Celebrating Día de los Muertos After Loss and Fearing Appropriation
My little family has come to have an interesting relationship with the celebration of Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). I’ve grown up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lived here for most of my life. In addition to raising my daughter here for the majority of hers. Growing up, I didn’t know Día de los Muertos existed. I come from a white family on both sides, and my mother never introduced me to community celebrations in New Mexico. I also didn’t learn much in school about cultural celebrations (with some exceptions like the tale of La Llorona). Not to mention the fact that my immediate family would have probably misunderstood this important holiday as a sinful conjuring of spirits out of ignorance. Now as a university educated adult, I’ve been introduced to the holiday as an outsider looking in.
Yes, even before the movie Coco came out. God, that was a good movie.
What I wasn’t expecting was my daughter’s infatuation with the holiday. The first time I attended the Dia de los Muertos celebration in Albuquerque was last year; I was there to help support a booth of an on-campus publication I was a part of. My partner took my daughter to enjoy the festivities while I attended to business. After I had finished my tasks, I found my daughter patiently squeezing a white tube of colorful, sticky icing onto the forehead of a sugar skull ( calaveritas de azúcar) at a decorate-your-own-sugar-skull booth. She didn’t realize at that time that sugar skulls were not to be eaten, but to be put on a family’s ofrenda, or alter, along with other various decorations such as flowers and food goods, and sometimes even cigarettes and shots of mezcal for those adult family members who’ve passed and come to visit.
In my attempt to prevent my daughter from biting into the rock of sugar, I told her that they’re an important decoration for families to help celebrate and welcome the spirits of their family members visiting their home during the days after we usually celebrate Halloween. I told her that Día de los Muertos was celebrated in places like New Mexico, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean (although I’m sure positive this event takes place in other parts of the States).
Big and starry eyed, my daughter tells me she has an great idea -- we should put it on her uncle’s altar at Grandma’s house! “That way he’ll be able to visit and see the sugar skull I made for him!” she said. My heart instantly sunk and I felt my throat begin clog.
Her uncle, my brother, passed in 2015. My daughter was pretty little at the time, but she became close to him for the last month of his life when my mother and I were caring for him. For a few months after his passing, she’d spend a number of nights wakeful in tears while undergoing the process of grieving. For a while, we both saw a professional to help support us. I’m not religious by popular Christian standards, but I’ve embedded the idea of heaven and a God in her, as has her experience with practicing Christian friends, and growing up with my previously religious family (they don’t really practice, anymore). So, there's a lack of religiously traditional practices in our home, with the exception of commercial holidays like Easter and Christmas -- which to be honest, aren’t religious to me anymore.
For her to idolize other traditions, especially as a child, seemed normal to me. However, I was not expecting her to adopt practices that she and I were barely introduced to. Practices that we had no heritage ties to... It was endearing, but was it the right thing to do? To pick up a piece of an important indigenous holiday that has already been appropriated so much? Is it alright to give my daughter the permission to appropriate? Is letting her celebrate appropriation? Does she see this practice as a spooky decoration for those loved, familiar ghosts who may or may not haunt us? Going to Día de los Muertos as outsiders to witness the celebration is one thing, but taking the practice home as our own is a whole different thing. My initial response was simple, to help the blow: “ sure, we can put it by Uncle Justin’s photo on the shelf next to grandma’s room”. She was content with the answer, which allowed me time to think and prepare for next year’s celebration.
I’ve marinated on it, and I witnessed just how serious my daughter was about that little sugar skull next to her uncle’s photo . She cried when we eventually had to toss it, yelling, “no! I made that for Justin! We can’t throw it away!” I noticed that it helped her grieve in some way. That this practice allowed my daughter and I to see death in another light. To celebrate my brother’s passing in lieu of his everlasting presence in our hearts. I still don’t feel the holiday is “ours”, but hopefully the more I try and teach my daughter to respect those communities who’ve historically celebrated Día de los Muertos, the more appreciation she’ll and I will have for this tradition we’ve let into our heart and home, in addition to having some fond memories that will follow her during her time growing up as a child of Albuquerque and New Mexico.
I hope my experience opens up conversations about picking up practices or celebrations from historically underrepresented communities, and how we navigate the potential of appropriation. We have a rich, beautiful culture in New Mexico; how do we celebrate it without erasure? Can we , who may be ‘outsiders’ respectfully celebrate without it being appropriation? How do we access the resources to educate ourselves about cultural traditions that are part of our community, but not a part of our nationality or heritage? These are just some of the points of entry I’m interested in exploring.