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Oct 16 2017
by Gari De Ramos

How (Not) to Celebrate Día de los Muertos in College

By Gari De Ramos - Oct 16 2017
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It was a regular September day when my suitemates, who have an unparalleled love for Halloween, were passing around fresh brownies on paper plates. However, these weren’t your regular paper plates. These were decorated with Calaveras, the skull commonly associated with Día de los Muertos (or what English-speakers call the Day of the Dead). I found it incredibly odd that my international, European roommate had brought Día de los Muertos-themed plates for a suite that is not only majority white, but whose minority members are also not Latinx.

I wanted to say that corporations are capitalizing on cherry-picked aspects of Latinx culture, but I questioned whether or not it was my place to comment on this odd party favor. Instead, I got more curious and spoke to my Latinx friends. I came to realize that more and more non-Latinx people are adopting the aesthetic of Día de los Muertos but doing so with a deep misunderstanding of what it is. In universities across the country, there are Halloween celebrations using the aesthetic of Día de los Muertos. If you are to come across a party such as this, I encourage you to consider the following.

First and foremost, Día de los Muertos is the celebration of the life of a deceased person. It is a deeply reflective and meaningful celebration for the living. While many are aware of its Mexican roots, it is also celebrated in countries such as Guatemala, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador and Ecuador. During this two day event, families of the deceased will go to the grave on November 1 to celebrate deceased children, and on November 2 to celebrate deceased adults. Typically, an altar dedicated to the deceased is set up on the grave consisting of photos, marigolds, candles, food and water. These are all things to either guide the spirit on their journey, or symbols to show that death should not be feared.

It is important to note that Mexico, which is where most non-Latinx people turn to for their understanding of Día de los Muertos, is one of the only countries to celebrate with a lavish parade. Johanna Monge, a college senior, said that the main issue is that people believe every Latinx communities celebrates the holiday like it's celebrated in Mexico. 

Latin America and its culture is depicted as a monolith which allows for there to be an appropriation of celebrations in one Latin American country by another Latin American country," Monge said.

Also, because of how American culture cherry-picks aspects of Latinx culture to bring into the country, Johanna argues that there is a growing, “erasure of the roots of the holiday, since it is dominated by the narrative told by the greater, white society.”

Día de los Muertos has been around for thousands of years with its roots tracing back to the Aztecs. It was originally a month-long celebration until the Spanish colonialists shortened festivities and moved the date such that in coincided with their Catholic holidays, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Even the most iconic symbol, a female skeleton with a colonial-era hat, was created in Mexico by José Guadalupe Posada in the early 20th century. It was used as a way to mock native Mexicans who were adopting European customs at the expense of their own culture. It wasn’t until author Diego Rivera coined the name La Calaveras Catrina did the character – who now inspires the face makeup and costume Americans are familiar with – become an essential representation of the holiday. Even the calavera de azúcar (or sugar skulls) that were used to mock death are popping up on paper plates and tapestries made by major corporations detached from Día de los Muertos’ true meaning.

Every year we see celebrities or friends posting images of themselves in Día de los Muertos-inspired attire for Halloween. Disney even tried to trademark the phrase, Día de los Muertos, for an upcoming film, but thankfully retracted their efforts after major public backlash. To use Día de los Muertos as an aesthetic for a party or Instagram post while overlooking the cultural significance and political history would be a disservice to the celebration.

The real purpose of Día de los Muertos, as Clark University freshman Karla Hernandez explained, is to commemorate the dead and bring a tribute to them. 

"We should stop trying to commercialize every holiday because even though it might be okay to celebrate it in one culture, it may not be appropriate in another," Hernandez said. "We have to keep in mind that the United States is a very diverse country and you cannot just make a party out of everything simply because it looks fun to you.”

If you are to celebrate it as a person outside the Latinx community, you are probably wondering how to do it. No one can tell you how to live your life; you may have Latinx friends that think it's perfectly fine. However, for a day as meaningful as Día de los Muertos, it would be best to keep culture in mind. If you are to celebrate it alone, separate from the Latinx community, without the knowledge of its importance and in a party rather than an educational space, to some it would look like appropriation. Clark University freshman, María Salazar, suggests that if you really want to celebrate it that you should be aware of your actions. 

"Keep in mind that this is a tradition that dates back thousands of years and has survived over 500 years of colonization, only to have white artists copy the style of Chicano artists, therefore perpetrating contemporary colonization," Salazar explained. 

For non-Latinx students planning to observe or celebrate Día de los Muertos, remember that the sacred and religious holiday is not an excuse to party.

Lead Image Credit: mbtrama via Flickr Creative Commons


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Gari De Ramos - Clark University

Gari De Ramos is a sophomore at Clark University where she is double majoring in Political Science with a concentration in Comparative Politics, and her student-designed major in Human Security. She's a third culture kid (Philippines, Hong Kong, New York), a lover of jaywalking, and is dreaming about a gender-swapped production of Hamilton.

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