Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the lives of loved ones who have passed. Although the tradition has spread to different parts of Latin America and the U.S., it’s still most alive in Mexico, where families take the day to create altars in their homes and in cemeteries, to leave ofrendas (or offerings) for those on the other side, and to celebrate the dance shared between life and death. The holiday is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd with beautiful colors, punched and cut papers, sugar skulls, candy, and food — not to mention gatherings and even parades.
Even if you’re not Latinx, you can see the appeal.
Unlike Halloween, Día de los Muertos pokes fun at death, placing emphasis on celebrating the lives of those who died, and honoring their spirits in the process. People who observe the holiday even believe that the spirits of the dead return on this day to celebrate with their loved ones.
If you’re not Latinx and you want to celebrate, by all means, do. But, there are a few key things to keep in mind while doing so, to make sure you’re honoring and appreciating the day — and not being appropriative.
If you want to celebrate, find a Mexican or Latinx-run festival or business to do so.
We get it. Your favorite dive bar having $3 tequila shots is great, but when they’re calling it a “Día de los Muertos party” and it’s a bunch of white dudes running the place? Not so much. If you actually want to celebrate, your best option is finding a Mexican or Latinx-run festival, meaning one that’s actually put on by people of color.
Do your research. See who’s running what and what they have to offer. Many festivals will have Aztec dancers (the holiday started as an Aztec harvest holiday), altars, faceprint. and more. A good resource to use (besides Google) is Time Out, so you know what’s going on in your area.
Please don’t paint your face like a sugar skull for Halloween, or at all.
“La Catrina,” aka “the woman in the hat,” is a skeleton woman who wears a brightly colored dress. La Catrina and sugar skulls, or brightly painted skulls that can be made out of sugar and left as offerings, are common motifs on Day of the Dead. Many people who celebrate will paint there faces like sugar skulls to poke fun at death as live offerings and to remind us that we’re all the same in the end.
Although Day of the Dead and Halloween fall incredibly close to each other, they’re not the same thing. And that means that painting your face like a sugar skull if you’re not Mexican or Latinx is inappropriate. Calaveras, or skulls, are an important motif because of what they represent to Mexican and Latin cultures; they’re not a costume.
And please don’t show up with your face painted like a skull at a festival.
If you’re wanting to be in character at the festival you’re going to, then wear your brightest brights without painting your face. If there’s a face painting booth at the festival, run by Latinx people, then have them paint your face. People paint their faces like skulls to honor and remember the dead. It’s a way to keep the connection with the culture and ancestors alive; again, it’s not a costume. DIYing your own sugar skull errs on the side of disrespect, so it’s best to avoid doing it all together.
If you really want to celebrate, do your research.
Listen, we want you celebrate with us. We want you to know why we gather in cemeteries, why we leave out toys and candy as offerings, why we take the time to celebrate the dead. And the best thing you can do to honor this is to educate yourself. Use Google, read books and articles, listen to podcasts, listen to your Latinx friends, and make an effort to familiarize yourself with our culture. Then, when you celebrate, you can focus on the festivities without offending anyone.
If you do choose to celebrate, please keep in mind that this is a powerful and important holiday for many people. If you’re not sure if something’s disrespectful, then just don’t do it. Better safe than sorry, and you can still have fun regardless.