Día de los Muertos altar lit by candles

Altar decorated for Día de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico. Ute, via Flickr

Last week when my two young nieces were in town, we went to a local theater to watch Jorge R. Gutierrez’s The Book of Life, an animated children’s film that is part heavy-handed love story, part love letter to Día de de los Muertos, the holiday on which those who have died are celebrated, a ritual that goes back 3,000 years. On NPR, journalist Karen Castillo Farfán wrote that the practice was developed by the Aztecs, who believed one should not grieve the loss of a beloved ancestor who passed. Instead, “the Aztecs celebrated their lives and welcomed the return of their spirits to the land of the living once a year.”

The Book of Life is one big visual representation of everything we have come to associate with the holiday: “dark” Mexican folk art, sugar skulls, papel picado in every color, and altars adorned with seven-day candles, orange marigolds, and pan dulce. The movie is bright and visually stunning, despite being about death—and the same could be said about Día de los Muertos.

A child in the movie who is unfamiliar with the holiday asks, “What’s with Mexicans and death?” As soon as the line was said, I looked over at my nieces, who I instinctively knew would be looking back at me. They were, and they had their hands over their mouths, stifling giggles.

Watching my nieces watch the movie was more interesting to me than the story line itself. My Mexican brother is out of the picture, and my nieces are being raised by their white mother and white stepfather in a white suburb in Utah. They are little brown girls who are painfully aware they are little brown girls in a sea of white faces. When they visit Los Angeles, they are hungry for ties to our culture, no matter how seemingly surface-level. Each time they are here, they want to go to Placita Olvera, the birthplace of Los Angeles. They want my dad to speak to them in Spanish. They eat menudo with my father, watching him out of the corners of their eyes; they roll up the tortilla in their hands just like he does, dipping it in the soup’s red broth.

During the movie, I watched their eyes flash with recognition every time they understood a word in Spanish or recognized the significance of a visual element. Afterwards, my nieces sat across from me at a restaurant, chatting about the movie. The oldest, who is eleven years old, said, “What is it with Mexicans and death, though?”

Growing up, the only thing I remember my dad telling me about Día de los Muertos was that Mexicans are passionate people who love in big ways, and the tradition of celebrating our dead was an extension of that. As a child, my family did not partake in any festivities.

The hunger my nieces have for Mexican culture is something I understand deeply. As a biracial Latina, I know what it feels like to have a tenuous grasp on your culture—and there are few things holier to me than culture. It encompasses family, traditions, and food, all the things that make me feel whole and human. Since the death of my mother four years ago, Día de los Muertos has become monumentally important to me and something I consider sacred, but every year there are more and more reminders that it is a tradition that belongs to Mexicans less and less.

Recently, much has been written about the appropriation and colonization of the tradition, which is increasingly treated as an extension of Halloween. There was that one time Disney tried to trademark Día de los Muertos. Each year, there are more stories of corporations promoting the co-opting and whitewashing of a sacred Mexican holiday. This year it was discovered that beauty retailer Sephora was encouraging employees to show off their “Halloween faces” using a step-by-step makeup guide for a Día de los Muertos-inspired look. This year we also saw an online petition created to stop the “Fiesta De Los Muertos Scare Zone” at Knott’s Scary Farm.

This year I saw Día de los Muertos displays for Cheetos. In Halloween stores, I saw “sexy” Día de los Muertos costumes for women, featuring a calavera mask, a sombrero, and a short dress embroidered with colorful flowers. On Halloween this year, I saw white children trick-or-treating in jeans and hoodies, their faces painted like sugar skulls. That was the entirety of their costume. Last year I walked into a local bar where white women had their faces painted similarly as they tried to talk customers into trying the pumpkin beer. I walked out.

There are many levels to the appropriation of the holiday, though generally speaking I’m most dismayed by the way white Americans pick and choose the pieces of us they want. Mass deportations in which Mexicans are the most often deported don’t seem to get a rise out of the same people painting their faces like calaveras for Halloween. When there is a mixed-status immigrant family about to be torn apart, I don’t see Disney, the supposed bastion of family values, advocating for family reunification. In my hometown of Los Angeles, white Angelenos love taco trucks, but don’t care when undocumented loncheras are targeted and criminalized for making a living. Of course, all of this is just to say that Día de los Muertos is just another instance in which white Americans want to claim the pieces of Mexican culture that appeal to them, while violently erasing its origins.

I have spent the past few days thinking of my mom. On the altar I made for her, there are flowers and candles; there are the many rings she wore and the small pumpkins she and I always bought together at this time of year. Yesterday at a panadería, I watched my aging father lovingly pick out all of my mom’s favorite pan dulce. He came home and thoughtfully arranged it on a plate, placing it on her altar and lighting a candle. Over the past couple of days, my father and I have eaten pan de muerto together, swapping funny stories about my mom. We have visited her grave, leaving bouquets of marigolds. Today, on the last day of Día de los Muertos, we will make mole together. Her favorite.

I don’t suspect I will ever stop mourning the death of my mother, but Día de los Muertos provides a rare opportunity to celebrate her in a way I’m not usually capable of. This is not a sad time of year for me. I spend these three days reflecting on how lucky I was to get such an unconventional parent who was deeply invested in my happiness. I spend these days thinking about how grateful I am that I was given twenty-five years with my mom.

I suspect this is the case for many of the Mexicans who celebrate Día de los Muertos in the US. In this celebration of those who have passed, we can reflect and honor our dead. We can feel more attuned to the ways in which they continue to make their presence known in our lives.

Everyone has traditions. Día de los Muertos just happens to be ours, and it is sacred. Please respect that.

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