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Red and white calavera mask. The skull mask is white with red around the teeth, eyes and temples. There's a black triangle like shape on the forehead with a round gem at the tip, by the bridge of the nose. The person is also wearing a red head dress with a black band that has silver round gems on it.

The History of Dia de los Muertos and Why You Shouldn’t Appropriate it

To most Americans, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is the “Mexican Halloween.” While this isn’t the case, the vast majority of folks don’t know the actual origins and meanings of the holiday.

The spiritual ritual dates back 3,000 years, and it has outlasted more than 500 years of colonization.

During the old days, Dia de los Muertos was practiced during the ninth month of he Aztec solar calendar, and it went on for a full month. However, in an attempt to convert the natives to Catholicism, the Spanish colonizers moved the celebration to November 1 and 2 (All Saints Day), which is when we celebrate it currently. While the rituals involved in the celebrations have retained some Catholic elements, the indigenous roots of the celebration are extremely prevalent.

” … Skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth. The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed come back during the monthlong ritual.” —AZ Central

While most people see death as an ending, we view death as a continuation of life. Instead of simply mourning loved ones, we celebrate the lives that they had. On November 1 — Dia de los Inocentes — we celebrate the babies and children that have passed. On the next day, we celebrate the adults.

During rituals, we go to the gravesites of our loved ones and eat a meal with them, often times a meal they enjoyed. We also build altars.

dia de los Muertos altar

An example of a Dia de los Muertos altar. Photo by vmiramontes. Creative Commons license.

Altars usually include photos of the deceased and marigold flowers, which symbolize death. We leave offerings like pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) and water to give our loved ones nourishment and strength on their journey. Clay calaveras sit on altars. They include beautiful flowers and designs to show that death shouldn’t be feared or shown in a morbid light.

Altars also hold candles, which are used to guide souls to our altars, along with burning incense, resin or herbs like copal oro and sage. They can also have statues of deities like Virgen de Guadalupe or Santa Muerte, the personification of death, who was modeled after the Aztec goddess of the underworld, Mictecacuhuatl.

“The souls that visit [the] altars do not actually eat or drink what is on the altar. … Instead they absorb the aroma and energy of the food, which nourishes their spirits. After the holiday is over, the foods and drinks on the altars are distributed among family and friends, but the foods and drinks are now tasteless and devoid of nutritional value, because their essence is gone.” —Thaneeya McArdle

La Calavera de la Catrina by José Guadalupe Posada

La Calavera de la Catrina by José Guadalupe Posada

We paint our faces with ornate skulls that have flowers and filigree. Most Americans would call this “sugar skull makeup,” however it’s not. It’s called Calavera or Catrina makeup. Catrina is a reference to a zinc etching from 1910 to 1913. As Latin Times writes: “She is offered as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who, [the artist] felt, were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolutionary era.”

Some folks also wear masks of calaveras or calacas (skulls). These were traditionally carved from wood. Both of these practices are done as a means of mocking death. In this way, we’re telling death that we aren’t afraid of it.

The actual sugar skulls are small calaveras made of candy, piped with icing for decoration. During celebrations, these are eaten as a symbol of consuming death and the negative emotions that come with it — and not letting death or those emotions consume us.

If you go into any Halloween or party store, chances are you won’t have much difficulty finding Day of the Dead costumes, masks, makeup, etc. as well as an array of decorations. People also hold Dia de los Muertos parties on Halloween.

Photo of three small sugar skull candies. The skulls are whie with brightly colored designs piped on with colored icing.

Small sugar skull candies via Tablespoon.com

Again: Day of the Dead and Halloween are not the same thing. Not in the slightest.

But appropriation of this traditional holiday is everywhere. It’s rough knowing that your ancestors died and were called savages for their practices and rituals, only to become a token.

Aya de Leon really summed it up in her blog post about appropriating Day of the Dead by writing:

“Dear white people, … You arrived at the Dia de los Muertos ceremony shipwrecked, a refugee from a culture that suppresses grief, hides death, … celebrates it only in the most morbid ways — horror movies, violent television — death is dehumanized, without loving connection, without ceremony. You arrived at Dia de los Muertos like a Pilgrim, starving, … and the Indigenous ceremonies fed you … [And] like Pilgrims you have begun to take over, to gentrify and colonize this holiday for yourselves.”

In fact, most Day of the Dead festivals in the United States are organized by white people and feature white artists that copy the style and crafts of Chicano artists. This is one of the biggest examples of contemporary colonization.

White people and other non-Indigenous people of color need to take this appropriation seriously and recognize the privileges they hold over indigenous folks. We are a culture, not a costume.

While this holiday may include beautiful colors and sights, it’s quite sacred and holds a great deal of meaning. It’s not something to exotify or tokenize.

This holiday means so much to our people. It brings healing and insight in the face of grief, and keeps parts of the old ways alive. Dia de los Muertos and its rituals are proof that we’re still here, and a true testament of our resiliency and strength through centuries of colonialism and genocide.


Nik Moreno is a 22-year-old, Chicano, disabled, Queer, Nonbinary-Guy hailing from south Texas, but currently living in northeast Pennsylvania. He’s been an activist and community organizer since 2011. He’s very passionate about intersectional feminism, activism and advocacy against ableism and sanism (for folks with disabilities and mental illnesses), and writing zines and articles to continue to educate about institutional power structures. Eventually he plans to go to College as a Cosmetology major and continue to write, advocate, and educate to shatter the white supremacist, cis/hetero patriarchy!

  • JoAnne K MacTaggart

    Nik, I appreciate your point of view. In the US, there is much misunderstanding of the commercialized holidays, and Dia de los Muertos is at risk of losing its identity. I’d like to say, your article perpetuates exactly what happened to MY peoples’ festival -The Celtic Samhain (som how) from October 31-Nov1st celebrating the bounty of harvest, the cycle of Life and the time when the veil between worlds is thinned – and ancestors are present to be greeted and honored, differently than other days.
    You will find this VERY ancient feast/festival has been culturally appropriated too. The Romans, Christians, Germanic, and ENGLISH colonists have ripped it apart.
    Maybe rather than continuing to separate people during Circle of Life, Harvest,and Days when the Veil is thinnest feasts we learn to embrace what humanity fears, loves, cherishes, and needs? Each other -and our beginnings and endings, our plantings, harvests, and honor our collective ancestral grief.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Dr JK MacTaggart

    Oct 29, 2020
  • Traditional calaveras, or skulls, which are prominent on Dia de los Muertos. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Latino Center)

    May 10, 2020
  • Abby

    Is it cultural appropriation that you group all white people together? You strip them of their uniqueness and experience? Is it prejudice that you only allow people from one ethnic background to celebrate or practice something, but don’t allow other individuals to do so? Just because someone is brought up in a culture that has horror movies and violence, does that mean they are a part of that? That is who they are? Or are you just judging them to be that way? And is it really so taboo that one person enjoys the design OR significance of a certain style of drawing/art and wants to participate too? Again, it seems prejudice that only certain people are allowed to do things because of where they were born or what culture they were born into. Seems like teaching discrimination.

    May 5, 2020
  • Blake

    Hey! I love your article, very insightful, I myself am an Indigenous person from the prairies of Canada, so I am very consious of cultural appriation and the negative effects it can have in so many ways. I was just wondering if there was anyway of celebrating without appropriating?

    Nov 2, 2019
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