Cultural Appropriation of Day of the Dead?

©1.IMG_0542You may know that I am US American born, and that I live in México. The latter is a huge country overflowing with diversity, art, and tradition. México is the world’s 13th largest economy, home of a growing middle class. Here in Mazatlán where I live, “Day of the Dead” is a big deal. Many families and businesses decorate altars and visit cemeteries to honor, remember, and often party with the dead. We have a huge street walk with marching bands and flowing beer, and a beautiful event involving dance, music, and poetry in our historic theater. Many locals and immigrants paint their faces and dress up.

However, not many of us here realize that there has been quite a backlash outside of Mexico to the cultural appropriation and commercialization of Day of the Dead by non-Latinos.

I first realized how “hot” Day of the Dead was on my recent visit to a US liquor store. There, I was astounded by the quantity of Day of the Dead- or calaca-themed beer and liquor! To be honest, skeletons and skulls in and of themselves seem to be popular, and anything Mexican (amigoslucha libre….), Spanish (Don Quixote), or mystical (voodoo) as well. The commercialization is, indeed, real. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Living here in Mexico, where we are privileged to be steeped in the traditions as well as the festivities, I hadn’t realized the concerns about appropriation of Day of the Dead until I read a post by one of the bloggers I follow, Aya de Leon, entitled, “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us — Stop Colonizing The Day Of The Dead.”

In reading her excellent article and researching the matter a bit more, it seems that most Latinos are proud of this holiday. They understand that recognizing the dearly departed is a universal desire. Most are happy to share and ready to welcome us into the Día de los Muertos traditions, which have existed since Aztec times. But they most definitely and understandably resent our taking on the traditions as our own and transforming them into something they’re not — emptying the traditions of their soul. She writes:

And the urge to colonization is born when your own land and resources have been taken over by the greedy and your cultures have been bankrupted. Halloween has a rich history as an  indigenous European holiday that celebrated many of the same themes as Day of the Dead, but you have let it be taken over by Wal-Mart… You have abandoned Halloween, left it laying in the street like a trampled fright wig from the dollar store.

Take back your holiday. Take back your own indigenous culture. Fight to reclaim your own spirituality.

Please. Stop colonizing ours.

Aya gives examples of Day of the Dead festivals organized by non-Latinos in which Latino voices and faces are not even present! She talks of a sort of Cinco-de-Mayo-ization (my words) of Day of the Dead, in which white hipsters wear calaca face paint, stand amongst broken marigolds listening to white bands, and drink gentrified, holiday-themed micro-brews, without so much as a thought to what the true tradition is or means. She explains, and rightly complains, that we love Mexican culture when it’s convenient and fun, but not when it involves advocating to solve undocumented immigration, illegal gun exports, or rampant femicide.

So where, exactly, is the line between participating in and honoring Day of the Dead and appropriating or colonizing it?

Cultural appropriation is often used as an accusation, implying theft. But cultures, their traditions and artifacts, often aren’t clearly distinguishable. Throughout history people have intermingled, shared, and been inspired by one another.  As an interculturalist, I’m all about diversity, integration, collaboration, creativity. There is nothing inherently wrong in us learning from and building on one another; that is actually, rather, a really good thing!

The problem, Aya tells us, is many who are welcomed to the Day of the Dead table are poor guests. We don’t sit at the table; we take the table over. We don’t pay our respects, acknowledge our hosts, or say thank you. We need to be conscious that if we organize themed events, we should use them as opportunities to showcase Latino artists and musicians, and we should hold the tradition with reverence, respect, and a desire to learn and honor.

In an insightful piece in Quartz, Noah Berlatsky tells us that the problem with cultural appropriation is racism:

“There’s nothing wrong with Elvis loving and imitating Jackie Wilson. But there is something wrong with the fact that Elvis is hailed as the King of Rock n’ Roll, while most people barely know who Jackie Wilson is…

White performers, like Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus, use twerking in their videos on the way to becoming more successful and awarded than the black women who developed the style in the first place. When the white borrower, predictably, earns more accolades than the borrowee, artistic freedom and admiration is transformed into something much more problematic…

While country music loves black music, it mostly excludes black artists, in the sense that those artists are not considered central, and their contributions aren’t recognized.”

Therefore, all of us need to be vigilant to extend power and privilege, credit and honor, to the origins and originators, not just to those who adapt. However, our modern-day systems are skewed against us. Those who write a book are credited with ideas expressed by others; individuals and corporations can copyright and trademark something that has a long tradition and belongs to a group of people.

Did you know that Disney even attempted to trademark Day of the Dead? They were making a movie called Day of the Dead, and wanted to trademark the title. Thanks to huge response to a petition on, Disney rather quickly pulled its application. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, here’s what some of those opposing Disney’s trademark application had to say:

“Our spiritual traditions are for everyone, not for companies like Walt Disney to trademark and exploit,” wrote Grace Sesma, the petition’s creator. “I am deeply offended and dismayed that a family-oriented company like Walt Disney would seek to own the rights to something that is the rightful heritage of the people of Mexico. This is a sacred tradition. It’s NOT FOR SALE,” wrote Consuelo Alba, of Watsonville, Calif.

The trademark application was “odd” to Evonne Gallardo, executive director of the Boyle Heights art center Self Help Graphics. The center puts on one of the largest Day of the Dead celebrations in Los Angeles and has been sponsored by the Walt Disney Co. “The right thing to do is not to attempt to trademark a cultural and spiritual celebration,” Gallardo said. “I have yet to see a trademark on Christmas or Hanukkah.”

The movie was re-titled to “Coco,” no doubt so that Disney could trademark the title and create a website. One of the most spirited activists to oppose the trademark application was cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, creator of that incredibly powerful graphic above. In a great act of corporate listening and learning, he was recently hired on by Disney to work on the film about which he protested! Our speaking up to defend our heritage can have positive results! The movie is being made, showcasing a beautiful tradition, and it now includes more representation from the very culture it portrays.

Today as I started to write this post, I read an interesting article in The Atlantic: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation.” In it, Jenni Avins provides six recommendations to prevent appropriation, including involvement of and engagement with members of the culture. She points out that cultures are fluid and constantly changing, so we can’t ask that they stay frozen in time. On the other hand, foreign passion has often helped preserve native traditions, arts, handicrafts, music, dance, literature and even languages. Like Aya, she highlights the importance of acknowledging and honoring the source, the origin, of cultural arts and traditions. Jenni also provides two “don’ts”: never wear blackface, and never use sacred artifacts as accessories.

If you celebrate Day of the Dead, please, participate in and enjoy the festivities, and use the opportunity to truly remember those who have preceded us in death. Day of the Dead provides a perfect time for us to learn from our Mexican and Latino neighbors and friends, and to share with them a human universal: remembrance and longing for those we’ve loved and lost.

I would heartily welcome your sharing with us stories of when you felt torn between wanting to participate in or honor a culture, and fearing that you were appropriating. For me, I quickly remember two different occasions when esteemed colleagues gifted me beautiful and expensive native dress, and requested that I wear it during training. I just couldn’t. I felt comfortable to wear their gifts for a social occasion, but for an intercultural training, where I was in a power position, and not a member of or fluent in the culture the dress represented, it just didn’t feel right. Yet I know I disappointed my colleagues. I do wear blouses made from kimono fabric, or blouses or skirts from other cultures. There’s just something about a complete outfit and hairstyle combination that makes me feel like I’m trying to be something I’m not.

How about you? Do share!

14 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation of Day of the Dead?

  1. Thanks for this very insightful article, it really made me think:
    I’m a German expat/interculturalist living in Colombia, currently an Italian exchange student is staying with us. Now, he is slightly antagonizing his peers and others in his environment by constantly declaring many things originally from Italy are not “the real thing”, badly made or not true to their origins. Just a few examples: Mortadela and Mozzarella are definitely something quite different in Colombia and in Italy, flavour, presentation, production process are all different. However, they have become a very common part of everyday life in Colombia – everyone eats them, and a few non-representative experiments of mine with Italian Mozarella show that they don’t even like “the real thing!” (As happens for example with supposedly German Beer and Bread, which elicits the same reaction from Germans in Colombia – and maybe the US as well?)
    Now, just judging by the simple negative reaction of his environment, I would say he’s not acting in a culturally adequate way, he’s antagonizing his environment without taking into account the point of view of people living here.
    And there are probably close to 45 Million Colombians (with a few exceptions, as always) who would swear that what they eat is the only decent “Mozarella/Mortadella”, even on being presented with the Italian version. Now, it seems to me that what he laments is what you call cultural colonization in your article, probably a few decades after the initial appropiation.
    Whose behaving wrongly, whose to blame for these misunderstandings then? Would you share his criticism of the “colonization” of Italian food, which is a fact and established practice by the majority of an entire country?


    • This is a terrific example of the stages of developing intercultural competence, Heiko Marc. It is not that the exchange student has the “wrong” answer, but that his level of comprehension/intercultural competence doesn’t yet allow him to see these products from the perspective of the Colombianos. Your explanation is a great one, and I’d love to be present when you get out a Cultural Detective Worksheet and attempt to explain to him the Colombian tastes, how they feel about “real Italian” mozzarella, etc. 😉 What a terrific learning opportunity for him, and also for you to explain.

      Re: appropriation, this is also interesting. This summer I learned about Chinese nationals of Indian ancestry in Wisconsin who travel 4 hours to Chicago to eat “Chinese-style Indian food,” like they were accustomed to at home, rather than “US-style Indian food,” which is what they told me they get in Wisconsin. They did not even bother to mention “Indian-style Indian food,” which is of course completely regional as well.

      Thank you for sharing this story!


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  3. Have you ever actual Mexicans (people born in Mexico) in Mexico mention anything about cultural appropriation? It seems to me that most of the people arguing about cultural appropriation are Americans who claim to be Mexicans simply because their last name is Rodriguez or Garcia. They have given themselves the right to argue on behalf of Mexico when no Mexican has ever given them any rights to do such a thing. Chicanos are not Mexicans!!



    • Thanks for reading and for sharing your opinion! Saul, I will agree that I hear a lot more about cultural appropriation from expatriated Mexicans than I do here in MZT. However, I strongly feel that everyone has a right to self-identify whether they are Mexican or not, or any other identity, as long as community benefits are not involved (e.g., tribal stipends, passports), as those are legal matters. Historically the pejorative way that nationals have viewed Mexican-Americans has not served anyone. Now that so many are returning from NOB, they have so many talents to share, and this gorgeous country often fails to use them.


      • I still feel there is no problem. We Mexicans don’t care if an Irish, Colombian, Peruvian or American adopts elements of Mexican culture, in fact I’m proud that Mexican culture is being admired and celebrated in countries far from here as Australia or Romania.


      • That’s wonderful, Saul. Very open of you. In any culture, and in any nation, there are of course a broad variety of opinions on any matter, rarely a clear right or wrong. I do agree that Mexican culture in general is far more open to/welcoming of “adoption” or “modification” of its traditions than are some other places. Which is beautiful. And, when it becomes all about money or fame without credit to the origins, such behavior can be troublesome. Our awareness of what we do and why we do it can help, no? Thanks for joining us here!


    • I’m not a Chicana, that term disturbs me. I was born in California, to immigrant parents from Mexico. I’m Mexican-American.

      I appreciate this article because it speaks for my parents. My parents lived a life of discrimination and inequality, like many immigrants. Perhaps, those who witnessed these acts as a child are bringing an awareness. I appreciate cultural appreciation and respect, globally.

      Liked by 1 person

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