Natalie Pesqueira

Social Media Manager 

The cultural appropriation of Día de Los Muertos needs to stop. As November approaches, every year non-Latiné individuals attempt to co-opt important parts of this beautiful cultural celebration like the use of Calaveras (sugar skulls) and cempasúchil (marigolds) without knowing the true meaning behind the important holiday. People cover their faces in makeup to look like sugar skulls or wipe the shelves of grocery stores clean of marigolds, the flower at the heart of this important holiday. These practices are a crucial part of the holiday, and non-Latino individuals need to stop appropriating the culture without truly understanding what makes these items so special to our culture. 

Día de Los Muertos is a Latino holiday celebrated on November 1st and 2nd that reunites the living with their loved ones who have passed on. The holiday stems from pre-Columbian Aztec traditions and a mixture of Catholicism. After the Spaniards colonized the Mexican indigenous people, they blended the Aztec festival of the goddess Mictecacihuatl with elements of Catholicism. Mictecacihuatl is the Aztec goddess of death. While most people equate Día de Los Muertos with death, it is actually a grand celebration of life. Día de Los Muertos is not the so-called Mexican version of Halloween, although the two are celebrated close together on the calendar. Día de Los Muertos is celebrated through parades and dances. Those of Mexican descent will dress up in traditional clothing, which consists of brightly colored embroidered shirts, dresses, and pants and have grand celebrations for the dead where they will paint their faces like skulls to mimic the Calaveras, reunite with families, and take time to provide offerings for their past loved ones. Its purpose is to celebrate and honor those who are no longer in the living world with us. 

Día de Los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico annually and is also celebrated by those of Mexican descent in other countries such as the United States. An important part of celebrating the dead is through making an ofrenda or an altar that honors their deceased loved ones. Families will place pictures of the deceased on the ofrenda, as well as Calaveras (sugar skulls), cempasúchiles (marigolds), and personal items of the deceased to help them find their way back home. As well as food, water, and many other items. The vibrant golden-yellow color and the smell of the marigolds are meant to help guide the spirits back home. The marigold is also called the flor de Muerto or flower of the dead. Ofrendas are colorful and vibrant, and marigolds are an essential piece of an ofrendas foundation. 

According to ancient tradition, the passageway between the spirit world and the real world is open, which allows the spirits of deceased loved ones to return to their families to visit them. When families build their ofrendas, it is carefully put together for their deceased loved ones. It is, again, a way to remember them so they can visit the living world. Now, there are four main elements to the ofrenda; water, fire, earth, and air. Water is served in a pitcher and is left on the ofrenda for the deceased to drink after their journey to the living world. Fire is represented by the candles lit on the ofrenda to light the spirits’ way home. The wind is represented by papel picado, which are multicolored paper cutouts attached to a string. They are colorful and vibrant and are meant to guide the spirits home. Lastly, the earth element is represented by pan de Muerto, the bread of the dead. This bread is made specifically for the dead as it represents the main state of human life. 

In addition to these four elements, there are many offerings placed on the ofrendas. Offerings include food like fruit or rice, incense, as well as Calaveras. Calaveras are skulls made out of sugar, and they are decorated with colorful patterns and designs. Sometimes these skulls include the written name of the loved one who families are calling back to the living world. An ofrenda is not complete without pictures of their deceased loved ones, or strings of cempasúchiles.

Although many of the items stated are a significant part of an ofrenda, the marigolds are what bring the ofrenda together. Without them, an ofrenda is incomplete and it will be difficult for the deceased to find their way back home. When families go to build their ofrendas around this time of the year, there is a need for marigolds to be available and in supply, for them to offer to their loved ones. At this time of the year, marigolds are being sold everywhere. Local grocery stores and families who sell flowers on the street are carrying more of them than usual. They are not just beautiful flowers, but they are rich in history. If you are non-Latiné who is choosing to buy marigolds right before Día de Los Muertos it is quite frankly, offensive and yes, this is indeed a form of cultural appropriation. It isn’t right to take something from a person’s culture just because you like some parts of it. Painting your face like a sugar skull because the design is cool isn’t right. It’s an appropriation of culture and it is not a costume that you can put on and off at the end of the day. It is a way of life and its history matters far too much to be treated like fun home decor and just some face paint. 

This is the time that Latino families are building their ofrendas. They are preparing for their loved ones to visit them, and to take those flowers from them is just wrong and inconsiderate. The history of these flowers dates back to pre-Columbian times, and they are still a critical part of the celebration of Día de Los Muertos. There are many other beautiful flowers to decorate your home, so please get out of your egocentric ways and do not take away the one flower that is part of our culture. Don’t buy marigolds unless you know why they are so important at this time of year and unless they are being used to celebrate Día de Los Muertos. From us who are Latino, stop buying marigolds and stop painting your face like sugar skulls! Do your part and respect the cultures that embody these practices and use these items. El Día de los Muertos no es disfraz, es la vida.

Image courtesy of Suzanne Kreiter // Boston Globe

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In collaboration by Quaker Campus staff members.
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