Celebrating Día de Muertos Without Appropriating

Image source: David Seibold
Image source: David Seibold

First, to make sure we’re on the same page, let’s clearly define what is Día de muertos and what is cultural appropriation?

What is Día de muertos?

Día de muertos, also known as Día de los muertos or Day of the Dead, is a sacred celebration of Pre-Hispanic origin, to honor loved ones who have passed. The celebration, which used to start around the beginning of August and last an entire month, now takes place from midnight on October 31st to November 2nd; most often associated with Mexico, it is celebrated in many Latin American countries such as Guatemala, and Bolivia, and by people around the world with ancestry traced to those countries. Each country has unique ways of celebrating; in El Salvador where the celebration is known as Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased), families go to the cemetery to pray, sing, lay flowers, and pay to have gravestones of departed family members repainted; at the cemetery you can buy foods such as tamales and hojuelas con miel. Ecuador also refers to the celebration as Día de los Difuntos.

But it is the traditions of Mexico which are most well-known in the United States, and which have gained popularity among Latinxs of all backgrounds, and non-Latinxs as well. Sugar skulls, and catrinas can be found on everything from party napkins to pajamas this time of year, and setting up ofrendas (altars) or baking pan de muerto are fast becoming beloved traditions among people who maybe 10 years ago, hadn’t even heard of Día de muertos. And, why not? Día de muertos is so pretty, so colorful, and the idea of celebrating our deceased loved ones rather than forever mourning them in a more Puritanically traditional way is appealing, (and psychologically, much healthier.)

However, this is where we run into the problem of cultural appropriation.

What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is the “borrowing” of one culture by another culture, particularly when elements of a minority culture are used by a majority culture. Often times it is done unintentionally and/or without intended malice, but even when done with appreciation or admiration, it can be exploitative, offensive and/or feel oppressive to the minority culture who feel something is being stolen from them. Cultural appropriation is especially offensive when something sacred is taken out of context and redefined by a majority culture. (An example of this relevant to this post: When a non-Latinx person dresses as La Catrina for Halloween.)

While many Latinxs may not find it offensive when non-Latinxs folks embrace these traditions, there are some Latinxs who do. So, what steps can you take to ensure you’re respecting Día de muertos as the sacred celebration that it is?

5 Steps to Celebrating Día de Muertos Respectfully

#1. You may choose not to celebrate it, but instead observe the celebration. There are festivals, museum exhibits, documentaries, and other ways you can enjoy the holiday without actually adopting it.

#2. You can educate yourself. If you choose to celebrate by setting up an altar, for example, do the proper research into the history and significance of the ofrenda and the traditional items that are placed on it.

#3. Question your intentions. Are you painting your face as a sugar skull because it’ll look super cool and get you plenty of likes on Instagram? Then strongly reconsider your actions. These traditions are not “just for fun” or to bring yourself attention on social media — they are sacred. Respect that. If you’re the Donald Trump type who would eat a taco and declare you “love Mexicans” while supporting the deportation of the people who made it for you – don’t even think about it. It should go without saying, cherry picking a culture while not respecting the people it originated from is completely unacceptable.

#4. Shop responsibly. Avoid purchasing Día de muertos themed merchandise which is not made by Latinxs or Latin American artisans. These beliefs and traditions originated with indigenous people, and indigenous communities in Latin America are disproportionately affected by poverty. In Guatemala 86.6% of indigenous people are poor, and in Mexico 80.6% are poor. [source] The least you can do is not buy those cute Day of the Dead paper plates at Target which were Made in China. Instead, seek out fair trade products which give back to the people who deserve it.

#5. Understand that even if you have thoroughly educated yourself on the celebration and feel a special connection to it, you may still come under scrutiny. Should someone confront you on why they think you have no right to celebrate Día de muertos, consider their words and feelings. There’s a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, and not everyone agrees where that line is. Try to do better.

Learn more:

GoMexico.About.com – Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead – Wikipedia

About Día De Los Muertos – Latin American & Iberian Institute

5 Día De Los Muertos Questions You Were Too Afraid To Ask – Huffington Post

What is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong? – RaceRelations.About.com

Cultural Appropriation – Wikipedia

The Do’s and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation – The Atlantic

The Shapeshifting Nature of Días de los Muertos and its Role in Chicanx Culture


  1. Thank you for this perspective. As an American, married to a Mexican/Basque, with two Tejano/Chicano children, I am often amused/confused/annoyed by the intense sensitivity required to self-police ourselves for “cultural appropriation.” Anywhere where people of different backgrounds meet/coexist, they mix–they share ideas, and through this sharing they often change their behavior. This change is sometimes voluntary and sometimes forced–many Latin “traditions” came about as indigenous peoples struggled to keep their own religious practices while trying to nominally adhere to the conquistadores’ Catholicism.

    Screaming foul when people are exposed to your ideas and then adopt them is popular right now, but this is not a static event, and it is celebrated in different ways between states on both sides of the border, and countries (all souls day is huge in Spain, where families go to cemeteries, as well–the candies are shaped like bones with marrow in the middle–huesitos). Just like food, language, clothing, music, etc. traditions change when cultures merge, so do holidays. You can get bent out of shape about it and rant, or you can gently educate and try to enjoy it as you see fit–which no one is attempting to take from you.

    My guess is that your version of this holiday would have been unrecognizable to the Aztecs who practiced it thousands of years ago. Should you stop celebrating because your holiday doesn’t unfold exactly as was intended by its creators? Who gets to decide what is “tradition”? How many generations makes something legit?

    from azcentral.com: “Dia de Los Muertos also survives. It may change and evolve, but it never vanishes. The Spaniards learned that when they arrived in central Mexico in the 16th century. They viewed the ritual, which was started by the Aztecs some 3,000 years ago, as sacrilegious. But the festival couldn’t be quashed.

    Not only did it survive, it thrived, moving from southern Mexico and spreading north. It also merged with elements of Christianity. Originally celebrated in the summer, it moved to Nov. 1 and 2 to coincide with All Saints Days and All Souls Day.”

    Just like Dia de los Muertos survived the Spaniards–and many things didn’t–it will survive a few white girls making ofrendas and painting their faces. I think the real solution, rather than plague those of us trying to be respectful with the misery of constantly second-guessing our actions, is to have people who find themselves offended speak up politely and use their perspective as a teachable moment. Who doesn’t like to see the beauty in death?

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to read and leave such a thought-provoking, balanced comment. You make some great points.

  2. Thank you for writing this. My second grader learned about Dia de los Muertos in Spanish class and (unfortunately) the disney version on Elena of Avalor. We lost several great-grands this year, and she asked if we could celebrate Dia de los Muertos to remember them. The celebration is not part of our cultural heritage, and I don’t feel it’s appropriate. Instead, I’d like to learn about it with her, rather than celebrate it, and use the opportunity to talk about her great-grands. Can you recommend any kid-friendly books, videos, and/or website?

    • Hi Kate, here’s an excellent resource with tons of links and suggestions for children around your daughter’s age.


      Also, if your daughter wants to honor and remember her grandparents, may I suggest doing a family scrapbook project together? This way she can remember/learn about them, keep their memory alive, and it creates a lasting memento that could even be passed down/added to by future generations so family history isn’t lost. I’m sure ancestry websites have a lot of great ideas for what you could include.

  3. Thanks for the thought provoking article. I support people learning about this holiday, observing, maybe even celebrating it, but I don’t want to see it merged with Halloween. It’s not Halloween. What I love about it is that it’s a holiday in which we remember our dead. Losing my Mom at 23 really taught me the need for such days. Our culture hides death, urges us to hide our loss and sorrow and pretend that we will all live forever as young people. We need to bring death back into our lives, we need to talk about and honor those we love who are no longer with us. I find the traditions of Dia de los Muertos to do just that, but I also don’t wish to appropriate without any understanding and meaning. I think this could become a wonderful holiday in America, one which encourages us to remember that life is finite, remember those we have lost, and do it together. The colors and symbols help us to see that death is part of life, to not necessarily fear it, but have healthy respect and appreciate all who came before us. I firmly believe even as more people learn of this holiday and more communities celebrate it, we should not forget its origins, the people and culture from which it comes, and we cannot divorce ourselves from this. Anyway I hope this makes sense. I think this is something beautiful all of us can share in, respectfully. Thank you for helping me learn how.

  4. Love your article! This past Saturday I was in Old Town San Diego and it was really annoying to see people dressed up with their Halloween costumes attending Día de los muertos event.

  5. Thank you! We lost a friend to cancer two years ago today, and I really wanted to make an ofrenda for him this year. I wasn’t sure if this was inappropriate, so we decided not to. The part in your article talking about WHY you may want to celebrate Dia de los Muertos really helped me. I want to celebrate the life (and hopefully afterlife!) of my friend, but I certainly don’t want to hurt others while doing it.

  6. Hi,My name is Megan and I am not Latina or Latin or Spanish or anything but I would like to try to celebrate like the Mexicans/Latins I appreciate all that they do for their deceased people I think it is beautiful and super respectful to make Ofrenda’s because it’s like a celebration for them living a good long healthy life or just kinda thanking them for being in your life and basically in a way showing remorse saying I’m sorry you died but just remember that We/I will always remember you and to show them how much you love them.

    • Oh and I just wanted to ask, Would it be wrong if I did try and celebrate with the Latins? and please excuse me for saying it like that but I don’t know what to call them without feeling like I’m disrespecting their cultural race you know so please don’t be mad oh and What would I have to do to make an Ofrenda or even just Show my appreciation to my deceased people that I love?

      • Hi Megan, I can’t tell you whether it’s wrong or not. Some people may be offended, and some may not be. Latin Americans are very diverse. Some countries celebrate Día de Muertos and many do not. Some call it Día de los Difuntos. Some people even in Mexico, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Guatemala where it’s celebrated, don’t celebrate it, just the same as not all people in the United States celebrate the same holidays. Some people in these countries have indigenous roots, some do not. So, understanding all this, you can see this is very complex, and it’s not for me or anyone else to speak for everyone. (Especially not for me, because I’m not Latina. I married into the culture.)

        My advice to you is that if you truly care about being respectful, learn about the history of the holiday. Find some educational articles online (there are plenty), and go to the library and get a few books. These articles and books will not only teach you the history, but will give you the information you need to create your own ofrenda if that is what you decide to do.

        Also, please support Latin American and Latino American artisans if you buy Día de Muertos decor. Avoid purchasing themed decor made in China.

        Buena suerte (Good luck)

  7. Good grief. Day of the Dead was appropriated by a conquering European nation (Spain) from an indigenous population (the Aztec Empire) – An empire was pretty much wiped off the face of the Earth by European Cortés and his army. Was THAT “cultural appropriation” OK?
    And a six-year-old white girl in a dirt-poor Appalachian town dressing La Catrina for Halloween is wrong?
    Sorry, but your perspective of history is one-sided and narrow. Culture is a living, breathing, always evolving, uniquely human phenomena. To treat culture as if it were an object to possess, something that can be “taken”, shows a lack of understanding of what culture really is. Without “cultural appropriation”, culture would cease to exist.

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