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.