Día de Los Muertos has been growing in popularity outside of Latin America in the last few years thanks to social media and films being made around the theme of celebrating the Day of the Dead. It is a holiday rooted in pre-Hispanic tradition, mostly associated with Mexico. On the first two days of November, observers invite the spirits of deceased loved ones to join them in the mortal realm, to share space and love. November first is called Día de los Inocentes or Día de los Angelitos, and is a day to remember and love the spirits of dead children and infants (and yes, even pregnancy loss!) The second is Día de los Difuntos, when the adults are honored.
For a solemn and spiritual observance, however, Día de Los Muertos is a festive, bright, and joyous occasion for many. It is a celebration of life, a chance to be rejoined by the spirits of loved ones for a night and to appreciate the living more deeply. It is a beautiful tradition rooted in family.
You don't have to be Mexican to celebrate this love-filled holy day, but there should absolutely be a level of respect for culture and tradition. Here are a few Do's and Don'ts on celebrating Día de Los Muertos authentically and without appropriation or offense.
1. DO - Ask Yourself Why?
Are you wanting to paint your face and wear a big hat because it's on trend right now? Are you choosing to observe this holiday because it's 'fun' and stretches Halloween out a few more days? If so, then maybe reconsider. Do some research into the history of Día De Los Muertos, and how it's observed throughout Mexico and Latin America. Don't do it for the Likes - that's appropriation. Do it because you love the friends and family you've lost along the way, and you want to commemorate them beautifully.
2. DON'T - Think This is Another Cinco De Mayo
Cinco de Mayo, which is actually not observed in Mexico (we'll talk about THAT another time), is seen here in the US as a day to wear sombreros and serapes and drink cheap tequila hasta la madre. Cultural appropriation aside, Día de Los Muertos is not a time to get drunk and party your face off. This is a family centered holiday, and although it can be lively and joyous, it's still a spiritual occasion.
3. DO - Build An Altar with Ofrendas
The benchmark custom of the holiday, altars are built in your home or by the graves of deceased loved ones. The Altar de Muertos is often decorated in bright colors like orange and purple, with traditional sugar skulls, Mexican marigolds, photos of the deceased, and ofrendas. An 'ofrenda' is an offering, gifts to the spirits of relatives to coax them into coming back into this realm to reconnect with their living relatives. On the 1st of November, the souls of children are offered toys and sweets, then on the Second, the adults receive such offerings as Pan de Muerto, alcohol, marigolds, and tobacco, or anything that person was fond of.
4. DON'T - Make it a Halloween Costume
Día de los Muertos is not Halloween. It is a form of cultural appropriation to take the traditional face paintings of Las Catrinas and iconography of the sugar skulls and use them as dress up. This holiday isn't mean to be jokey, or spooky. It's a deeply traditional and spiritual celebration.
5. DON'T - Buy Pan or Sugar Skulls From A Chain Grocer
With this becoming a more mainstream holiday, items such as sugar skulls, Catrinas, Calacas, and Pan de Muerto can be found in most chain grocery stores these days. Instead of giving your money for another mass-produced, appropriated product, find a local Mexican baker or general store at which to shop. There are many Latinx small business owners putting a lot of heart into their cultural traditions - support them.
6. DO - Visit Deceased Loved Ones
These days are, after all, about reconnecting with the spirits of those we've lost. Take some time on these days to visit a relatives graveside, if you can, to leave some marigolds and to send them your love and prayers. If you can't visit their grave physically, take some quiet time to meditated and remember them from afar. It's a beautiful time to reconnect with our ancestors and be humbled by our own mortality.
7. DO - Tell Their Stories
Tell the stories of the ones you know, dream of the stories of the ones who left too soon. Speak their names. Remember the relatives and loved ones you knew well, tell the living of their memory. Ground yourself in knowing we are all connected and their spirits are all around you tonight.
Do the research. Observe the real practices. Take this spiritual festival and find your space to hear the voices of loved ones lost. There's a good chance your city or county has some form of event going, too. But also, understand this - even if you do it all right, you may still come under scrutiny. The distinction between appropriation and appreciation is hazy and different for many. If someone confronts you, listen to their heart. We are all here to evolve, to vibrate higher, to do better.
Buen provecho, amigos.