Well folks, it’s that time of year again. The special time of year where the leaves turn beautiful colors, we all begin to pull out our sweaters, and my inbox inevitably fills with questions from non-Latinx folks about Dia De Los Muertos, aka The Day of The Dead.
This is a very special holiday in my culture where the living celebrate the dead, and get the chance to once again share good times and happiness with those we have lost. Many folks who come to me around this time of year want to know how and if they should participate, and want to know some guiding rules for avoiding cultural appropriation or insensitivity while doing so. To help reach a larger audience I am here to walk you through the finer points, and “Do’s and Dont’s” for non-Latinx folks who want to participate and learn about Mexican culture.
Before we begin, please understand that this list is far from exhaustive. It would be impossible for me to cover every possible consideration when approaching this holiday from outside of the community; however, I will attempt to hit the highlights. Also, please remember that things like cultural appropriation have a lot of nuance and each instance needs to be dissected individually in order to classify it as “okay” or “inappropriate”. If you find yourself with further concerns, please try to find more educational materials from the Latinx community in order to decide your next steps. Without further ado, let’s begin…
DO: Learn about Dia De Los Muertos by watching documentaries or reading books created by Mexican people. Did you know that there are multiple days devoted to the dead around this time of year, including one for children called Dia De Los Angelitos (day of the little angels)? Learning about world cultures can be fascinating, fulfilling, and can help broaden our own beliefs and world-view. There is nothing wrong with being educated and you’ll be better for it.
DON’T: Ask your Latinx friends to explain it all to you or learn about the holiday from non-Mexican sources. These are often unreliable or don’t accurately capture the spirit and message of the traditions. Also please don’t rely on the movie Coco as your only educational material. It’s fantastic but it’s far from a complete education.
DO: Build an “Ofrenda”, aka an altar for your beloved dead, if you feel called to do so. Please take this as an opportunity to educate yourself and learn how to construct one properly. This is a great time to find out things like, “why do we decorate using marigolds?” and “what is the significance of sugar skulls?”. You may also decorate your home in the traditional style if you would like.
DON’T: Decorate yourself in Day of the Dead sugar skull face paint. Cultures are not costumes, and let’s be honest, it’s been done to death (see what I did there? Death puns! But really, don’t do it; it’s tacky and offensive).
DO: Consider whether or not your ancestors would be comfortable being honored in this manner. If you feel they need to be honored in a different manner, then that is totally fine and you should do so.
DON’T: Substitute our traditions with non-Mexican traditions and still call it your Dia De Los Muertos celebration. If you feel the need to do it up “Viking style”, or add in a massive amount of your non-Mexican culture to your ancestral celebrations that is fine! You are welcome to celebrate your ancestors in whatever way they prefer to be celebrated around this time of year.
However, if you are going to go a different direction, please don’t call it Dia De Los Muertos as it’s not authentic and you risk erasing precious culture. If, however, you would think your non-Latinx ancestors would have a great time having a Dia De Los Muertos party thrown for them you should feel free to do so! Also, if you want to add offerings that are not specifically Mexican (like some Bratwurst, or Sauerkraut for Uncle Boris because they were his favorite) that’s fine too.
DO: Purchase your decorations and flowers from Latinx individuals and companies when available.
DON’T: Purchase your decorations from non-Latinx owned businesses or big corporations if you can help it. If you do find yourself having to purchase from a corporation that is not Latinx owned, do a little research and make sure they are at least not actively lobbying against the Latinx community. If the corporation is, please move on to the next. Also, please don’t make Dia De Los Muertos-themed art or décor and try to cash in on the holiday by selling them if you are not Latinx. That’s disrespectful. You can however make your own decorations if you would like to, as long as you don’t plan to profit off of them.
DO: Take this time to dig up old photos and buried treasures from your family history that have been tucked away in old boxes or storage bins. Be sure to include your aging relatives in the festivities and ask them for stories about their childhood and relatives that have passed on. They live in these stories and if you never hear them, you can’t help keep them alive by retelling them.
DON’T: Use this as an opportunity to party while simultaneously forgetting about your ancestors, and soon-to-be ancestors.
DO: Consider what the dead at your altar may want. If they all hated traditional Mexican food, maybe make them something else. If they were Mormon, maybe don’t pour them hella tequila shots. Sometimes honoring our dead means going out of your way, or against your own personal comforts and beliefs to accommodate them. I’m not Mormon, nor am I a fan of Mormonism but that doesn’t mean that my Mormon ancestors wouldn’t love a reading from the Book of Mormon.
DON’T: Put your needs before your ancestors.
DO: Have educational material ready, or have a donation jar to support the Latinx community if your business is planning on throwing any sort of Dia De Los Muertos festivities. If you need catering please hire from Latinx-owned restaurants.
DON’T: Put up a few decorations and make a lot of cash off the holiday without ever extending at least some of the money to those you are profiting off of.
DO: Cherish the wonderful memories you have of spending Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico, if you are a non-Latinx person who is or has been able to travel to Mexico during this time of year.
DON’T: Try to educate your Latinx friends about the holiday unless they specifically ask. Many Latinx folks living in the United States feel disconnected from their culture and having to learn about your own people and traditions from a white person is a special type of pain that most folks will never realize. Though you are well intentioned, please understand that this may be an emotional time for some, and not a lot of Latinx folks have the resources to travel, or even learn Spanish themselves if they weren’t taught in the home. These things can be very emotional for a lot of us who are culturally Mexican but are several generations American as well.
Please let this article be a conversation starter, and not a gate that you get mad at for being in your way. We are all humans and humans and culture and this world full of borders and racism and colonization is COMPLICATED that means that there are no easy answers when it comes to these subjects. However, if we can learn to educate ourselves without taking, or participate without influencing, we might just be able to start seeing through each other’s eyes. This is a good first step to learning a little about your Latinx neighbors, and their beliefs, culture, and traditions. Let this be a beautiful thing, and it will take you far.
Interested in learning more about modern Mexican-American folk magic? My book, American Brujeria, is available for pre-order!