Death is the great equalizer. Whether you’re rich or poor, famous or a recluse, young or old, death awaits you. While the West has its own traditions to acknowledge these truths, Mexicans have taken a much more direct approach. Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration of the dead and the reality that death is part of the human experience. Running between November 1st and 2nd each year, this traditionally Mexican festival can be found throughout Central and South America, and anywhere with a strong Latin influence.
Like other ethnic celebrations and rituals, many components of the Day of the Dead have been co-opted in North America. Sugar skulls are bought and sold as tourist trinkets, its symbols have been used in pop culture, and sugar skull face painting has become a Halloween staple. Is borrowing the rituals and material culture of Dias de los Muertos / Day of the Dead cultural appropriation or cultural diffusion? How can we incorporate such an interesting ritual into our lives appropriately and with respect?
The History of Day of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos)Dating to at least 1800 BCE, Dias de los Muertos is a yearly celebration of life and death in Latin America. When Catholic missionaries and conquerors arrived in Latin America in the Common Era, they blended their traditions with those of the local Aztecs, who had their own festivals celebrating the dead. The Aztecs honored the spirits of the dead, specifically those of warriors and women who died in childbirth, by holding great feasts.
Today, largely influenced by Catholic traditions, the celebrations and customs vary between countries, and while Dias de los Muertos is mostly associated with Mexico, it should be noted that not everywhere in Mexico celebrates it. On November 1st and 2nd, the dead are given the chance to reconnect with the living. November 1st is often dedicated to the souls of children, while the 2nd is for the souls of adults. It is on these days that the dead are woken from their sleep and rejoin the living community. However, the dead may be insulted by the living mourning them, and so Dias de los Muertos is about celebration rather than sadness.
Dias de los Muertos RitualsThere are several familiar and not so familiar rituals associated with the festival. As way of honoring the dead, family members will clean and decorate the graves of loved ones. On the afternoon of the 2nd, large processions will make their way to cemeteries where people will gather to eat, play cards, clean graves, speak of the dead and listen to music.
Families will also maintain personal altars to the dead called ofrendas. These are adorned with flowers, candles, photographs and food. Often the food and drink will be what the dead most liked, with tequila being a favorite offering. During the festival, the dead are able to smell and savour the food and drink they are not able to consume in death. Often the food will be distributed to family members after the celebrations are over. These altars are arguably the most important aspect of the holiday, as they are a direct and public celebration of the deceased individual. Most altars have three sections meant to symbolize heaven, purgatory and earth. Families will spend months worth of income on these altars and general festivities. But as payment, the dead will offer protection and good luck to the living.
Pan de muertos is a sweet bread that is baked specifically for the festival. In some areas of Mexico the bread is cooked and eaten for months in preparation for Dias de los Muertos. In most areas however, the bread is baked for November 2nd, and consumed at the gravesite of the deceased.
Finally there are the famous calavera face paintings and sugar skulls. Face painting is often done to mock death and show courage. Sugar skulls are made with love in honor of the deceased, and often bear the name of the dead on their foreheads. Sugar skulls are usually eaten during Muertos as a symbolic means of consuming the negative emotions that come with death.
A caveat that the rituals described above vary between locations, cultures and communities.
So, Is it Cultural Appropriation?
With recent discussions in the media, and general public, cultural appropriation has become a polarizing topic. Sometimes these mainstream debates result in change, and other times they fall on deaf ears. Simply put, cultural appropriation is the act of borrowing from one culture by another culture. Often times this occurs when a majority culture borrows from a minority culture, and can be seen by that minority culture as offensive, oppressive and exploitative. Such appropriation could be understood as a threat by minority cultures, and an insult when sacred elements are redefined by majority cultures (see: Indigenous healing practices). While not all borrowing is inappropriate, there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural diffusion, none more true then when it comes to Dias de los Muertos.
Let’s get one of the biggest misconceptions about Dias de los Muertos out of the way: this is not the Mexican Halloween (that it starts the day after Halloween should have been the most obvious clue). Yet the associations to Halloween are strong in America and Canada. The festive nature of Muertos, with its face painting, costumes and rituals becomes fertile ground for appropriation in and around October 31st.
Many of the rituals outlined above are sacred to the people who celebrate them each year. Skulls and face painting symbolize death and rebirth. The altars connect families to their ancestors. And cemetery visits are signs of respect, as well as an opportunity to remind the dead that they are not forgotten (and an opportunity for the dead to savour the aromas of a favorite meal).
As Nik Moreno succinctly puts it in her column on cultural appropriation: “We are a culture, not a costume.” There are many ways to participate in Dias de los Muertos without appropriating the culture. This can include observing festivities by visiting museums, watching documentaries, or attending local parades and events. Take this as an opportunity to learn and engage with Latin culture. As much as you may feel a connection to Dias de los Muertos, you should avoid buying Day of the Dead Halloween costumes, since the biggest way to change the culture of appropriation is with your wallet after all. Tracey Lopez at Latinaish.com suggests that if you want to buy sugar skulls or Day of the Dead merchandise, make sure your money is going into the hands of the people who actually benefit from it, and not foreign conglomerates.
Dias de los Muertos is a colorful, lively and impressive festival that lets people connect with their ancestors, while being reminded of their own mortality. As it is now part of the cultural lexicon in North America, it may be easy to forget that many of the rituals performed are sacred to those performing them. This Halloween, take an opportunity to educate yourself about the varied history and practices around Dias de los Muertos, and think about our own cultural (dis)connections to the dead.