How to Celebrate Day of the Dead in the USA

Cultural Appropriation and How to Avoid It

“The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” -Cambridge Dictionary

We have been hearing a lot of talk about cultural appropriation lately. What does that mean and how can you recognize the signs when you or someone you know is being culturally insensitive or inappropriate?

Every culture is rich with its own traditions and ethnic customs. From food to music, from religious symbols to fashion, everywhere around the world we see diversity and uniqueness developed through hundreds of years of civilizations. It can be easy to want to get inspired by some of these colorful traditions and apply them to our own lives. Some of Mexico’s unique indigenous designs have been appropriated by international fashion designers. This has been happening for many years, but they are just now being called out for it. The beautiful art and designs were being used without permission or credit to the original creators.

We like to think that most people have good intentions and don’t necessarily want to deliberately offend another culture. But even with the best intentions in mind, it is easy to be inappropriate without even being aware. Crossing lines when it comes to cultural appropriation in our day and age can be an easy thing to do.

Marigold Parade - Albuquerque.  Image by Larry Lamsa. Women dancing in Mexican Dress and face painted to look like a skull

Knowledge is Key

One of our favorite quotes from Maya Angelou is “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

This means that sometimes we are simply unaware and need to learn. Once we have the information that is needed to understand, we can analyze our actions and make the necessary changes to do better and make sure that we are being respectful to the culture and the tradition.

All this being said, we all know the richness of Mexican culture and its various traditions. Some celebrations like Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead have become common festivities in the US with diverse annual activities throughout various states. When taking part in or organizing such events in the US, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

Is it Okay for Non-Mexicans to Celebrate the Day of the Dead?

Día de los Muertos is a spiritual time for Mexicans. It’s a time where they get together as families to remember and celebrate their lost loved ones. It’s a time to commemorate their lives and there are many elements, activities, and traditions involved with this event.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to celebrate The Day of the Dead in the US. Most Mexicans enjoy the fact that you are interested in their culture and want to get to know their traditions. If you choose to celebrate Day of the Dead, make sure you understand the event and its traditional practices before partaking in the festivities.

Let’s take a look at a few of these traditional customs, what they mean, and how you can celebrate with knowledge and respect.

A couple celebrating Day of the Dead in the US with skull painted faces. Image by Larry Lamsa

The Ofrendas

During the Day of the Dead, Mexican families set up altars in their houses and decorate them with photos, candles, and various objects of their deceased loved ones. Family members come and connect in a spiritual way with their departed family members and offer them gifts. The Marigold flower (Cempazuchitl) is a popular flower that families place on the altars and on the gravesites at this time. Also, food items are placed as ofrendas for the deceased to come back for one night to eat their favorite foods again.

You too can set up an altar in your home and celebrate your lost family members. Just remember, this is not a time to mourn. It is a time to celebrate the life of your departed loved one in a positive and spiritual way. Did grandpa enjoy chocolate chip cookies when he was alive? Place his favorite cookies on the altar along with other objects that remind you of his life and be grateful and thankful for his contribution to your life.

​​A colorful ofrenda make up of sugar skulls, pan de muerto, candles, and marigold flowers

The Makeup and Dress

The famous skull makeup (calavera) is a very important visual symbol during Día de los Muertos festivities. These are not macabre and are not intended to be scary. On the contrary, the skulls are applied to the face using very colorful paint and are meant to represent our mortality in a united way. “We all end up dead, no matter our social status” is the message behind the calavera.

You can paint your face during Day of the dead festivities if you wish, but remember, this isn’t a Halloween mask and care should be taken to create the authentic calavera look. Do some research and take a look at some photographs online for some inspirations.

The most famous one we see at this time is La Calavera Catrina. La Catrina also wears a fancy dress and a hat with feathers which you can also incorporate into your look. For the gentlemen style, don your best dandy looking suit.

The Food and Drink

Everyone knows that Mexico loves to eat and drink very well. Mexican cuisine is shaped by hundreds of years of history combined with some more recent fusions. It is unique and it is delicious!

If you want to celebrate Day of the Dead, you may want to add a few of the traditional food and drink items to your festivities. If you can find a Mexican market in your city, then this would obviously be the best choice to find the Day of the Dead bread and sugar skulls. If you don’t have a local Mexican market, then try to cook Mexican food as best you can. Remember though that those hard-shell tacos sold in boxes at your local supermarket are not really Mexican.

Mexico is a major producer (and drinker) of tequila, but there are other drinks like pulque and mezcal that are popular choices during Día de los Muertos.

Look online for some traditional recipes and try to keep it real with authentic Mexican cuisine!

​​Tortilla Soup, known as Sopa Azteca, displayed on a wood table with chips and lime

Are Day of the Dead Style Halloween Costumes Regarded as Offensive, Inappropriate and/or Appropriative by Mexicans?

Depending on the way the costumes are made and worn, they aren’t necessarily considered offensive or inappropriate. The Day of the Dead is not related to Halloween and the contexts to wear such makeup and costumes are different.

If you choose to wear the Day of the Dead style costume for Halloween, just remember to be informed and culturally respectful to the tradition. Know why you are wearing the costume and remember that is is not meant to be ghoulish.

Do Not Confuse Halloween with the Day of the Dead

There may be some confusion around the two events because of the time of year that they are celebrated, but nothing else links these traditions.

Day of the Dead is celebrated November 1st and 2nd and has nothing to do with scary costumes and scary decorations around your house.

Día de los Muertos is all about celebrating life and remembering the ones that have deceased. November 1st and 2nd are considered to be the days where life on earth and life in the land of the dead are the closest. This is a time when the loved ones who have passed-on can come back to appreciate life’s pleasures like eating and drinking again.

In the USA there isn’t any traditional event that resembles the Day of the Dead custom. Americans tend to be sorrowful and mourn their deceased loved ones as if being anything else would be offensive to the memory of the departed. In Mexico, they celebrate the dead with music, food, and dancing. This isn’t to say that they aren’t sad or that they don’t miss their loved ones that are no longer with them. They do, but they choose to celebrate the memory of their life instead of reveling in the fact that they are no longer living. It may seem a little awkward at first leaving cookies and beer out for uncle John on a cold November evening. You may even feel that it is inappropriate to be joyous while thinking of him when all you have been taught is to wear black and to be sad when someone dies.

The way Mexicans see it is that the dead are in a land where once a year they get the opportunity to come back to visit us and celebrate with food, drink, music, and dancing. What a great expression of thankfulness for life and the memories that we create while in the land of the living.

If you choose to celebrate the Day of the Dead in the US, remember to become informed on the traditions and have the necessary knowledge of each practice to remain culturally sensitive to the event and to the people.

Viva Mexico!