I'm a person whose always had a deep interest in Halloween, and for once, I feel like I was ahead of my time — the spooky holiday is now only second to Christmas in popularity, and is steadily gaining ground on Santa’s big yearly blowout. Over the last several years, I have noticed a growing convergence with Halloween and Dia de Muertos, sometimes written as Dia de los Muertos, in this country — something I have become aware of first in that most American of ways.
There’s suddenly a whole bunch of retailers selling Dia de Muertos items, usually shoehorned in with standard Halloween decorations. That makes sense, because Dia de Muertos is “Mexican Halloween,” right?
Well, no. It's not. It's a distinctly different holiday, even if all of those brightly colored sugar skulls look right at home next to a grinning jack o' lantern.
One might rightly wonder if the sudden retail presence of so many Dia de Muertos-themed items sitting alongside Halloween stuff is a tone-deaf form of cultural appropriation, or a form of positive appreciation. I can't offer any definitive answers here, being a big ol' gringo myself, but the answer to this question seems to depend on who you ask.
So first, what exactly is Dia de Muertos? It's a multi-day holiday celebrated in Mexico and many other Latin American countries between October 31 and November 2. It's also celebrated in a few other non-Latin American countries, and increasingly in the United States — particularly in regions with a large population of people with ancestral ties to Mexico. The holiday has pre-Christian, Aztec origins, and honors dead loved ones with offerings of their favorite foods and beverages. That's an extremely simplified version, and like most holidays, Dia de Muertos has many rich traditions and variations in observance. It's thought that during this time the spirits of the dead return closer to the world of the living to visit with those they've left behind.
That isn't dissimilar to the beliefs of ancient European pagans who believed that during this time of year the barrier between the land of the living and that of the dead grew thinner, and whose traditions eventually became the secularly celebrated form of Halloween we all know and love.
Is the absorption of Dia de Muertos into mainstream American holiday culture a form of appreciative celebration of Mexican traditions, or a money-driven, cynical form of cultural appropriation? Again, I'm not the definitive guy to ask, but I'd think it has to do with how much respect and actual appreciation is shown. Others have weighed in, ranging from “No, white girls, you can't wear calaveras makeup without being a racist” to “There’s nothing wrong with celebrating these traditions as long as it's done with reverence, no matter who you are,” which is where I tend to lean. We live in a multicultural melting-pot society, and since this country’s Hispanic population is booming and becoming a larger cultural presence it seems a little unrealistic and crappy to think that non-Hispanics shouldn't be able to celebrate the holiday if they wish.
But when sugar skulls and other Dia de Muertos items start to get sold alongside Halloween party junk, it's easy to lose track of the proper reverence one might show to a serious holiday. People should be mindful of that, and respectful of both the underlying beliefs and traditions, and also willing to listen to those with differing opinions on the matter.
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For what it's worth, Mexico City recently threw an enormous Dia de Muertos parade that combined their national holiday with American-style Halloween traditions, so I suppose that says a lot in itself. From that article:
“I don't see any problem with the mixing the two holidays,” says Norma Olvera, a third-generation vendor at Sonora Market who specializes in piñatas, some related to Halloween, others to Day of the Dead. “ At the end of the day,” she adds, “we are all human beings. And our cultures mix as well.”
So perhaps the best way to enjoy Dia de Muertos as an American without direct ties to the tradition is to respectfully educate oneself on the holiday, and to show proper respect if one chooses to celebrate. Also, buying Dia de Muertos items actually made by people from the cultures where the traditions originate is a whole lot cooler (and respectful) than stocking up on plastic sugar skulls that are made in China and sold at Walgreens.