Essays, Intersections, Opinion, Race, Racism

Dia de Muertos Is Not Your Mexican Halloween

Gigantic sugar skulls are made from 50 year old molds for the competition at the Feria de Alfinique in Metepec, Mexico.

No puedes repaqueta una cutura. Translation: “you can’t repackage a culture.” In America, the cultures of people of color tend to be bastardized by white mainstream outlets in various forms. In recent years, the specific culture of Latinx Americans has been twisted, distorted, and conflated in regards to the popular Sugar Skull trend that has swept YouTube and Instagram.

Sugar Skulls are a traditional part of the Latin holiday Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Dia de Muertos has cultural and historical roots in Mexico, where Dia de Muertos is most well known, as well as other parts of South and Central America. Dia de Muetros is a combination of the Catholic All Saints Day brought over by the Spanish who colonized the indigenous populations of what is now known as Latin America and Aztec indigenous traditions that existed beforehand. It is not “Mexican Halloween.”

Since I’m Puerto Rican and not Mexican, I reached out through my blog to Mexican and other Latinx people to come forward and discuss why Sugar Skull makeup and other other cultural appropriations of Dia de Muertos is disrespectful. One woman–who wishes to remain anonymous–sent me this message:

Hello, Ms. Rodriguez, I am a Mexican-American person, and I’d like to speak on the appropriation of sugar skulls. For Dia de los Muertos, sugar skulls are made as an object to give to the dead, an offering, or ofrenda. The poor, indigenous people of Mexico could not afford the expensive church equipment to honor their dead, so they would create their own molds and use melted sugar, which was abundant, to create the imagery (which included angels and other items). It is extremely problematic to wear this as a costume or use this item in any way that isn’t as an ofrenda for the dead, as you are disrespecting the dead spirits of the indigenous people they represent and also disrespecting the history of why indigenous people began to make sugar skulls.

I find it ironic that a holiday rooted in celebrating the traditions of indigenous populations and reclaiming one’s own culture is now being repackaged by majority white individuals for their personal gain. Whether that gain is for fun, or profit, it stands to reason that the bastardization of Sugar Skulls, and the attempted disassociation with Dia de Muertos is an insult to Latinx peoples–especially those of Mexican descent.

This “trend” of repackaging Sugar Skulls stems from sectors of the beauty blogger community who see the beautiful designs done by Mexican peoples and replicate them while completely disregarding the cultural significance of Sugar Skulls and Dia de Muertos.

Our cultures are not meant for your profit.

La Calavera Catrina in The Book of Life

The makeup that many YouTubers and Instagram makeup artists have sought to replicate comes from the figure of La Calavera Catrina. La Calavera Catrina, also known as Elegent Skeleton or Dapper Skeleton, was created by Jose Guadalupe Posada and later named and designed by Diego Rivera. La Catrina has become a culture symbol to Mexican people and is often seen in tandem with Dia de Muertos. La Catrina’s design closely resembles traditional makeup worn by Mexican women during Dia de Muertos, and her cultural importance was emphasized in Mexican director Jorge Gutierrez’s The Book of Life which was also produced by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.

However, you wouldn’t know this by watching a Sugar Skull makeup tutorial on YouTube.

The holiday of Dia de Muertos has strong cultural and spiritual significance to various Latinx cultures and people. The holiday emphasizes the spiritual connection Latinx people have with their ancestors, and that connection is symbolized in various ways. Sugar Skulls are merely one aspect of a way to symbolize respect for one’s ancestors and showcase one’s participation in the holiday. Beauty bloggers and mainstream corporations that rework, redesign, and repackage sugar skulls remove that cultural and spiritual aspect. By repackaging Dia de Muertos into an aesthetic, a costume to sell to mainstream non-Latinx audiences, people develop a stereotypical idea of the holiday itself. Misinformation spreads, stereotypes are built, and the significance of an indigenous peoples’ cultural holiday is lost.

On a recent trip to Target, I cheerily walked through the aisles of Halloween decorations with a friend. With childish glee, we pressed the “try this” buttons on various items, took selfies trying on different Halloween masks, and balked at the overly expensive prices of, well, everything.

See Halloween is suppose to be fun, but what’s not fun is seeing another culture desecrated and repackaged as something it’s not to make a profit and please ignorant audiences.

Meanwhile, in the real world, potential Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly made racist comments about Latinx--especially Mexican–people in the US and has expressed a desire to mass deport them. But the repackaging and selling of Mexican and Latinx culture as something cute, trendy, or Halloween-y is okay? Real people are suffering because of their race, ethnicity, and culture within America, and repackaging their culture makes light of that continued oppression. This is one of the reasons why cultural appropriation in all its forms is so harmful.

To take bits and pieces of a culture of people who are being systematically oppressed and reselling them through the lens of white mainstream consumerism directly contributes to ethnic minority oppression within America. If you really want to respect minority culture, you won’t purposely ignore what people of color and ethnic minorities are saying when we express discomfort with seeing parts of our respective cultures picked apart like vultures picking meat off a carcass. Instead you’d be listening, learning, and supporting our work and culture.

Wet ‘n Wild’s new Halloween product line Fantasy Makers, featuring “Day of the Dead” kit.

If you’re not Mexican or of a Latinx culture that celebrates the holiday, don’t do Sugar Skull makeup. It’s that simple. It’s not your culture, you’re not respecting Dia de Muertos as a cultural holiday, you’re not flattering any Mexican or other Latinx peoples. If I see one more white woman or otherwise telling me or other Latinx people that we should be “flattered” by Wet ‘n Wild promoting their new Sugar Skull makeup products on Instagram or some prominent beauty blogger doing a Sugar Skull tutorial because it’s “pretty,” I will scream.

Halloween has a notable history of racist costumes, and we’ve only just begun addressing and unpacking this problem. The only way to combat cultural appropriation and people’s apparent apathy towards the racism it contributes to is by continuing to identify and discuss cultural appropriation. Let big businesses know that these practices aren’t okay. That they’re essentially selling racist stereotypes and profiting off oppressed people’s struggles and cultures. I don’t care if others find it “flattering” or defend such practices as “having a good time,” the repacking of our cultures isn’t a good time. It’s disrespectful, it’s hurtful, and it needs to stop.

  1. Cathryn Sinjin-Starr

    October 31, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    I saw Sugar Skulls as an option for face paint on GTA V’s Halloween update. I thought, yeah, they look cool, but that’s not really appropriate, is it? So I passed on wearing one. I’ll admit an aesthetic appreciation for them, but that doesn’t mean I should co-opt them – particularly on a DIFFERENT holiday, and when it is a very cultural, respectful holiday that I’m not a part of. That’s like saying you’re Christian, but you want to do Hanukkah decorations for Christmas because “those little spinning tops (dreidel) are tres cute, and dude, 8 days of presents.” No. Just, no. You wouldn’t do it, so why do it here?

  2. prismal

    October 31, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    What the hell?!?!?! WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL?!?! I’m a mexican and this article has made me furious like nothing else has in a long time. Sit your ass down cause i have to frickin educate you.

    1. I don’t need a fuckin shield. Do you hear me? I don’t need someone being offended in my regard about my culture (Mexican). I am totally capable of doing that. Also, i don’t someone being ignorant as thinking la Catrina personifies el Día de muertos. Keep reading, i will explain it.

    2. I don’t know where the info about the sugar skulls came from but the original mesoamerican skulls were made out of Amaranto, not sugar. And there is also the second problem. You don’t “Reach out for comments”. That’s like step .2 You buckle up and do actual research. Día de muertos is a vital part of my culture and not even bothering doing profound research (from which there is a lot in english and spanish) really makes me angry. From my point of view you’re just appropiating the festivity of my people to feel offended without even knowing about it. Might as well sell fury packages in Trader’s Joe.

    3. Posada didn’t create the Catrina and wasn’t even the first person to use it as a graphic motive. Behind him there is Manilla and others that are part of a long tradition of graphic artists that printed pages to lower classes with motives of yellow pages. In a way (in a really distant way) they are the EC comics of their times but really different. Posada used the Catrinas and other skeletons as a motive for the printed Calaveras which are rhymed compositions about the dead and living which is also another really, really important part of the festivity. Some might say more important. Just saying it was created by Posada and refined by Rivera is just being victim of washing things of their counter-cultural importance (Posada was a part of a big printing industry that was aimed to lower classes like i said and was really important sticking it to Díaz and other important political figures. And we also have to point out Posada was something of a conservative). Damn, it’s almost like being part of EL PRI and celebrating Emiliano Zapata (if you don’t get that one look it up).

    4-Really, the Catrina Costume (because it’s not Sugar Skull Costume, who the hell is saying that??!? The Catrín costume is parallel and simmilar but no way in hell the same as Calaveritas de muertos) is not the embodiment of the party. That’s so disrespectful.

    So yeah, summarizing get your reading on and find out about Cempasuchitl, Pan de muerto, Incienso, Calabaza, The difference between the two día de muertos we have (yes, we have two and are different but the same) and how the Altar came together with the spanish and indigenous tradition (there is a long and complicated symbolism to it) before trying to be offended for something you don’t understand and don’t quite understand. For me it’s bothersome that you try to defend something you don’t bother to completely get. At least the frat boy has the excuse of being really, really, stupid. You shouldn’t.

    Y puta madre sería “No puedes reempaquetar una cultura”, al menos escribe bien en español. Eres de Costa Rica chingá!

    1. prismal

      October 31, 2015 at 7:25 pm

      I apologize for the strong words but, Jesus, Día de muertos is my favorite festivity in the world and you come in and spit on its face.

  3. Andy

    November 1, 2015 at 12:54 am

    Prismal,

    She said she is of Puerto Rican descent, thus why she wrote that as she would say it, with a caribbean accent.

    As for the article, it gets tricky. I grew up visiting the cemetery on Nov 2nd and going to church on the 1st. Nov 2nd for family & Nov 1st for the Saints without their own day. We had flores de muerto, but no sugar skulls (Costa Rica, not Puerto Rico –pet peeve).

    Do I like that Halloween is appropiating el dia de los muertos? Nope. Do I call ppl out on it? Yep.
    I wish ppl understood that “our” cute holidays are RELIGIOUS in nature. Did the colonists use the existing beleifsof the amerindians to get them to convert? Yep, the Catholics have been doing that since day one.

    But it does peeve me to no end that mainstreamers keep taking from latinx culture and not acknowleging the fact.

    Heck, tomorrow I’m going to an in-law’s bday. Eastern european… with a piñata… but piñatas have lost both their Catholic & Amerindian roots & are just fun bday treats.

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