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.
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.
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.