted my daughter’s face for Dia de Los Muertos, my father had already been dead seven years. He had died unexpectedly at the age of 50, and his death shook our family to the very core. Dad died on my mother’s birthday, making her a widow at just 49.
As a first-generation Mexican-American, I was raised with the mindset of death being the end and wallowed in grief so deep I almost didn’t pull myself out. Sitting at my kitchen table two years ago, I painted my daughter’s face with the Dia de Los Muertos face-painting kit that my friend, artist and Chicana author, Kathy Cano-Murillo, had gifted us from her own line of products. To ensure authenticity, I scoured the internet for examples of traditional Muerte makeup, and my growing interest in a holiday my Mexican-born father and his family had never officially celebrated during my childhood morphed into a new way to cope with my father’s death, inspiration for my art, and a natural extension of sharing both our culture and memories of my father with my daughter.
Here are the basics: Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated throughout Latin America, but is most often associated with Mexico, and has been celebrated since long before Mexico actually existed. The holiday, which is officially celebrated on November 1 and 2, kicks off at midnight on the first night, which means that for those unfamiliar with Day of the Dead, it’s not uncommon for the holiday to be confused with the idea of a Mexican Halloween. (Pro-tip: It’s not.) Altars, or Ofrendas, are erected by the families of those departed, special foods and drinks like Pan de Muerto and Atole are served, and faces are painted like calaveras de azucar, or sugar skulls, in a beautiful cultural tradition meant to celebrate life and those who lived it. Death is not feared, but rather embraced as a part of the cycle of life.
Many of my non-Latino/Latinx friends shared their stories of secret altars to their loved ones in their homes, fears of being accused of cultural appropriation when their only intentions were respect for the tradition and continued reverence and learning. I responded to each comment in my Facebook stream, thanking each person for sharing. I told them how I can't agree with a knee-jerk reaction to racist and offensive Halloween costume ideas that ignores genuine interest in and respect for a cultural tradition like Dia de Los Muertos. Not when I see Latina/Latinx friends painting their own faces calavera-style for Halloween events and sharing links to face-painting tutorials for both calaveras and The Book of Life (and its memorable La Muerte character).
Disney trying to trademark Dia de Los Muertos back in 2013? That, most definitely, qualified as cultural appropriation and reeked of white privilege (Oh, Disney…) A white person finding joy and peace in the bright colors and comfort of a positive view of death, thanks to a holiday from another culture, does not.
Just a few weeks ago, I painted my daughters face like a Maori warrior after an ancient history lesson on New Zealand and Australia as part of our Story of the World homeschool ancient history and social studies curriculum. I've also painted her face like the women of Madagascar for a Girl Scout event celebrating different countries (we turned it into an extra social studies lesson). We've cooked meals from other cultures and read stories from and about and even recreated "artifacts" from air dry clay. Each activity was documented on my social media feeds and so far, I have only received support for my efforts to learn more about the people and the world around me with my daughter in her educational journey. I can only say that I hope that continues, because it seems we are forgetting that not everyone donning a cultural costume wishes disrespect. Many are trying to show it.
I don't want cultural appropriation to cancel out the opportunity for cultural education. And that is what I fear will happen.
If the person wearing the mask has taken the time to learn about the meaning of Dia de Los Muertos, I think it's okay. If the person taking the time to create an ofrenda to a loved one they miss in an effort to soothe their grief with a tradition that brings them joy band comfort, I’m not going to ask to see their Mexican card for proof that they are allowed to the party. Rather, I will light a candle with them and trade stories about our loved ones we never want to forget. And I will feel honor that it was a tradition from my culture that has brought them peace.