First of all, let me state that I am neither Hispanic nor Latino—pick the term that you find proper. (I live in California, so I’m going with Latino/a.) Despite my decidedly WASP background, I have done considerable research on Dia de los Muertos, and put together this very simple explanation of a holiday rich in history and traditions…
Observed November 2nd, the Day of the Dead is a time to honor deceased loved ones. It is a loving ritual full of joy and remembrance. On this day, many believe that the souls of the departed return to earth to visit with, and to provide counsel to, family and others they loved in life. Although celebrated throughout Latin America, Dia de los Muertos is most strongly associated with Mexico, where the tradition originated.
In Mexico, families often take the opportunity to visit gravesites and pull weeds, clean any debris, and decorate the graves of loved ones. Candles, flowers and the favorite foods of the deceased are placed on the grave and the family visits, eats, sings and tells favorite stories about those who have passed.
In the United States the tradition has been adapted. Many set up altars in their homes and communities often host a variety of events. Altars are usually decorated with flowers (most often marigolds), candles, pan de muerto, ceramic skulls, and pictures of loved ones. Food placed on the altar consists of the loved ones’ favorite dishes and treats. Drinks are placed on the altar to quench the thirst of the dead after their long journey back home.
The rituals used to celebrate the day are varied and colorful, yet all carry the same message—it is a true celebration of life. When children dance with caricatures of death, eat sugar skulls and learn to respect that life is brief, they learn there is a circle to life and that death need not be feared. They are then free to enjoy and appreciate every moment.
How did a “gringa” like me become a Dia de los Muertos artist?
Several years ago I was a partner in the Phantom IV Gallery in Windsor, California. During that time, the town hosted a large Dia de los Muertos Celebration. Local art galleries and businesses were invited to join in. I think it is important to note that Windsor has a large Latino community (mostly Mexican) and the event organizers were all members of that community. In response, Phantom IV featured Mexican art and put up an altar complete with photos and memorabilia of our departed loved ones. My partners and I became deeply moved by the process. People came into the gallery and asked to put photos of loved ones on our altar. A man who had lost his son came, armed with photos, and stayed and talked and talked. Fellow artists were invited to make small 5” X 5” paintings commemorating the holiday, which we hung over the altar. I painted five (three sold immediately) and I was hooked—not because some sold, but because I found the subject matter deeply spiritual and compelling. I grasped what the celebration was about: honoring the circle of life, commemorating the lives of loved ones who were no longer physically present but still very much a part of our lives, learning to live and laugh and love in the face of death.
Once I started painting Dia de los Muertos art I just couldn’t seem to stop. And that is why this “gringa” frequently paints subject matter generally considered to be the prerogative of Mexican artists.
Since that time, my art has been featured in numerous Day of the Dead art shows where most (but not all) of the artists were Latino. None expressed discomfort at my inclusion. Still, with all the concern about being culturally sensitive and correct, I ponder the following question…
Do I have a “right” to paint Dia de los Muertos Art?
I have spent a lot of time researching this question on-line. I’ve read a lot of differing opinions from, “How dare you!” to, “Yes, but be respectful.” Some of the blogs on the subject generated some surprisingly hateful comments. It seems that people have strong opinions on the topic.
A few back stories…my ex-husband, who is Jewish, majored in African Studies during the late 60s. It was finally brought to his attention that universities were unlikely to hire him to teach African Studies. The reason is fairly obvious. Another friend majored in Native American Studies and wore her hair in long braids. A fellow student, who was Navajo, finally told her, “Suzanne, no matter how hard you try, you will never be Native American.” She changed majors and stopped wearing braids. So, the moral of these stories is that you can’t become something you’re not, no matter how much you admire the culture. However, I’m not trying to be an expert on Mexican culture, nor am I pretending to be Mexican. I have simply fallen in love with a culture and an art form that is not genetically mine.
Appropriation vs. Assimilation vs. Appreciation
I’ve researched the terms appropriation vs. assimilation vs. appreciation in an attempt to answer my own question—do I have a “right” to paint Dia de los Muertos art. Here’s my understanding of the terms…
- Cultural appropriation is where the dominant culture takes on elements of a minority culture for their own use. In the process, the original content is reduced, demeaned and/or misunderstood. Think bikini-clad model wearing an Indian headdress.
- Cultural assimilation is where elements of the majority culture are taken on by the minority culture in an attempt to fit in or survive. This has not always been voluntary—e.g. American Indian boarding schools whose sole purpose was to eradicate one culture and replace it with another.
- Cultural appreciation is when elements of a culture are used while honoring the source they came from. It is important to note that appreciation involves respect and value.
There are some diehards who will argue that cultural appreciation is just a sugar-coated form of cultural appropriation. I respect you opinion. Mine differs. I’m an artist. I paint. I write. I find my inspiration in the world around me. Not just my tiny little genetically approved slice of the world. All of it.
Win a Framed Dia de los Muertos Art Print
Write a haiku inspired by “Play Ball”
A Japanese art form speaking to a Mexican art form. Simply send your haiku, inspired by my painting, Play Ball, to email@example.com. Type “haiku contest” in subject line. I will post the winning poem and send a framed art print to the lucky winner.
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