I’ve always loved Hallowe’en. The elements of fantasy, choosing an alter ego, finding courage behind a mask, and the adrenaline surge of approaching houses — both strange and familiar — to ask for handouts combined to form an irresistible pull for a shy, awkward, bookworm surrounded by social butterflies.
In later years, the attraction became tangled in learning about the veil lifting between the living and the dead, seasons shifting, the cycle of nature welcoming a long sleep, and still the chosen masks that gave me a boldness I lacked the rest of the year. I read about the origins of All Hallow’s Eve, I researched Samhain, and I loved it all.
And when I moved to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, I naturally loved seeing the Panaderias prepare sugar skulls and pan de muerto. The traditions and meaning behind Dia de Los Muertos also appealed to me, as a non-religious person, in the directness of acknowledging death and celebrating those lost with the favorite foods, music, pastimes they enjoyed while alive. What could be healthier than to celebrate life instead of mourning death?
So, when it came time to find a mask for Halloween a few years ago, I decided to paint my face in the Calavera style. Affordable, body-type friendly, non-commercial, masked without blocking my line of sight — perfect! It never occurred to me that it was cultural appropriation. It was something I admired and connected with and could do myself.
Today, Halloween 2015, after a few years of donning a glittery gold mask, I once again painted my face in the Calavera style at the behest of my children. My son especially wanted to see me made up like a skull again. This time, however, I thought about the cultural appropriation first. I didn’t look up blog posts about it; I didn’t ask friends about it; I didn’t try to argue with myself about it. I just thought about what it meant to me and whether my motivation was something I could live with. It was. It is.
And on November 1st, again at the behest of my son, we will celebrate Dia de Los Muertos in honor of my father, who passed this year. Perhaps we’ll eat French Toast and maybe a Chirashi Bowl and listen to The Battle Hymn of the Republic and some marches like Der Hohenfriedberger Marsch. We’ll probably also look at photos and talk about Opa’s contributions to solar energy and our lives. We’ll remember.
Dia de lost Muertos is a tradition that makes a lot of sense to me, and my son. I’m comfortable incorporating parts of the tradition into my life, no matter what you call it.
For some interesting and important reads about appropriation and incorporation see below: