Is it okay for non-Mexicans to celebrate the Day of the Dead?

The Day of the Dead is here, but is there a way to celebrate it without exploiting Mexican culture?

It was a question posed as part of a Community Q&A on The Conscious Child, and it was addressed in detail by a community moderator who started by explaining what Da De Los Muertos (“Day of the Dead,” in English) is and how the practice began.

Originally a harvest celebration for the Aztecs, what would become the Day of the Dead in Mexico was once celebrated around the end of summer, structured around farming season — much like Halloween, which is derived from pagan holidays also honoring the season change. The celebration was blended with the Catholic customs of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day by Spanish conquistadors who brought Catholic influence to South America.

The central belief is that on those days, loved ones’ spirits are allowed to join the living and commune with them, and the celebration is geared toward that idea: toys and calaveras (the iconic skull — made from sugar — that inspires the makeup and look of the holiday) are left for children, and food, favorite possessions, and alcohol are left for adults at elaborate homemade altars called ofrendas.

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Día de Los Muertos celebration.

So, what does this imply for those who do not identify with Mexican culture? The Conscious Kid references a 2016 blog post by Tracy López for Latinaish, which defines cultural appropriation as “the ‘borrowing’ of one culture by another culture, particularly when elements of a minority culture are used by a majority culture.”

“Often times it is done unintentionally and/or without intended malice, but even when done with appreciation or admiration, it can be exploitative, offensive and/or feel oppressive to the minority culture who feel something is being stolen from them,” López said. “Cultural appropriation is extremely disrespectful when a majority culture takes something precious out of context and redefines it.”

She then suggested suggestions of ways to commemorate the holiday “without really embracing it,” such as attending festivals and museums and educating yourself and your children on its rich history.

According to López, another important thing to ask yourself is what your aims are when it comes to your interest in the holiday.

“Are you painting your face as a sugar skull because it’ll look super cool and get you plenty of likes on Instagram? Then you should really evaluate your conduct,” she wrote. “These traditions are not ‘just for fun’ or to bring yourself attention on social media — they are sacred. Take note of it.”

“If you’re the Donald Trump type who would eat a taco and declare you ‘love Mexicans’ while supporting the deportation of the people who made it for you — don’t even think about it,” López advised. “It should go without saying that cherry-picking a culture while ignoring the people who created it is utterly unethical.”

Other ways to celebrate Dia de los Muertos include purchasing items “crafted by Latinxs or Latin American artists” that “give back to the people who deserve it,” she added.

Día de Los Muertos celebration.
Eyepix/NurPhoto via Getty

She also noted that it’s still possible to encounter “scrutiny” even with the best of intentions, writing, “Should someone confront you on why they think you have no right to celebrate Día de muertos, consider their words and feelings. There is a delicate line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, and no one can agree on where it is. “Make an effort to do better.”

The Conscious Child concludes their answer by suggesting some alternate methods for non-Mexican families to memorialize loved ones who have passed, such as displaying photographs on their birthday, lighting candles, playing their favorite music, or viewing one of their favorite movies.

“Other ideas could be visiting a place they loved to go to, reading a book they loved, doing an activity they enjoyed participating in, supporting a cause they were involved in, etc.,” the response continues. “There are so many options for honoring your loved ones depending on what you and your family deem significant.”

The Day of the Dead this year starts on Thursday and finishes on Saturday.

Related Questions

  • Can other cultures celebrate Day of the Dead?

    Although Mexico is best famous for Da de Muertos, the festival commemorating the dead is observed across Latin America and beyond. From Brazil to the Philippines, November 1 and 2 are the days of the year when families and friends gather to pay tribute to their deceased loved ones.

  • Is it wrong to celebrate Día de los Muertos?

    Most individuals who observe Dia de los Muertos do not associate it with any religious meaning. Instead, they regard it as a day of celebration, commemoration, and recognition of cultural origins. In that sense, our Catholic faith is unlikely to be jeopardized.

  • Is Day of the Dead only for Hispanics?

    Who observes the Day of the Dead? It is primarily a Mexican tradition, but other Catholic countries around the world also honor the deceased. In the Philippines, relatives visit the graves of the dead, bringing flowers and lighting candles. Dia de Finados is celebrated in Brazil.

  • Does everyone in Mexico celebrate Day of the Dead?

    UNESCO included the festival on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, recognizing its significance. Today Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate Día de los Muertos, but at its core, the holiday is a reaffirmation of Indigenous life.

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