About ten years ago I purchased a set of Día de los Muertos Christmas ornaments from an Urban Outfitters store. The set contained calaveras (skulls) and maracas. At the time, I thought, what a novel idea to have Día de los Muertos ornaments for a Christmas tree. As novel as that was then, now it has become a lot more prevalent as Día de los Muertos ornaments or decorations sit along side jack-o-lanterns, witches and black cats for Halloween in large retailers. Halloween costumes of Día de los Muertos have too become increasingly popular. Is the popularity of Día de los Muertos yet another example of Latin culture being appropriated by Americans or are American retailers simply tapping into a market that was once ignored?
Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a Mexican, Central and South American two-day tradition that honors the departed by creating altars, offerings of food, beverages and decorative calaveras (sugar skulls) and flowers in their honor. Its origins date back to the Aztecs as a harvest holiday that lasted for months. The influence of Catholicism and western culture eventually shortened it to coincide with All Saints’ Day. Today Día de los Muertos is celebrated on November 1 and November 2.
There is a misconception that Día de los Muertos is the “Mexican Halloween.” Yes, they both share in the similarity of embracing the spirit of the dead. But while Halloween is more about changing one’s guise or tricking others, DDLM is more a celebration and reflection to honor those who were once with us that have since passed. Additionally, DDLM is celebrated in private and is less about mischief and more about giving thanks for protection and future security for one’s family. I suppose it might be more accurate to say that Día de los Muertos is part Halloween and part Thanksgiving (note: Inspired by the first scene in the James Bond movie, Spectre, Mexico City hosted its first ever DDLM parade).
The distinction between DDLM and Halloween is clear, but I think they can coexist on your Walmart or Target shelf. The commercialization and appropriation of DDLM was bound to happen. And yes, there is an increasing market for it so why not capitalize on that. But as Latin culture increases to imbue Americans, it’s important to know when a tradition is being appropriated. Take for instance the cowboy, a very “American-thing,” no doubt. However, in the Americas, cowboys or vaqueros, as they were called, were originally exclusively Mexicans and Native Americans. Vaqueros practiced a cattle ranching style that was brought to America by Spanish and Iberian settlers and more than likely can be traced further back as Arabic. Pointing out origins, such as these, of American culture might make people second-guess before saying disparaging things about Mexicans or people of Latin descent.