Latino Rebels Talk Halloween and Día de los Muertos

As expected, whenever our group brings up strange examples of how Día de los Muertos (or Día de Muertos) have penetrated into the corporate minds of the United States (enter Sephora, VeuveClicquot and Sprint) there is this false assumption that we are just knee-jerking a reaction, manufacturing outrage, not presenting the whole picture or crafting an agenda. While all of our community’s opinions are valid, some of them are misinformed and based on reaction, with little insight to how we operate as a collective. In the end, we don’t sit huddled in our group, asking ourselves, “what controversy can we invent today?” Quite the contrary, we will say this: virtually everything we publish in this area comes from our community. In the case of the latest Día de los Muertos silliness, it came from actual employees and they thanked us for amplifying their voices a bit. That is what we do. Nothing will change that.


Nonetheless, we were challenged (in a nice way) by a few in our community to expand the discussion with the whole flip-side of the issue: Sure, Día de los Muertos is the latest example of appropriation in the United States, but what about Mexico and the fact that Halloween has become more popular than Día de los Muertos? And what about the fact that the holiday has also been commercialized there as well, just like any U.S. holiday? For example, it is common to see images like this one in Mexico.

All valid questions, and all a part of what we think is a really important conversation. So in the interest of having more discussion about it, we thought we would share thoughts from some in our group who are of Mexican descent, grew up in or who lived in Mexico for years to address it in more detail.


First up, Marce.

Always special holidays to me—for one, I was actually supposed to be born on Día de los Muertos, but, impatient that I am, decided to get a jump on things and was born on Halloween instead. To a father born on Halloween. Oh yeah, I have a widow’s peak too. I can’t tell you if my dad did though, it’s been a while since his hairline started receding, but you know, boo!

I was probably meant to be born in the US, but as luck would have it, I was actually born and raised in Playas de Tijuana. Attended Catholic school there and ever since I can remember (1st grade or so) this whole invading Halloween argument has been going on. Growing up half a mile from the US / Mexico border, in a city that is alternatively called the place where “Aquí Comienza la Patria” and “La esquina de Latinoamérica” such cultural “invasions” seemed to be par for the course. Except that the cultural invasions actually went both ways – it’s not just Halloween in Mexico (which to be entirely honest has actually changed say, in the last 25 years at least in Tijuana, from being something I did in San Diego with my aunts there, to my Mom now passing candy in Tijuana) but other holidays or Mexican customs to holidays being celebrated in California (i.e. Pastorelas near Christmas). So, just as everything near the border in Tijuana is actually in English, when you cross to San Ysidro—everything is actually in Spanish.

On Día de los Muertos I have memories of going to Church with my grandmother, laying flowers, eating “calaveritas de azécar,” making funny “calaveras” in school (little verses/ditties about people you know that detail their actual demise in a funny way—yeah I know, but it’s funny) and making Altares. In fact, in high cchool my class entered and won a citywide altar contest, with an auditorium-sized altar to poet Jaime Sabines that took up 25 kids’ pocket money (and later, when our parents saw how big it was, additional funds to fill the whole path to the altar with marigolds and candles, like, carpets of marigolds). It was a sight to see – and hear too, as we had an audiobook/cassette whatever we had in the 90’s of Jaime Sabine reading his poems going.

To me they are completely different in nature—one is meant for fun and frolicking, and Día de los Muertos is also fun, but in a more solemn way. As solemn as a country that spawned Posadas and jokes about death poems can be I suppose.

What Día de los Muertos is not though —as I have unfortunately seen here in San Francisco— is a “Mexican Halloween/” “An excuse to keep the party going”, etc. I’m guessing some of this could also be said of the evolution from All Hallows Eve to the current “sexy-nun” extravaganza that is the Halloween as we know it.

On the Sephora deal: their saving grace is that as a makeup outlet (which could definitely benefit from an excuse to sell more eyeliners/foundation/glitter/etc) is that I haven’t seen any pre-marketing to this, but rather day of embrace within the store. I don’t like the idea because I think it’s a slippery slope, and MOST importantly, because some of the people that are being encouraged to paint on are uncomfortable. Some of whom are Latinos I’m guessing. I’ve been in similar situations and it sucks to feel used. Specially because I would venture to say that there not a whole lot Latinos in executive management at Sephora. Like, I wonder who came up with this? Probably some well meaning, but oblivious non Latin@ person.


Up next, Luis.

I am one of those who believes that we live in a hybrid world. My experience in Mexico thirty years ago (as an upper middle-class chilango) is that Halloween was bigger for me, and it was growing. Día de los muertos wasn’t sacred in my family or neighborhood as I remember it. It was more of a tradition‚ indeed commercialized at a local level. We didn’t have an altar in my house (now my sister puts one), but we did buy sugar calaveras and ate pan de muertos. One of my memories is the local panaderías decorating their windows for the day—so it was very commercial in this regard.
For the sacredness, I do remember that people would go to the graves and clean them at the graveyard. And that still continues. And I am certain that among certain sectors of society it is a very important moment.

I don’t think that Halloween is the tourism happening in Mexico. Halloween for me is an Americanized middle class tradition that has taken interesting shifts. Some children in Mexican cities, for example, ask for their Jalouín, with plastic jack-o-lanterns – an interesting appropriation. I’m certain that tourists would prefer the more “authentic” expressions.

My final comment, this makeup that Sephora is recommending is something new to me. I have seen it in the last half decade (perhaps I wasn’t aware of it before). Don’t recall seeing this before. Now, beyond Sephora, this kind of makeup is very popular among those who claim to be “authentic”.

Mónica added this:

Agreed on lots of fronts. It is not just Sephora—I have been preparing for the Día de los Muertos event that we are hosting and several mainstream stores are selling items. Target has calavera kits, Kmart has calaveras hanging as part of their decorations, etc and The Book of Life is promoting Día de los Muertos. One also has to wonder what impact migration —and repatriation— has on the growing trend to celebrate Halloween. The reality is that increasing globalization is likely at the heart of the celebration on both sides of the border.

I was in Janitzeo in 97 —even the it was starting to become commercialized— I was telling Luis that they were giving out glow bracelets and necklaces at the cemetery like it was a club!

Made me sad.


Finally, Jen added her thoughts:

I found that while living in Oaxaca the Día de los Muertos tradition is very much alive and well. It is a time of year when a lot of tourists come to Oaxaca for sure, so for hotels and the like it probably does mean big business. But I never got the sense that the calendas and graveside vigils were aimed at the tourists at all. It seemed more like ‘you can come along if you want, but we’re doing our thing anyway.

Particularly in the pueblos, there is a strong tradition of Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca that has little to do with putting on a show for tourists.

It’s interesting your comment about the commercialisation of Día de los Muertos in DF Luis, because I have heard of other examples of how this happens with indigenous cultures in the wealthier chilango neighbourhoods. A friend of mine is making a documentary about racism in Mexico, and he uses the example of how in wealthy chilango circles, women wearing indigenous clothes is seen as ‘getting back to your roots’ and there is a certain coolness about it. But of course, indigenous women from Oaxaca or Chiapas experience a lot of racism and judgement for dressing in more traditional ways.
I guess my point is that there is appropriation of other peoples cultures, even within Mexico (let alone looking at the US and depictions of Día de los Muertos).

In terms of Halloween – I must admit I did attend a few Halloween parties in Oaxaca, but they were exclusively organised by US ex-pats! I was curious because I am from a part of the world where Halloween doesn’t really exist.

I think the tradition of Día de los Muertos is too strong for Halloween to really resonate with Oaxaqueños.

This is just a sampling of some in our group who have deep ties to Mexico. We could have asked a few more, but some of their comments would echo what Marce, Luis, Mónica and Jen shared.

We wanted to share this thread because, like we said, it is a topic worthy of discussion, and there are no right or wrong opinions. All we want is to have the discussion, just like we do whenever we share stories that come from our community.

Just yesterday, The New York Times ran a piece about how Halloween is celebrated in Mexico. The reporter asked merchants at the Sonora Market in Mexico City:

“Our tradition is Day of the Dead; it’s not Halloween,” Montserrat Hernández, 27, said firmly. Ms. Hernández, who makes and sells cut paper, believes there is a backlash against Halloween. “Now people are asking more for Day of the Dead. We are going back to it.”

Not so, said Daniela Torres, 21, tending a nearby stall. “The kids follow Halloween more,” she said, bemoaning low sales of her paper decorations. “Maybe they prefer to dress up and dance than set up an altar.”

And as one blogger put it this week as well:

Now that Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority and continue to exert more influence on American society, is it inevitable that some aspects of the Latino experience get homogenized and trivialized and morphed into something unrecognizable? Should Latinos brace themselves for more of this?

Let the discussion continue.

(Black-and-white photos by Andrew McDonald.)

Tell Us What You Think!
Vigilart says:

fighting the fight in Colorado, a direct call out of a arts org.  check it out. there is more of the emails
 My original comments:
Here we go again.
Below is a prime example of the disrespect and (I hope)the unconscious attempt to usurp another culture’s holidays. Below is a local “arts” organization’s invitation to celebrate El dia los Muertos at their facility. I have remove names and references to places because it is not my intent to single out a person, just th…e dominant culture mind set.
In this invite you will see “The event will open with a “dance group” performance of Thriller outside on the front sidewalk” Thriller? Really? a zombie dance instead of a Mesoamerican Blessing to invite ancestors? Which would be the respectful thing to do? Yes, the first paragraph kinda gets it right in a nut shell but looses it with the “thriller” crap.
The word altar is misspelled.
In the second paragraph this organization again tries to give due respect by saying they wish to honor the cultural traditions, except in the very next paragraph they ask you to not forget your costumes because it “will be Halloween after all”.
Henna has nothing to do with Dia los Muertos.
Again Altar is spelled wrong.
The sad part is that I had reached out and had helped this group with a Dia los Muertos event with the proper (well, mostly) teaching and respect for the festival.
You may think “this is nit picking, who care?” Well obviously I do but more important when another culture attempts to take over another cultures rites and festivals and changes it, sooner or later the origins are lost. Just ask the Aztecs- oh wait…..Anthropologists have a fancy word for it, syncretism. The argument can go further, and much deeper but this is just a short shot.
“This one night only event will explore native Mexican culture for Day of the Dead. Dia de los Muertos focuses on gathering to remember friends and family members who have died. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts.
We are excited to partner with “local organization” exhibit to this event for the second year in a row. With alters, dancers, food, music, and more this event seeks to honor the cultural traditions of Dia de los Muertos and to educate the community… about the meanings and celebrations behind this holiday.
The event will open with a “dance group” performance of Thriller outside on the front sidewalk. Don’t forget your costume, it will be Halloween after all, or come ready to have beautiful henna done by “named artist”. “Name” Tamale Lady will have delicious tamales and snacks. Bring gifts and memorials to leave on our public alter and celebrate loved ones no longer with us.
Crafts and activities for kids include making candy skulls with “named artist” in the Library ($5 for supplies), mini alters with “named artist” in the “place”, and masks with “name and place”.
“name and place” is a unique experience where strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. This group directed discussion of death has no agenda, objectives or themes. ”
Response from:
Dear Jerry,
Hope you’re well. How dare you disrespect our effort and time in regard to our event on Halloween/Dia De Los Muertos. Picking out misspellings of ours with your email having more than five words misspelled in yours makes that argument quite weak. I know what a good person you are and how much you care about Dia De Los Muertos, but we do not work for you or for anyone; we celebrate the cultures, heritage, fun, sadness of all people and can not take on the responsibility of every detail that is important to every person; we just do the best we can to make evenings fun for people in this city. What we do in this building is present art and events. We are not political, religious or heritage based in any way.
If you had not noticed Friday Oct. 31 is also Halloween, a perfect night for Thriller. And frankly if we wanted to have Santa Claus here that night, we believe most people would approach that with a smile. Our goal is to give access to people to art and to culture. Sometimes that means we don’t get everything quite exactly, perfectly, correct in the eyes of everyone.
This being our last year of this celebration, I suggest if you would like to do a true tribute to all that Dia De Los Muertos is, that you find a venue and put on the event of the year exactly as you want it. Although I totally respect your feelings on this, I believe, with further consideration, you will realize we have no obligation to anyone concerning anything we do. Our audiences will either come here or not and that is exclusively our problem.
Thank you for sharing your feelings though, we do listen to criticism and we always improve as a result.
hope you are well too.
Yes, I dare. Unless Microsoft spell check has become corrupted there are no misspellings in my letter save the Spanish words, but I can see how you would mistake Spanish words.
Your response is the typical dominant culture response which I have heard a hundred times, and yet you still don’t get it. It saddens me that you are so consumed by your insensitive position that you think you know all. I am pleased, however, that it is your last time putting on this event so that you will no longer disrespect my culture. I also am not interested in your obligations, what I am interested in is preserving my culture from narrow minded and offensive people.
In closing, since you will no longer be putting on a Dia de los Muertos event I will not waste my time in trying to educate you. I have tried that and have first hand knowledge of your directorship style.
As a courtesy, my comments were posted to my Facebook page and sent to all my media contacts up and down the Front Range. Your response defending your organization will also be posted and sent as a glorious example of what I was trying to say.
have a excellent day and have a happy Samhain. Oh, that is the origin of Halloween by the way.