Death is the great equalizer. Whether you’re rich or poor, famous or a recluse, young or old, death awaits you. While the West has its own traditions to acknowledge these truths, Mexicans have taken a much more direct approach. Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration of the dead and the reality that death is part of the human experience. Running between November 1st and 2nd each year, this traditionally Mexican festival can be found throughout Central and South America, and anywhere with a strong Latin influence.  

Like other ethnic celebrations and rituals, many components of the Day of the Dead have been co-opted in North America. Sugar skulls are bought and sold as tourist trinkets, its symbols have been used in pop culture, and sugar skull face painting has become a Halloween staple. Is borrowing the rituals and material culture of Dias de los Muertos / Day of the Dead cultural appropriation or cultural diffusion? How can we incorporate such an interesting ritual into our lives appropriately and with respect?

The History of Day of the Dead (Dias de los Muertos)

Cultural Appropriation Day of the Dead

Image via www.therealdealtours.com

 The dead may be insulted by the living mourning them, and so Dias de los Muertos is about celebration rather than sadness.  
Dating to at least 1800 BCE, Dias de los Muertos is a yearly celebration of life and death in Latin America. When Catholic missionaries and conquerors arrived in Latin America in the Common Era, they blended their traditions with those of the local Aztecs, who had their own festivals celebrating the dead. The Aztecs honored the spirits of the dead, specifically those of warriors and women who died in childbirth, by holding great feasts.

Today, largely influenced by Catholic traditions, the celebrations and customs vary between countries, and while Dias de los Muertos is mostly associated with Mexico, it should be noted that not everywhere in Mexico celebrates it. On November 1st and 2nd, the dead are given the chance to reconnect with the living. November 1st is often dedicated to the souls of children, while the 2nd is for the souls of adults. It is on these days that the dead are woken from their sleep and rejoin the living community. However, the dead may be insulted by the living mourning them, and so Dias de los Muertos is about celebration rather than sadness. 

Dias de los Muertos Rituals

cultural appropriation day of the dead

Calavera Oaxaqueña by José Guadalupe Posada

 Let’s get one of the biggest misconceptions about Dias de los Muertos out of the way: this is not a Mexican Halloween. 
There are several familiar and not so familiar rituals associated with the festival. As way of honoring the dead, family members will clean and decorate the graves of loved ones. On the afternoon of the 2nd, large processions will make their way to cemeteries where people will gather to eat, play cards, clean graves, speak of the dead and listen to music.

day of the dead dias de los muetros cultural appropriation

Altar image via http://deinterespublico.com/

Families will also maintain personal altars to the dead called ofrendas. These are adorned with flowers, candles, photographs and food. Often the food and drink will be what the dead most liked, with tequila being a  favorite offering. During the festival, the dead are able to smell and savour the food and drink they are not able to consume in death. Often the food will be distributed to family members after the celebrations are over. These altars are arguably the most important aspect of the holiday, as they are a direct and public celebration of the deceased individual. Most altars have three sections meant to symbolize heaven, purgatory and earth. Families will spend months worth of income on these altars and general festivities. But as payment, the dead will offer protection and good luck to the living.

Pan de muertos is a sweet bread that is baked specifically for the festival. In some areas of Mexico the bread is cooked and eaten for months in preparation for Dias de los Muertos. In most areas however, the bread is baked for November 2nd, and consumed at the gravesite of the deceased. 

Finally there are the famous calavera face paintings and sugar skulls. Face painting is often done to mock death and show courage. Sugar skulls are made with love in honor of the deceased, and often bear the name of the dead on their foreheads. Sugar skulls are usually eaten during Muertos as a symbolic means of consuming the negative emotions that come with death.

A caveat that the rituals described above vary between locations, cultures and communities. 

So, Is it Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural Appropriation Day of the Dead

 “We are a culture, not a costume.” 
With recent discussions in the media, and general public, cultural appropriation has become a polarizing topic. Sometimes these mainstream debates result in change, and other times they fall on deaf ears. Simply put, cultural appropriation is the act of borrowing from one culture by another culture. Often times this occurs when a majority culture borrows from a minority culture, and can be seen by that minority culture as offensive, oppressive and exploitative. Such appropriation could be understood as a threat by minority cultures, and an insult when sacred elements are redefined by majority cultures (see: Indigenous healing practices). While not all borrowing is inappropriate, there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural diffusion, none more true then when it comes to Dias de los Muertos.

Let’s get one of the biggest misconceptions about Dias de los Muertos out of the way: this is not the Mexican Halloween (that it starts the day after Halloween should have been the most obvious clue). Yet the associations to Halloween are strong in America and Canada. The festive nature of Muertos, with its face painting, costumes and rituals becomes fertile ground for appropriation in and around October 31st. 

Cultural Appropriation Day of the Dead

An example of cultural appropriation during halloween.

Many of the rituals outlined above are sacred to the people who celebrate them each year. Skulls and face painting symbolize death and rebirth. The altars connect families to their ancestors. And cemetery visits are signs of respect, as well as an opportunity to remind the dead that they are not forgotten (and an opportunity for the dead to savour the aromas of a favorite meal). 

As Nik Moreno succinctly puts it in her column on cultural appropriation: “We are a culture, not a costume.” There are many ways to participate in Dias de los Muertos without appropriating the culture. This can include observing festivities by visiting museums, watching documentaries, or attending local parades and events. Take this as an opportunity to learn and engage with Latin culture. As much as you may feel a connection to Dias de los Muertos, you should avoid buying Day of the Dead Halloween costumes, since the biggest way to change the culture of appropriation is with your wallet after all. Tracey Lopez at Latinaish.com suggests that if you want to buy sugar skulls or Day of the Dead merchandise, make sure your money is going into the hands of the people who actually benefit from it, and not foreign conglomerates. 

Dias de los Muertos is a colorful, lively and impressive festival that lets people connect with their ancestors, while being reminded of their own mortality. As it is now part of the cultural lexicon in North America, it may be easy to forget that many of the rituals performed are sacred to those performing them. This Halloween, take an opportunity to educate yourself about the varied history and practices around Dias de los Muertos, and think about our own cultural (dis)connections to the dead.

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Jeremy Cohen
Jeremy Cohen is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department at McMaster University and received his M.A. in 2016 from Concordia University. His work explores contemporary death rituals, technology & Transhumanism. I am interested in the cultural and history context of Transhumanist ideas, and issues surrounding contemporary death practices.


  1. Be sure and feel bad about everything. I dressed up as Frida Kahlo for my students. I guess I’m just a rude idiot? This article is absurd!

    1. You don’t really think that dressing up as an individual is the same thing as taking part of another culture using it for laughs and giggles right? How about you let the people who own this tradition decide what they feel is offensive and what is not? I thought about doing a skull face paint this year and came here to educate myself about these issues and disrespectful, insensitive comments like yours make me believe it was a good choice not to do the skull make up.

  2. Italian priests actually introduced many of these practices long before the 18th century. So, there’s that. Let’s not culturally appropriate away from them.

    1. “Dating to at least 1800 BCE…” is what it said. there was no “Italy” in 1800 BC. BEFORE CHRIST! OR Before the Common Era! Rome was founded in 753 BC

    2. The Catholic Church wasn’t even founded when this tradition originally start. And Italy wasn’t even Italy, until long after that.

      1. Mary, if you study history you will find that Catholics appropriated Celtic Samhain and brought it to Latin America. Seriously historians do not believe there is any “indigenous” tradition associated with day of the dead other than General ancestor worship which was done across the ancient world. This nonsense you are reading is pure liberal fluff designed, per usual, to undermine western culture. Don’t believe a word of it. Do your own research.

  3. I thought this would be a meaningful article but really its fluff.

  4. Thank you for the article.

  5. Death and the celebration of our ancestors is shared by all people, It can not be copyrighted or reserved by any group. Tradition on the other hand can be observed and celebrated by different cultures or ethnic groups. This article illuminates some of those traditions and beliefs which many of us were not aware of. For that we are grateful. What we don’t need is any academe lecturing us on how we should conduct our lives. There is no harm nor foul intended for any Dias de los Muertos costumes, or references from people who are not part of the tribe.

  6. Would it be rude and inappropriate for me to do a dia de los Muertos themed party for my birthday? My bday is in April, and I love the colors, skulls and flowers of the holiday, plus I wanted to eat Mexican food for my birthday. I don’t want to offend or disrespect anyone’s culture, so If it’s really Wrong then I’ll just opt to go to a Mexican restaurant or maybe just change the theme to a “taco party”

    1. I’d say it might be in poor taste only bc Day of the Dead is to honor our deceased loved ones and a birthday is to honor your birth and life…hard for me to find an applicable comparison in American culture to give you a frame of reference, sorry! Thank you for appreciating the culture, I agree the colors and symbols etc are so lovely. Though meant to be a celebration very heavy time for us. My son came home with a school assignment to build an altar for a deceased one. My heart was a little shocked by that as he chose my dad who died a year ago and now we have this assignment with a deadline that’s for a grade… I’m sure the school meant well, but the time is difficult enough as it is. My neices and nephews have all had similar assignments for Day of The Dead and they all chose my dad… suffice to say our family has had alot of anxiety and saddens ruffled up before what should be a celebration of his life. Anyway, sorry to ramble just some insight on how appreciation can often turn into bad vibes from our POV. Happy belated!

  7. My stepfather recently passed away and after learning about this holiday in Spanish class I think it’s beautiful, as a white woman how do I properly and respectfully celebrate this holiday?

    1. https://theshiftnetwork.com

      Connect with your ancestors through the rich traditions of the Mexican observance Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and release yourself from grief, anger, and painful interactions with relatives who have passed, to receive deeper heart-healing and peace — and a new way of celebrating and honoring life, death, and living.

    2. I’m so sorry for your loss. I came about this article trying to find some insight because I have an American friend who recently lost her daughter and for me celebrating my lost daughter at Dia De Los Muertos (well Dia De Los Angelitos which is the day before but coincides with) has helped me grieve in a healthy way. I was thinking about offering my friend this tradition as an option to honor her daughter. I leave a trail of flowers from the street to my home every year, and because she doesn’t have a grave, I make my daughter an altar in my front yard on a concrete slab. It’s therapeutic and helps me feel close to her. I don’t see anything wrong with you decorating an altar for your loved one and leaving offerings. The one thing I tend to see may become costume-y if done by others is the face painting. I’m not the ultimate judge but if I weren’t mexican, I’d probably do something like that in private out of respect and not post it for likes etc on social media. Hope this helps!

  8. Utter nonsense. Day of the dead is a European invention (Celtic Samhain) that was appropriated by Latin America.

  9. Day of the Dead is European and has been appropriated by Latin America. This article, like all liberal nonsense, is pure bs.
    Elsa Malvido, researcher for the Mexican INAH and founder of the institute’s Taller de Estudios sobre la Muerte, was the first to do so in the context of her wider research into Mexican attitudes to death and disease across the centuries. Malvido completely discards a native or even syncretic origin arguing that the tradition can be fully traced to Medieval Europe. She highlights the existence of similar traditions on the same day, not just in Spain, but in the rest of Catholic Southern Europe and Latin America such as altars for the dead, sweets in the shape of skulls and bread in the shape of bones.[16]

    Agustin Sanchez Gonzalez has a similar view in his article published in the INAH’s bi-monthly journal Arqueología Mexicana. Gonzalez states that, even though the “indigenous” narrative became hegemonic, the spirit of the festivity has far more in common with European traditions of Danse macabre and their allegories of life and death personified in the human skeleton to remind us the ephemeral nature of life. He also highlights that in the 19th century press there was little mention of the Day of the Dead in the sense that we know it today.

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