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Samhain 2008

Día de los Muertos: Cultural Appropriation Meets Craft
by Jessi Vowels

As a former anthropology major and general studious "liberal arts" type, writing about the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a little difficult. I'm torn, really, between giving the straight facts—not unlike a Spanish class textbook might—and trying to give some kind of weighty analysis with all kinds of nuance and thoughtful insight, but neither seems to really cut it. A just-the-facts approach, aside from being boring, is also sort of cheating. On the other hand, I'm not remotely knowledgeable enough to make any definitive analytical statements, and, as I'm entirely too lazy to skeeze my way into someone's JSTOR account, I can't rip off any other scholars and tell you something really profound. But there did occur to me one thing that might be important to bring up, which we in the craft community sometimes gloss over: that whole "cultural appropriation" thing. Which is, you know, kind of a problem.

The thing is, in the past few years, this particular holiday has enjoyed a spate of attention in the media, more specifically among hipster types, for whom it seems to be the perfect holiday. Playful and ironic, yet serious and sincere; personal and traditional, yet political and modern—for the post-modern youth, it was like a siren call. In the crafting arena, Kathy Cano-Murillo, otherwise known as Crafty Chica, came out with a whack of highly original, yet still traditional, DIY Day of the Dead projects, inspiring everyone and their mother to make a shrine and a sugar skull. From there, the bandwagon was officially on the roll. When Target is putting out papel picado decorations and calavera-enhanced PJ sets, you know it's hit the mainstream. Which is all well and good, but also kind of weird.

First a refresher and a little background: a few hundred years ago Western Europeans showed up in what are now called the Americas and proceeded to rape, pillage, infect, and generally destroy the hell out of anything they found (unless it was gold, which they petted and called their "precious"). Very quickly it occurred to the Europeans that since less than 10% of indigenous people survived their arrival, the process of enslaving them might go down a little easier if they also crushed their spirits and destroyed their dignity. Cultural erasure ensued. But, as you may know, it's very hard to erase a culture—people tend to highly value their human spirit and dignity, and if they have to survive they will fight for their right to an inner life and to find personal worth in the world. Ah, enter subversion!

Previous to all this genocidal melee, as far back as 2500-3000 years in fact, many indigenous groups native to what is now called Mexico—including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Mexica, Aztec, Maya, P'urhépecha, and Totonac—practiced some sort of ritual or holiday celebrating the death and rebirth of ancestors. Of course, this kind of cyclical view of life and death was anathema to Christianity and was quickly suppressed and condemned. Just as Pagans before them had done with such holiday classics as Yule, Spring Equinox, and Samhain, the indigenous peoples of Mexico managed to do with their month long festival in honor of Mictecacihuatl (also known as "the Lady of the Dead" or La Santa Muerte); they celebrated it anyway, in cognito.

The Roman Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, which honor departed saints and faithful, respectively, provided the perfect "cover" for their Mexican counterparts, Día de los Innocentes and Día de los Muertos, which commemorate departed infants and children and all departed adults, respectively. (We associate all of these with the Pagan holiday Halloween, which basically means "the day before All Saints' Day", when spirits can come back and wreak some havoc.) Clearly, Día de los Muertos has grown into something distinctly different than either of its sources of origin and developed many of it's own unique and beautiful traditions. Some of these—such as altar and shrine-making, skull-themed decorations, the leaving of offerings such as favorite foods, the fragrant marigold cempasúchil, pictures and candles, and the baking of the sweet bread or pan de muerto—are fairly universal and are what the majority of people who don't come by the celebration naturally probably would associate with it. However, the holiday is also celebrated with a wealth of regional variations and local idiosyncrasies: in San Angel Zurumucapio rose-decorated horses are made and dedicated to the deceased; in Merida they hold an altar contest; and in Pátzcuaro there is a nighttime water-bound procession to the island of Janitzio.

So, now back to the weird part. A lot of people out there still, strange as it may be to my media-whore brain, equate Día de los Muertos with the Western celebrations of Halloween and All Saints Day. As I've explained above, they are clearly related holidays, but have about as much in common as, I don't know, chocolate bunnies do with Jesus rising from the dead. I think that is really the primary appeal to hipsters, (anti)crafters, hippies and the like—this "version" of Halloween seems naïve and pure, untouched by crass consumerism. So when we see cute sugar-skull decorated cookies, or Catrina-esque metal door wreaths, we buy the hell out of them, because they seem more "authentic" and interesting than their Western counterparts. But as with any other holiday, the spirit of Día de los Muertos is getting lost in its mass-marketed translation; we're appropriating something without understanding or appreciating its meaning, or even making much of an effort.

When I was in college and suffering from what I lovingly term my I-am-Frida-Kahlo delusional phase, I actually lived in Mexico for a while. [Editor's note: Thank Gods I wasn't the only one who went through that phase in college!] I wasn't around for Día de los Muertos (because that corresponded, timewise, with that whole "going to school" thing), but I did have the privilege to attend an event that will forever color my understanding of the celebration. One day, seemingly out of the blue, my boyfriend asked me to come to a party at his mothers house... for his dead grandpa. It was an anniversary party and all of his family was going to be there. I was thinking, "Umm, wtf? A party for your dead grandpa, sounds like fun." Sure, I went along.

Seriously, all his family was there, and it was really fun. It was a happening party, everybody talking about my boyfriend's grandpa, eating delicious food, bringing heaps of fruit and piling them in the courtyard. Toward the end of the day a school bus came and picked the whole family up for church. (It ended up completely full.) We stayed behind, much to the irritation of his mother, and he showed me around his house, telling me stories about his family, and specifically about his grandpa, who had built the place for his grandmother. It was heavy, y'all—the deepest date ever. A profound cultural difference smacked me right in the face: the people I had celebrated with that day look at death not as an ending, but as another beginning. The anniversary of a death was not just for a sadness that this person was gone but it marked the profoundest realization that they had lived.

So, thoughtful reader, I'm sure you can suss out where this whole anecdote is heading. Día de los Muertos is much more than a collection of traditions and really cool looking decorations which one can interpose willy-nilly over our stale, over-commercialized Halloween. I mean, sure, you can do it this way, but isn't part of the point of craft to escape commodified meaning and really make your world, and make it your own? Día de los Muertos is an integral part of an entire world view that is, in many ways, profoundly different from our own. I would argue that you could have a totally authentic and awesome Day of the Dead style celebration for yourself which the average Mexican wouldn't find particularly familiar looking. But perhaps—when confronted with thoughtfulness and sincerity, community and celebration, and most of all, the sense of joy of being reunited with loved ones in a meaningful way—they would recognize it anyway.

But then, maybe they wouldn't. Maybe I'm just some hippy-dippy structuralist who looks for universal truths and is completely missing the way it really is—and so I would further suggest that whatever you do, don't approach these crafts without thinking about what they mean. Theoretically we crafters do that all the time, but this theme, I think, particularly invites it. This holiday has a long history of encouraging political critique and subversion—from the tradition of faux-epitaphs and Catrina skeleton cartoons sending up elites, to the Tim-Burton-meets-Mother-Mary subversive absurdity of Santa Muerte to...well, the whole damn holiday in and of itself. If that doesn't inspire you, the act of appropriating a craft/tradition which evolved through subverting the dominant Western culture (of which the majority of you, dear readers, are likely a part) sort of requires you to confront those many layers of meaning just to avoid being, you know, kind of a douche.

Whatever you decide crafting this holiday means to you—that it's an act of anti-consumerism, that you're appreciating a different view of life and death, or that you just like sugar-skulls and you want them in your life as much as possible—at least actively decide it. Get crafting, and while you're at it, get reading, discussing, thinking and celebrating!

Some links:


Crafty Chica (aka Kathy Cano-Murillo)


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