Dia de Los Muertos vs. Halloween: Know the Difference Or Get Checked

As yet another Halloween creeps up on us — get it? — so does the yearly wave of racism and misogyny reflective of the fucked up society we live in. Each year, Halloween costumes range from the annoying and ridiculous — sexy firefighter, sexy nurse, sexy ladybug (seriously?), etc., — to the openly racist and misogynistic — “Native American Princess,” “Muslim Terrorist,” and this year’s lowest couple’s costume which depicts Janay Rice and her abusive football-player husband, Ray Rice, complete with blackface and a black eye because racists and misogynists are really good at being the scum of the earth, making Halloween — the entire month of October, really — a time of high anxiety for basically anyone who is not a straight white dude.

For Latinxs* — especially Mexicanxs and Xicanxs — however, Halloween also means the appropriation of Dia de Los Muertos by people who don’t know the first thing about the holiday. So in the spirit — ha! — of making this a learning opportunity, I’d like to take this moment to clarify a few misconceptions. First thing’s first: Dia de Los Muertos is not the Mexican version of Halloween. Yup. That means that when you paint your dumb face to look like a sugar skull you’re not “honoring” my culture, you’re appropriating it and disrespecting it.

 You see, there’s a big difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. For example: purchasing a sugar skull and building an altar to celebrate and honor the life of a friend or family member who has passed? Totally fine. Dressing up as a Dia de Los Muertos sugar skull for a Halloween party? Nope; don’t do it. Why? Because again, Dia de Los Muertos is not the same celebration as Halloween.

Dia de Los Muertos is actually one of the most important holidays celebrated in Mexico, Latin America, and by Latinxs in the U.S. and abroad.  Its origins trace back to the rituals of the pre-Columbian indigenous populations of Meso-America who celebrated and honored their dead with a month-long celebration during the month of August where they built altars and made Hanal Pixan– (Nahuatl for food offerings for the souls traveling from their world back to ours for their annual visit). The death-fearing Church and its Crown saw this celebration as a threat to their rule and domination and went to great lengths (i.e. genocide) to extinguish it. They were, of course, met with fierce resistance by the indigenous populations and eventually had no choice but to create a hybrid holiday to take its place. (For a more detailed history of the origins of Dia de Los Muertos, check out the piece I wrote for Red Wedgemagazine two years ago.)

The reality is that we live in a highly globalized world and that means that trans-culturation — the blending of two or more cultures to form a new one– is inevitable, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there is much value in trans-culturation; for it allows the experiences and customs of cultures to merge and synthesize into something new, something which has barrier-busting potential and can show us why we have more in common with each other than we’re made to believe. Trans-culturation also means that we can turn our suffering into productive action like in the case of sex-workers in Mexico City who for a number of years now have paraded down the streets of the city wearing skull masks to raise awareness of the violent misogyny they face on a daily basis and to remember those who’ve lost their life to this violence. And the families of those who have fallen victim to the “war on drugs” and the violence committed in its name by both the cartels and the state. Or in the U.S., the immigrant rights movement which observes Dia de Los Muertos by channeling its anger and discontent at barbaric treatment of undocumented workers and families by raising awareness of these issues and commemorating the victims of this country’s broken immigration system through these celebrations. These are examples of the evolution our customs and traditions go through, and of the ways in which we are constantly learning to transform our collective pain into collective action to finally bring an end to our oppression.

This is what Dia de Los Muertos ultimately is: a hybrid celebration meant to honor our dead; one which also reminds us that our history may be one of colonization and conquest, but it is also one of resistance and resilience. And this is why you don’t fuck around with people’s culture. This is why Dia de Los Muertos is not a Halloween costume. This is why it’s imperative that we understand the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. For while the former can lead to better relationships between cultures and to the forming of new and radical customs, traditions, and bonds; the latter often leads to pain, the further marginalization of communities, and the unnecessary divisions of our movements.

And ultimately, this is why we need a conscious radicalism that goes beyond inclusivity and actually makes room for the most oppressed among us to heal and transform our pain and anger into productive energy that can help grow the movements and organizations we need in order to overthrow this bullshit system. Why issues of identity, of cultural appropriation, and of privilege matter within our left-spaces, because failure to take a nuanced and conscious approach will, without a doubt, lead to the alienation of the people who we most need in and leading our movements. The reality is that many people of color are currently radicalizing around these very issues and then coming to revolutionary and Marxist conclusions through an organic process, however, many of them quickly become disillusion and turned off (and rightfully so) at leftist/socialist/Marxist people and movements when they fail to take these concerns seriously. This is a big problem and one which we must take swift and serious action to correct, for The Left cannot afford to (and shouldn’t as a matter of moral and political principle) regard these issues of culture and identity as peripheral, petty, or divisive when these are issues which have real life consequences for those of us who are affected by them.

So there you go: if you didn’t know, now you know — the difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, that is. So next time someone tries to play off cultural appropriation as something harmless, or argue that our anger at these offenses is petty or divisive you can explain to them why they’re wrong and what’s at stake.

Feliz Halloween and Happy Dia de Los Muertos, homiez! ¡Y Adelante, que la lucha sigue!

* The “x” in Latinxs, Mexicanx, and Xicanxs indicates the plural form for all genders, not just the binary male/female.

Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based Xicana activist and writer. She is currently an editor at Red Wedge and is a contributing writer for Socialist Worker, In These Times, and Warscapes,where she writes about race, feminism, education, and the intersection of politics and culture. Find her blog at LaMarxista.com.