Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, has become very popular in the United States because it falls right after Halloween.
Americans have taken the spiritual, religious holiday and blended it in with the ghosts and ghouls common to American Halloween, and it has a lot of people bemoaning the ‘cultural appropriation’ of yet another Mexican tradition.
I’m sure there is something to be said about ‘cultural appropriation’ and Americans not really understanding what Dia de los Muertos is all about, but I figure it’s along the same lines as St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo becoming bar holidays.
Do we really honor St. Patrick when we drink green beer? Is getting blind drunk during a ‘Drinko de Mayo’ bar crawl really the way to learn about the Battle of Puebla? No, and I think we can all agree that putting more money into beer manufacturer’s pockets isn’t the intent of either of those days, but because it draws attention to the history of the days, over the years, it has actually served to provide some level of education to the beer-drinking American public about something they might never have bothered to investigate.
I recently posted a sugar skull makeup tutorial on my station’s website and got immediate pushback. ‘Sellout’, and ‘ashamed of your culture’ were just a couple of the comments that were hurled at me via email.
I explained to the five or six people who wondered if I even knew what Dia de los Muertos was about, that the tutorial was in the spirit of the season, and not my attempt to whitewash my heritage. One emailer wanted to get into a battle of ‘who knows more about Dia de los Muertos’, but I made it clear that I had no intention of getting into a Google battle.
The plain fact of the matter is Dia de los Muertos is a day celebrated by families in the manner in which their ancestors celebrated it. There are a few hard and fast rules about the day. The deceased’s grave is highly decorated, their favorite food is prepared, elaborate sugar skulls are made, and a general air of celebration for the life of the deceased permeates the proceedings.
Having said that, there are quite a few variations on the themes. I have a friend who makes cake calaveras, not sugar ones. One family friend prepares her mom’s favorite meal and makes a place for her at the table with her family because she can’t bear to go to her gravesite and have a picnic, as many do on the day.
Instead of the traditional marigolds, one of my friends festoons her parents and grandparents graves with paper flowers that she and her kids spend weeks making as a show of their love and respect for their ancestors. Should my friends be ashamed of the changes they’ve made to the Dia de los Muertos traditions, or should we see them for what they are – simple evolution.
Every holiday tradition has evolved over the years. Santa Claus wasn’t always the jolly old elf whose belly shook like a bowlful of jelly. Back in the early 1930s, Coca Cola took the tradition of a man who left gifts for good little girls and boys and turned him into the red-suited, kindly old man with twinkling eyes that we all know and love.
Santa Claus’ origins can be traced back to Turkey, and his current incarnation is distinctly American, yet there is no cry of ‘cultural appropriation’ from either Turks or Americans when the rest of the world uses the Coca Cola Santa for their yuletide decor. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was conjured up by a Montgomery Wards employee in 1939, but he has been used by nearly every retailer worldwide since then .
Clearly, the 30’s were a time of imagination, and one could argue, we are in another imaginative time. The rise of Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube could all be credited, or condemned, for taking simple cultural traditions and tarting them up for the American public.
Photos of amazing calavera makeup fill Instagram feeds during October. Search ‘sugar skull makeup tutorials’ on YouTube and you’ll be overwhelmed with the number and variations you’ll find. Google ‘what is Dia de los Muertos’, and be prepared to wade into millions of posts that attempt to explain what the day is all about.
I did a Google search and couldn’t believe the differing opinions on what each Day of the Dead element means.
Does that mean we’ve already lost the true meaning of the day?
I think that instead of seeing sugar skull makeup tutorials as ‘cultural appropriation’ we should instead embrace the thought of non-Mexican Americans spicing up their Halloween celebration with the tradition.
In the hour I spent Googling and YouTubing, I discovered that each post I read had information on Dia de los Muertos and links to credible sources if the reader wanted to delve deeper into the subject. One makeup tutorial went so far as to say that while Americans had begun using the sugar skulls as mere decorations, their true intent was to celebrate the lives of ancestors, and even if Dia de los Muertos knick knacks were purchased at Target, it would be nice if people thought of their deceased loved ones while they put them out.
I get that we don’t want to lose our heritage and our traditions, but we are a melting pot, and sometimes that means some details get homogenized.
Instead of being upset that Dia de los Muertos has become just another brick in the wall of American Halloween, we should take the time to make sure that no matter how we observe the day, that we make sure to explain the history to those around us who don’t know it.
That way, it isn’t ‘cultural appropriation’, it’s an educational opportunity – with sugar skulls – and who wouldn’t like that?