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Beyond Sugar Skulls: The History and Culture of Dia de los Muertos

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Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a tradition first practiced thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples such as the Aztecs and the Toltecs. They didn’t consider death the end of one’s existence but simply another chapter of life. Rather than grieve their dead, ancient Mexicans celebrated the lives of the deceased and honored their memories. During Día de los Muertos, observed Oct. 31- Nov. 2, they believed the dead had a brief window to leave the spirit realm and visit their loved ones in the mortal world. 

Three thousand years later, Día de los Muertos (called Día de Muertos in Mexico) is celebrated globally. Observers visit gravesites, make altars for the dead, and leave offerings for them. Over the millennia, the holiday has changed in more ways than anyone living now can possibly know. The 16th century arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to Mexico saw the imposition of Catholicism on indigenous customs. The Catholic Church recognizes Nov. 1 and 2 as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively, and scholars say modern Día de los Muertos observances have indigenous roots with European influences. But for generations, the holiday has widely been practiced by people of Mexican ancestry, which is why the recent trend of outsiders partaking in Day of the Dead celebrations has led to cries of cultural appropriation.

The Growing Popularity of Día de los Muertos in the US

It’s difficult to pinpoint just one reason why people who don’t have a cultural connection to Día de los Muertos are rapidly taking interest in the holiday, but the trend has been covered from coast to coast, with the L.A. Times publishing an article about Day of the Dead’s commercialization in 2017 and the New York Times following suit in 2019. Changing aesthetics, demographics, and religious beliefs likely bear as much blame for this phenomenon as social media, geography, and pop culture do. 

Two years ago, Walt Disney Studios released its stunning Pixar animated film “Coco,” which had a plot that relied heavily on the Day of the Dead tradition. The movie was both a critical and commercial success, grossing more than $800 million off a $175 million budget. It won an Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and numerous other awards. In addition to “Coco,” the 2015 James Bond film “Spectre” features a scene set during a Día de los Muertos celebration in Mexico City. 

Recently, an unlikely influencer sparked a dialogue about cultural appropriation of the holiday. A $75 Barbie Día de los Muertos doll with blue-black braids, a black mermaid dress, and the skull makeup and marigolds associated with the tradition debuted in September and promptly sold out online. (It is still available from select retailers at markedup prices.) Mexican Americans had mixed responses to the doll, with some hoping that it would increase Latinx visibility in the US and others arguing that it constituted cultural appropriation since white-owned corporation Mattel would profit rather than communities of color.

Geography contributes to Day of the Dead’s popularity as well. In cities such as Los Angeles, with large Latinx populations, celebrations of the holiday have taken place for years. An episode of the PBS SoCal show “Artbound” has linked U.S. observances of the holiday to the artists involved with the community arts center Self Help Graphics & Art. They worked to popularize Día de los Muertos in the 1970s, a time when the Chicanx community in L.A. had become politicized while fighting against the Vietnam War and social injustice. On Olvera Street in historic Los Angeles, Día de los Muertos celebrations have taken place for more than 30 years, and at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, it has been observed for 20 years, well before the cultural appropriation debate about Day of the Dead began. 

As the Latinx population grows (it is currently the largest minority group in the U.S.), such holidays will continue to have more influence than they once did. But some of the newest Day of the Dead observers likely have no link—geographic, cultural, or otherwise—to these celebrations. Such revelers may be drawn to the holiday for the simple reason that the colorful flowers, food and fashion associated with Día de los Muertos are so Instagrammable. The social media site’s #diadelosmuertos hashtag has more than two million posts. Even altars aren’t sacred on Instagram as more users show off their shrines to ancestors and deities during an age when young people are rejecting traditional religions for witchcraft and paganism. Add in the fact that millennials’ love for makeup has revolutionized the cosmetics industry, and it’s easy to see why droves of hipsters are gravitating to the skull face paint typically worn on Day of the Dead but likely skipping visits to the cemetery to connect with their deceased family members. This isn’t an excuse for cultural appropriation as much as it is an observation of the melding of trends that have attracted outsiders to the holiday, which managed to elude appropriation in the 20th century despite all the American kids exposed to it during Spanish class, if nowhere else.   

How Schools Can Be Supportive

Schools can use Día de los Muertos as a time to teach students how to be culturally sensitive, discover their ancestral traditions related to death, and to support the Latinx community today. They can also help students appreciate the holiday for its uniqueness and clarify the common misconception that it is simply Mexican Halloween. 

Start a Dialogue: Since Día de los Muertos has sparked cultural appropriation concerns, teachers can organize lessons around this topic. Ask students to research cultural appropriation and explain what it is and how it relates to Day of the Dead. They may narrow this assignment down to one part of the debate surrounding this holiday, such as the impact of films like “Coco” or merchandise like the Día de los Muertos Barbie have had on commercializing the event. 

Go Beyond Aesthetics: For the individuals who grew up celebrating Día de los Muertos, the holiday is about far more than appearance. Photos of skull makeup and foods such as pan de muerto may get Instagram likes, but the aesthetics of the holiday were never what gave it importance. Have students research the origins of Day of the Dead and the spiritual beliefs of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples who first observed it. Students can use a Venn diagram or other graphic organizer to compare the views ancient Mexicans had about death to those of contemporary Americans. Is there any overlap?

Foster Cross-Cultural Connections: Death is universal, so even if some Day of the Dead customs are off limits to students, it doesn’t mean they can’t take part in similar traditions related to their own cultural heritage. Whether students have Irish, Italian, Korean, or Nigerian roots, their ancestors observed death in particular ways. Students can research these customs or discuss them with relatives. Rather than appropriating a holiday such as Día de los Muertos, they can use the event to learn more about themselves and their heritage.

Supporting the Latinx Community: The year 2019 saw a deadly mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that targeted people of Mexican heritage. In El Paso and cities across the country, including Houston, Austin, Chicago, and Washington D.C., Latinx people are making Día de los Muertos altars for the shooting victims, showing that this cultural observance marks a time to celebrate the lives of the marginalized and to fight the sociopolitical problems that lead to racial oppression. Discuss the altars for shooting victims to help students act on the issues, such as gun violence, immigration and racism, that matter to them.

By helping students learn about the origins and complexities of Day of the Dead, educators can guide youth to engage in cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation of the holiday. A deeper understanding of this celebration can spur students to draw parallels to their own ancestral traditions concerning life and death.

Nadra Nittle Journalist

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist, who has written and reported on topics such as education, race, business, fashion and food. She is currently a senior reporter for the food policy news website Civil Eats. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Vox, The Atlantic, KCET, Refinery29, and the New York Times.

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