Oct. 28 2016 10:28 AM

One Mexican-American woman’s take on white appropriation of traditional face painting

Photo via Shutterstock

My life could have taken a different turn earlier this year. If I hadn’t faced my mental health situation, there likely would be an altar erected in my memory this year on Day of the Dead. An altar of red wine, shrimp tacos, dangly earrings and dark chocolate. My family would gather around it, crying and laughing at the brevity and wonder of my life, my spirit returned for one night to hover against the living bodies of those who loved me.

Then, I imagine my sisters pouring out into the night, running into a crowd of drunks with faces painted as flowered skeletons. My sisters’ ritual of honoring me turned into nothing but a trendy costume.

Día de los Muertos (Nov. 1 to 2) has been celebrated in Mexico since before Mexico existed. Pre-conquest, the Aztecs celebrated a festival honoring Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the Underworld. Post-conquest, the Spaniards melded All Saints Day with the Mictecacihuatl celebration, dressing one up as the other. Nowadays, families across Mexico and other countries clean graveyards and prepare altars of offerings for the returning souls of the departed. The same thing happened in other cultures where Christianity took over established belief systems. Christmas used to be Saturnalia, a pagan holiday of rebirth.

When you grow up in Mexican-American communities, death isn’t something that is hidden or sanitized. I grew up listening to my loved ones talking casually about death. My Chicanx identity came into focus for me when I started paying attention to the practices and beliefs from my father’s homeland and how they changed as part of immigration. I was always drawn to Día de los Muertos and made my first altar in my early twenties. It was for my grandfather. It was a way for me to feel connected to my father’s culture, and an evening spent in contemplation of my grandfather’s life made me feel as if he was there. I believe he was.

Día de los Muertos is a stunning celebration of life and death. The altars are resplendent with color; bright marigolds, sugar skulls, pan de muerto. Each object is symbolic; each sugar skull bears the name of a deceased loved one. Placed in contemplation, the offerings honor the departed. Día de los Muertos celebrants paint their faces as decorated skulls to represent the veil between life and death.

And white people love that shit. They see the pretty colors as an alternative to outdated and out-of-fashion Ed Hardy skulls so they paint their own face. It’s yet another way to dress up as an “other” and to make a living culture into a costume.


It is Native American headdresses. It is feathers. It is warpaint. It is blackface. It is bullshit. While conversations about cultural appropriation have started to have resonance in mainstream culture, Día de los Muertos is somehow still seen as fair game. Animated films such as The Book of Life and Pixar’s upcoming Coco (where, no kidding, Disney tried to trademark “Día de los Muertos”) are only serving to bring the holiday further into popular consciousness. People paint their face with zero understanding or respect for a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. This tradition survived colonization, genocide and the forced erasure of spiritual practices. And while it will certainly survive being trendy for white people, in the meantime, it feels like it is being cheapened.

I’ve read defenses of white folks’ face painting as being respectful and honoring the culture. Especially on makeup tutorial sites. Nope. That defense reminds me of all the sage-burning white people who love posting about their spirit animals but have never posted one damn thing about myriad injustices faced daily by people indigenous to this land.

In a fantasy I imagine taking a crew of painted-face San Diego gringos to the deserts and mountains that cradle us to the ocean. The land is all unmarked grave, thousands of bones disintegrating into the earth. You want my culture? Here, hold this. Listen to the names of the dead and then say them aloud. Let the spirits of the departed tell their tales, speaking to you of hunger, violence, the sound of bones cracking beneath their feet as they prayed, hoping not to become another statistic. You want to honor the departed? Wake up everyday and acknowledge you’re on Kumeyaay land. Stolen land. Bloody land.

How many times and in how many ways must it be said: stay in your lane. Sure, it’s OK to appreciate. I certainly appreciate cultures outside of my own, but I would never dress myself as a geisha or don the sacred regalia of other people as a costume. I planned to be a taco for Halloween. That’s a costume. White people can be tacos, too. I’ll side-eye someone hard, but if they’re not a taco wearing a sombrero or in brownface, I can dig it. After all, tacos are amazing.

Consider this a warning: I will step up. I will not hesitate to go up to someone and tell them they are appropriating my culture. They’ll probably get defensive, but that’s OK. I’m a strong-ass brown woman and I’m used to people being defensive and shitty. Full disclosure: I’ve painted calaveras on white people before, those I considered allies and family. However, an invitation into a ritual is different from crashing the party. If you think your Halloween costume might cross a line, ask a friend of color and be prepared to accept the answer. If you have no friends of color, rethink your life.

On Día de los Muertos, my altar will have pictures of family members, Prince and Bowie. I’ll light candles, and offer sacred smoke to the ancestors. There will be marigolds, papel picado, a bottle of wine and, just for Prince, a Hot Wheels replica of a little red Corvette. I’ll sit with this altar, talking to the departed, singing, memories rushing through me as the veil between this life and next is thinned. I’ll honor those whose names I know and those who I never met.

You’re not invited.


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