Why I love Dia de los Muertos and Some Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation
I love Dia de los Muertos,
even more than I love Halloween. Halloween is spooky and silly and all about a new perspective on the familiar. There’s a special place in my heart for haunted houses, babies dressed as pumpkins, ghosts and goblins, and to the disgust of some, I even love candy corn.
But Dia de los Muertos heals me. Growing up in South Texas, across the dirt road from a cemetery, I was vaguely aware of the holiday. There were sugar skulls and pan de muerto at the local bakery, marigold petals seemingly everywhere, and vigils, music and candles carried on late into the night. And truthfully, I never thought much about it.
Even though I lost five family members over a short amount of time, it wasn’t just death that brought me closer to the meaning of Dia de los Muertos. The void was painful. But my family’s misery was more painful, watching those who were left disintegrate within their grief, unable to move past the death and loss.
We had no language for anything but sadness. There was nothing to help us move beyond being stuck in pain.
Then a friend invited me to his neighbor’s Dia de los Muertos celebration. The husband died a few years before and the whole neighborhood gathered to celebrate his life. I didn’t know him, but I felt like I did – people shared stories and laughed while the candles flickered. Instead of crying, we ate tacos, drank Coke in the bottle, and danced to his favorite songs. The alter in the living room was gorgeous and colorful and lively. I didn’t know him but his spirit and his life still touched me. Suddenly, I could see death as a part of life, and my heart began to warm.
From then on, whenever we crossed the Texas-Mexico border to shop – we used to do that easily, back in the day – I’d be on the lookout for my next little figurine, a colorful little play on death and life. Only a few of those bits of art have survived the many moves of my adult years. I bought a new one a few years ago when my little dachshund died – a dog skeleton wearing a glittery hat. Gus would definitely approve.
I honor and celebrate the day in my own way because it lets me claim what I love about those I lost –honoring their lives and their impact on me. I miss them still, but I keep them alive by sharing their stories, putting up their pictures, seeing them in me. Dia de los Muertos has taught me to see community in death. It has also given me a sense of humor about it – which is certainly something that my uncle, Papa Roy, would endorse. It is not something I learned from my family, but it is something I hope to teach my daughter.
Living in a multicultural society means we can learn from each other’s traditions, perspectives, and values. It also means we must honor those traditions that are not our own. The ‘how’ can feel sticky, especially as those traditions evolve and change. I believe it’s important to know what we are in danger of appropriating, to make the effort necessary to give context and respect. We can be inspired, changed and enriched by others – we should be – but it’s also our responsibility to do so without erasing the histories leading to this moment.
Dia de los Muertos may be new to you. If it is, by all means – buy the sugar skulls and the skeleton auto mechanic figurine that somehow looks a little like your Uncle Mike. Then take a minute to learn more about the holiday and its origins. I promise you – it will only make your experience richer.
Here’s some great places to start (or refresh!): http://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/elviadiaz/2017/10/31/day-of-the-dead-dia-de-los-muertos-lesson-grandmother/815742001/