It’s Halloween season again. A time for pumpkin spice everything, sweaters, and discussions about what is cultural appropriation or not.
On October 31st, kids (and adults) all over the US and other countries will be donning costumes, trick-or-treating, and attempting to scare each other for fun. A truly magical time. But every year, a conversation about which costumes are appropriate or disrespectful seems to fill our internet feeds. And this year, I’d like to have my own discussion about that.
First, I think it’s important to know the meaning behind the arguments. What do we mean when we talk about ‘cultural appropriation’? Well, cultural appropriation is quite simply the “adoption of elements of one culture by another culture.” In it’s purest form, cultural appropriation is just the blending of two cultures and is generally seen as a positive thing, contributing to diversity and global unity.
However, what most people mean by cultural appropriation is more accurately cultural misappropriation, or the taking of elements of one culture into another without respect for the original context or meaning.
Now this is a broad meaning and can be applied to a lot of things, but as I’m Hispanic and preparing to celebrate Dia de Muertos this year, I’d like to talk about it within that specific context, although it is by no means the only context to which this applies.
Dia de Muertos is a two day Spanish holiday observed in northern and central regions of Mexico and some areas of the United States, starting late on October 31st or early November 1st, through November 2nd. Simply put, the modern holiday we think of today stems from ancient Aztec rituals that originally took place during the late summer, but was moved slightly when the predominately catholic Spaniards came to Mexico. The original holiday celebrated the dead as a way to offer aid as they journeyed through the 9 levels of Mictlan, to make their way to await rebirth by Mictacacihautl, the Aztec goddess of the underworld.
The modern holiday is a celebration of our ancestors and loved ones who have passed on. One day a year, our loved ones are allowed to return to our realm to help guide and protect us in life, and in return we offer them aid and remembrance to help them in their journey through death. In this way, Dia de Muertos is a very sacred holiday to many Latinx people, and specific traditions are observed.
Common traditions are well known, such as the Calaveras, or sugar skulls on constant display through makeup and decorations, as well as candies and pastries. Other traditions are less well known, like the role Marigolds play in the holiday. But each of these traditions comes with a deeply important and spiritual meaning.
But let’s take a step back and talk about what the holiday is. On the night of October 31st, it is said that the veil that seperates the land of the dead (Mictlan for the Aztecs) and our realm of the living is thinned, allowing brief travel between realms. During these two days, our loved ones and ancestors return to us to look over us and protect us, and in return we celebrate them with fond stories of remembrance and offerings of their favorite food and beverages to aid them in the long journey through the afterlife until they can return to us one year later.
November 1st is the first day of the holiday. Called Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents), it is believed that loved ones younger than 18 or those who were unwed return to us. On the first day, we remember and celebrate these loved ones. November 2nd, Dia de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased) celebrates loved ones past who are 18 and older, or those who were married. During these days, most people will gather at the graves of their loved ones, but some make personal altars or shrines at home, called ofrendas. Marigold, called flor de muertos, is often sprinkled around the altar and leading to it as it is believed the bright color and fragrant aroma helps lead the spirits to their altars, and thus, their families.
Upon the ofrenda, most people will place the favorite food and drink of the deceased, as well as favorite items and an offering of salt and water. As salt and water are both necessary to live, it is believed that the dead greatly desire these things, but they cannot be found in Mictlan. Food and drink is offered for the end of their long journey back to us. But don’t eat or drink the offerings! It is believed that the dead consume the “spiritual essence” of the food and beverage left for them and to consume such things provide no nutritional value, and can in fact bring illness.
During this time, families will often share stories of their loved ones, fondly remembering and celebrating their lives. Song and dance is also a traditional part of the celebration. Many will light candles and pray for their loved ones to protect and guide us in our own living journey, and in return, we agree to remember them, and greet them each year with gifts to help them in their own journey through Mictlan.
Calaveras makeup is frequently worn to make the spirits feel welcome and at home during their visit. It has been a whole year since they’ve seen the living, after all.
This holiday, although frequently paired with Halloween, is very different in nature.
Halloween, a holiday for the harvest, has it’s origins in the Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in). During this festival, it was believed, much like Dia de Muertos, that the veil between the living and dead is thinned. But instead of loved ones returning, it was believed that harmful and malicious spirits were known to come to our realm and possess others to cause harm and mischief. Costumes were frequently worn to disguise oneself from such demons to avoid possession, and jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips and gourds to entice the spirits to possess instead.
For both holidays, Christianity plays a vital role. The three-day Christian holiday of Hallowstide celebrates the weakening of the veil and the remembrance of the dead, and falls on October 31st through November 2nd. This time of year was important to almost every ancient society on Earth. It symbolized the change of seasons and the coming of darkness and death. More often than not, winter was a dangerous time, and the harvest was over. Due to this deep connection with the Earth itself, many different rituals that shared a connection to the afterlife began cropping up around the same time. As such, both Samhain and Dia de Muertos were moved to coincide with this Christian holiday, because their similarities allowed easier assimilation of indigenous peoples into the Church.
But these two holidays are not as interchangeable as people might think, and this is where we return to our conversation of cultural appropriation.
It is common this time of year to see people wearing calaveras makeup as a Halloween costume. This would be a prime example of cultural misappropriation. Treating this as a costume strips the act of it’s original meaning and context. Simply put, calaveras is to make the dead feel welcome, not a costume to ward off evil spirits. To do so could claim that the spirits of our returning ancestors are evil, and that could be deeply hurtful to members of the Hispanic community.
Often times, cultural misappropriation happens out of ignorance. After all, it’s common to think Dia de Muertos is just “Mexican Halloween”. They both have to do with death and the visitation of spirits and they both occur at the same time of year. However, they are two holidays born out of different traditions, and those traditions have deeper meanings. To co-opt one cultures traditions but apply to conflicting practices can be deeply upsetting.
If someone wished to observe and celebrate Dia de Muertos with me this year, I’m happy to oblige, and I welcome you to take active part in the traditions, such as creating an ofrenda and wearing calaveras makeup. That would be a positive example of cultural appropriation. I’m more than willing to share my culture with members of another culture as long as these practices are kept in their original context and respectfully observed.
So, this year, take a look at your costume and holiday celebrations and consider the original meaning and original context. If your holiday plans contradict the original context and might upset someone, perhaps choose a different costume.
Happy Halloween, Feliz Dia de Muertos, and enjoy your celebrations. Just don’t be a dick.