It's Not Mexican Halloween

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday that lasts three days starting on Oct. 31. These three days coincide with the Christian tradition of Allhallowtide: All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day. It is celebrated in Mexico and by people of Mexican ancestry in the United States. Because the holiday begins on Halloween, many people who don’t know any better call the holiday “Mexican Halloween.” However, as implied by its name, the holiday is meant to respect family and friends who have departed. While Halloween has become a holiday associated with horror and scary, spooky skeletons, Día de los Muertos isn’t meant to be a scary holiday; according to USA Today, it’s intentions are to “[laugh] in the face of death." It is an opportunity for the dead to be visible again and be celebrated rather than mourned. The Day of the Dead is the time when deceased loved ones come back to the “world of the living for a visit.”

There are many traditions associated with Día de los Muertos. Altars are set up with flowers, candles, photos of loved ones, their favorite foods, and a sweet bread called pan de los muertos that is prepared specially for the holiday. In Mexico City, a huge parade is held featuring dancing skeletons and floating skulls. La Catrina is a very elegant female skeleton and she is a symbol of death associated with Día de los Muertos. She is often embodied as part of the celebrations. People clean the graves of their loved ones and place offerings for the deceased to enjoy. People often stay overnight at the graves to hold vigil.

                                                                                                              Courtesy of Cheyenne Tang

This Día de los Muertos, Harvard University hosted a festival featuring a few stalls selling Mexican art and Mexican food. This was my first encounter with the holiday. I’d heard of the Day of the Dead before, but I never knew what the holiday actually celebrated, or what it meant. It was eye opening to see that death could be treated as such a joyous thing. Being surrounded by such a vibrant atmosphere while thinking about death shifted my perspective in terms of how I had previously battled with grief. This holiday came with such celebration and pride. In the midst of the festivities, a singer and her mariachi band came to perform. There was so much passion, not only in their performance, but also in the audience members watching. People were dancing and singing along to the music, truly feeling the emotion of the lyrics that were being sung. I was overwhelmed by how much emotion and symbolism was attached to this holiday.

                                                                                                           Courtesy of Cheyenne Tang

Another thing that came to my attention while attending this event was how often Día de los Muertos is appropriated by individuals who are ignorant to the history and culture behind it. A large part of the holiday is the costumes and face paint that people put on to respect the loved ones that they’ve lost. Since the holiday is so close to Halloween, some people dress up for the holiday as their Halloween costume, but as Gabriela Herstik of Hello Giggles suggests, “painting your face like a sugar skull if you’re not Mexican or Latinx is inappropriate.” In this case, people who paint skulls on their faces who are not celebrating Día de los Muertos are taking a piece of Mexican culture and turning it into a costume for their own entertainment. Similarly, people who dress up as Pocahontas are taking an entire race of people and turning them into a costume. Before this event, I never really thought much of the implications of certain Halloween costumes, but now I understand that there’s so much more that needs to be considered when choosing what costume to wear. Dia de los Muertos is not “Mexican Halloween;” it is a holiday of joy and celebration, and it should be respected by everyone.

                                                                                                                Courtesy of Cheyenne Tang