Día De Los Muertos has arrived — but is there a way to honor it without appropriating Mexican culture?
That question was one asked as part of a Community Q&A on The Conscious Kid, and was answered in length by a community moderator who began by covering what Día De Los Muertos (“Day of the Dead,” in English) is, and how the tradition originated.
Originally a harvest celebration for the Aztecs, what would become the Day of the Dead in Mexico was once celebrated around the end of summer, structured around farming season — much like Halloween, which is derived from pagan holidays also honoring the season change. Spanish conquistadors bringing Catholic influence to Latin America combined the holiday with the Catholic traditions of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day.
The central belief is that the spirits of loved ones are allowed to join the living on those days and commune with them, and the celebration is geared towards that idea: People leave toys and calaveras (the iconic skull — made from sugar — that inspires the makeup and look of the holiday) for children, and for adults they leave food, favorite possessions and alcohol at elaborate homemade altars, called ofrendas.
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So what does this mean for people who do not belong to the Mexican culture? The Conscious Kid references a 2016 blog post by Tracy López for Latinaish, which defines cultural appropriation as “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,” López said. “Cultural appropriation is especially offensive when something sacred is taken out of context and redefined by a majority culture.”
She then gave examples of how to honor the holiday “without actually adopting it,” like visiting festivals and museums to observe it and educating yourself and your children on its rich history.
Another big question to ask yourself, according to López, is what your intentions are when it comes to your interest in the holiday.
“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,” she wrote. “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,” López advised. “It should go without saying, cherry picking a culture while not respecting the people it originated from is completely unacceptable.”
Other ways to honor Día De Los Muertos can be to ensure anything related that you buy is “made by Latinxs or Latin American artisans” that “give back to the people who deserve it,” she said.
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She also noted that it’s still possible to encounter “scrutiny” even with the best of intentions, writing, “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.”
The Conscious Kid ends their response by giving some alternative ways to honor loved ones who have died in non-Mexican families, like displaying photos on their birthday, lighting candles, playing their favorite songs or watching one of their favorite movies.
“Other ideas could be visiting a place they loved to go to, reading a book they loved, doing an activity they enjoyed participating in, supporting a cause they were involved in, etc.,” the response continues. “There are so many possibilities based on what you and your family find meaningful to honor your loved ones.”
This year’s Day of the Dead begins on Thursday and ends on Saturday.
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