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Avoiding Appropriation: Celebrating Día de los Muertos

Celebrating at “Muertos de la Risa” in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Image by Ann Santori.

A bit about me: Having studied Spanish for four years in high school (and a semester in college), I have always loved the language. I unashamedly watched Dora the Explorer episodes (“Swiper, no swiping!”) and vociferously consumed extracurricular texts. After graduation I worked in predominantly Latino communities, flexing my Spanish muscles; venturing into panaderias to gnaw on mysterious, delicious baked goods; and ordering tacos de lengua in broken, hesitant Spanish.

Day of the Dead had always been my favorite aspect of Latino culture. I have long admired the skeleton dioramas (from afar — they are expensive!), the colorful sugar skulls, the La Catrina mythos….the idea that our loved ones never truly leave us.

But I wasn’t unaware of the appropriation of Día de los Muertos.  

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A delightful Frida Kahlo ‘coffin’ at the 4th Annual Beautiful Souls Coffin Show. The text is a quote: “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” Image by Ann Santori.

In her article “This is How We Celebrate Our Dead,” Tina Vasquez describes attending a showing of the animated film, The Book of Life, with her two nieces who live in Utah, being raised by White family members, and therefore are “hungry for ties to our (Mexican) culture.” Vasquez continues to describe her own emotions as a biracial Latina woman watching her beloved Día de los Muertos be watered down by mainstream White culture:

“Since the death of my mother four years ago, Día de los Muertos has become monumentally important to me and something I consider sacred, but every year there are more and more reminders that it is a tradition that belongs to Mexicans less and less.

There was that one time Disney tried to trademark Día de los Muertos. Each year, there are more stories of corporations promoting the co-opting and whitewashing of a sacred Mexican holiday. This year it was discovered that beauty retailer Sephora was encouraging employees to show off their “Halloween faces” using a step-by-step makeup guide for a Día de los Muertos-inspired look.”

Vasquez explains that what frustrates her the most about these types of appropriation is the ‘picking and choosing.’ The same people who consume tacos and menudo from diners and dives don’t seem to be all that bothered when the very same undocumented men and women that prepared/served their food are targeted for deportation.

Last year for my Día de los Muertos, I lit candles and placed food next to the urns of my loved ones — we keep them at home, so they’re always close to us). I didn’t make a proper ofrenda — no marigolds or pan de muerto — but I felt like I was honoring them.

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At Día de los Tamales. Image by Ann Santori.

I drove down to Pilsen, Chicago’s South-Side Latino neighborhood that was hosting, with the sponsorship of Elevarte (a local, youth-centric community art studio), the ‘Muertos de la Risa’ celebration, complete with procession, traditional Aztec dances, and coffin opening. I popped over to the nearby NYCH Gallery for another art show/craft fair celebrating the holiday.

But as I ate dinner in between events at Día de los Tamales, a Mexican restaurant so Americanized that “Pumpkin Spice Tamale” is a legitimate menu option and, worse yet, enjoyed it, I wondered if I wasn’t just as bad as Vasquez assumed I was.

Was I an Appropriator?!

Despite my deeper understanding of the day’s history and nuances, was I really just allured by the aesthetic of the celebrations? Because I was a White Lady, untethered by my family’s own mixed ethnic background and traditions, was I just desperate to belong?

In my humble opinion, the line (and there’s no denying it’s a fine one) between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ appropriation is akin to that between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camping etiquette.

You know you’re violating it if you’re:

1. Only there to take a selfie

2. Littering the place with your trash — AKA unsolicited opinions and ignorant commentary

3. Consciously (or subconsciously) doing the research necessary to create a simulacrum of the site — for which you will up-charge your future customers. Think White People’s love for traditionally ethnic (and formerly cheap!) foods like kale and collard greens.

Your reward for good appropriation etiquette? A window into the peoples and cultures that make up the world around you. And, ultimately, a more holistic path to your own personal growth and self-knowledge.

What about you, dear readers? How do you distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ appropriation? Is there a difference? Examples, please!

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