Celebrating Día de los Muertos

Unwrapping the cultural significance of the Mexican holiday

Autumn signifies different things for different people. For some, the coming of fall and the changing of leaves represents growth and progress. For others, the season symbolizes comfort and warmth. For many people from the Chicanx/Latinx community, autumn is a time of remembrance. Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday celebrated on the first and second of November, entails the act of honoring the dead through various traditions and rituals. For the Mexican people, Día de los Muertos signifies the celebration of love and light for those who have passed away.

Día de los Muertos originated with the Aztec and the Toltec people thousands of years ago, but today it is celebrated by Hispanic people all over the world. The holiday is characterized by lively cultural traditions.

“Día de los Muertos […] is a celebration of the dead, primarily in Mexico, but other Latin American countries and even the United States have incorporated this into their culture,” said Julietta Zubia, third-year Spanish major and current historian for the campus organization, Chicanx-Latinx in Health Education. “There are lots of things that happen [during the holiday], like festivals and parades. Ultimately, it is a celebration of the people in your life that have passed away, so you go to the cemetery and you give ofrendas, which means offerings — things like food and toys and candy.”

The holiday is also celebrated by members of the Chicanx Latinx community here in Davis. In an effort to bring this essential aspect of Chicanx Latinx culture to the Davis community, the Center for Chicanx Latinx Academic Student Success (CCLASS) took measures to ensure that students have accessible means to celebrate the holiday.

“I know that here at the Chi-Lat center we have an alter set up so that students can come and bring the pictures of their loved ones,” said Sheccid Torres, a second-year biological sciences major, member of Chicanx-Latinx in Health Education and student assistant for CCLASS. “We already have it set up with the flowers and the candles, so students just bring in their pictures. It’s a good way to keep that tradition going, even here when you’re in school.”

Día de los Muertos, because of its close time proximity to Halloween, has often been lumped together with the more commercial holiday — some even go so far as to label the sacred Mexican holiday as a “Mexican version of Halloween,” completely disregarding the cultural significance and important implications that it holds for the Chicanx Latinx community. In recent years, it has become common to see the Catrina (skull) face makeup, which is commonly associated with Día de los Muertos, being used as a Halloween costume. This has raised a broader question surrounding cultural appropriation and how certain behaviors like this perpetuate a culture of intolerance.

“When people not of color do [the Catrina makeup], and they do it for Halloween, it’s cultural appropriation because they’re not taking into consideration the cultural background of it,” Zubia said. “It has become commercialized, and people are forgetting the real meaning of it.”

Torres believes that ignorance stands at the root of the problem and is to blame for the propagation of cultural appropriation that is so prominent in today’s society.

“I think that it stems from, for lack of a better word, ignorance,” Torres said. “It is important to spread awareness on what [the holiday] is and what it means to the population. I think it’s important for other people who aren’t in the [Chicanx Latinx] community to respect that.”

Anabelle Garza, UC Davis alumna and former member of Hermanas Unidas de UC Davis, believes that other cultures’ adaptations of Mexican traditions show growth within the Chicanx Latinx community. But according to Garza, this only holds true if both sides have a mutual understanding of the traditions being shared.

“Despite that we continue to be a minority, I think we have thrived in keeping our

cultural traditions alive,” Garza said. “I think when Americans do things such as put on the face

makeup, it should be a symbol of our growth as a Chicanx Latinx community — it shows

how far the Chicanx Latinx community has come with its traditional influences. People are adopting the culture’s elements because it’s different and it’s easy to popularize. But, if a tradition is going to be shared interculturally, it should be mutually understood.”

Torres feels that society can move forward to combat cultural appropriation by being mindful of the communities that will be directly impacted by the appropriation and by educating oneself on different cultures and how to respect them.

“We are in an institution where we have so much knowledge at our hands — being at Davis, there are so many classes that do shed light on different cultures,” Torres said. “It’s really important to take the time to become familiar with these, because the world isn’t just one single person. There are so many cultures out there, and I think it’s important to have at least somewhat of a background knowledge on where each person comes from.”

 

Written by: Emily Nguyen — features@theaggie.org