How to celebrate Dia de los Muertos without being an appropriating asshole


  • Teatro Chico/Facebook
A few weeks ago I was scrolling the internet and came across a slideshow for a "Day of the Dead kickoff to Halloween" event at a local skating rink. In it, photos of a spooky scarecrow, some Freddy Krueger looking guy, and several images of women whose faces and naked breasts were covered with body paint.

First of all, why this sort of haunted burlesque show would be acceptable at a skate rink is beyond me (last time I visited a skating rink was seventh grade when the most risque displays of sexuality involved holding hands with your crush while TLC's Waterfalls hummed in the background). Second and more troubling though, to see La Calavera Catrina treated like one of Hugh Hefner's girlfriends made my stomach churn. Why, in 2016, are we still coming across these blatant instances of cultural appropriation?

I bring this up as people off all background across Detroit, the rest of the country and in Mexico make preparations to observe the traditionally Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, a days-long festivity that pokes fun at and celebrates death.

With origins dating back to pre-Columbian cultures, some 2,500-plus years, the partly indigenous, partly Catholic holiday involves building elaborate alters (ofrendas) festooned with marigolds, sugar skulls, pan de muerto (sweet bread), and drinks - all serving as gifts for deceased loved ones. Long prevalent in central and southern Mexico, over the years, the holiday is more and more observed in the United States, by Latinos and non-Latinos alike.

Calaveras - skeletons often dressed to resemble the living in suits, mariachi outfits, and gowns - are mostly notably associated with the holiday and central to that iconology is La Catrina. She's the elegantly dress Mexican Revolution-era dame donning an extravagantly decorated hat that mirrored upper class society of the time. Her image was popularized by Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada.

Over the years, we've watched as corporations capitalize on Muertos. We see sugar skull cookies at Starbucks, jewel encrusted calavera baby T's, and countless other tchotchkes that are sold right alongside the Frida Kahlo knick knacks. While most of this can be chocked up to harmless (if not tasteless) kitsch, it's the the objectification of La Catrina that's especially upsetting. When this symbol of cultural pride is lumped together with the costumes of sexy cats, police women, and call girls, it robs from its beauty.

It's a sore reminder that in one breath facets of our Mexicanidad is Columbused - from hipster fried chicken tacos, overpriced Day of the Dead mezcal cocktails, to the chola-centric fashion that has started hitting the runways - and in the other it's derided in the political arena or exploited in the labor force.

With all this in mind, I ask of you, please refrain from celebrating Dia de los Muertos with such exploitative imagery.

Here are a number of ways to pay tribute, both to the holiday and to your loved ones, without being an asshole.

-5 p.m.-9 p.m., Oct. 29, Teatro Chico - Dia de los Muertos: Nuestras Historias (Our Histories), The Mexicantown Mercado at Ford Resource and Engagement Center, 2826 Bagley St. Presented by Living Arts, the space will have an ofrenda exhibition by artists Erin and Monte Martinez, Kia Itchel Arriaga, and others. 

-Various times and dates, The Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward - Aztec Day of the Dead performance at 1 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 30); ofrenda special exhibition, featuring the work of local artists and residents; a number of sugar skull-making workshops (click here for a full listing of calendar events).

-11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Oct. 30, 3rd Annual Day of the Dead Community Procession and Alter at Clark Park, 1130 Clark St; ofrenda to those lost to violence, Oct. 30-Nov. 2.

-La Terraza, 8445 W. Vernor - An alter dedicated to the late legendary Mexican pop artist Juan Gabriel.

-2 p.m.-5 p.m., Nov. 2, Garage Cultural, 3439 Livernois - Screening of documentary film "Mirar Morir" (Watch Them Die), which explores the kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College in Iguala, Guerrero in Mexico.

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