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For this year, don’t be a racist for Halloween

Illustration by: John Saringo-Rodriguez / Photo Editor

Illustration by: John Saringo-Rodriguez / Photo Editor

Oh, Halloween.

They say it’s fun to dress up and go to Halloween parties. But it isn’t – at least not when there’s rampant cultural appropriation and people dressed up in racist costumes running around everywhere. In this age, that’s exactly what Halloween has turned into: an ugly parade of cultural appropriation, racism and sexism.

Let’s talk about an important holiday that’s nearly been completely appropriated because of Halloween: Dia de los Muertos. Although I am Asian-American, not Latino, it’s hard not to notice the trend in cultural appropriation.

Dia de los Muertos is actually a two-day holiday that starts when Halloween ends, although all three days are often celebrated in connection. Because of that, American society tends to group the two holidays together since they vaguely share the theme of the dead. Some people, perhaps not meaning to sound racist, even call Dia de los Muertos the “Mexican Halloween.”

No, not even close. Dia de los Muertos and Halloween are two completely different days. Halloween has lost its cultural roots a long time ago and has become another sanitized and commercialized day devoid of any history (like Christmas and Thanksgiving). The origin of Halloween can be traced to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain where people would dress in costumes and light bonfires to chase off ghosts. Then, as cultural appropriation is not anything new, the Catholic Church turned it into the more Christian-friendly All Saints’ Day. The night before was called Hallow’s Eve and then eventually Halloween, according to history.com.

However, unlike the contemporary celebration of Halloween, Dia de los Muertos is alive and breathing and has thousands of years of Mesoamerican identity and culture attached to it.

Dia de los Muertos traces its roots to the Aztec ritual in honor of the dead, Miccailhuitl (pronounced “meek-ka-il-weet”). According to Chicana/o studies professor Dr. Fermin Herrera, it literally means day of the dead in the native language of Nahuatl spoken by many indigenous people.

“‘Ilhuitl’ means day of, as in celebration,” Fermin said. ”And then ‘ca’ is a ligature so we can say it’s something like ‘of,’ and then ‘mic’ is the root of the verb ‘miqui,’ which means to die. So literally it means ‘day of the dead.’”

It is widely celebrated throughout Latin America, such as Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador. With a strong Latino population, Dia de los Muertos is even celebrated in California and Arizona, respectfully.

While Halloween is about witches, devils and whatever else you can buy at Walgreens or Target, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the profound cycle of life and death. The two-day celebration is meant to mourn and celebrate loved ones who have passed away. Even within Mexico, different regions celebrate Dia de los Muertos in their own unique way.

On these days, altars are made in honor of families’ loved ones who have died. They are built on the loved one’s graves, homes or anywhere the family feels is rightful to honor them. Offerings (ofrendas) are made to loved ones with their favorite food, toys, pictures, pan de muerto, sugar skulls and other things. Some people who take part in Dia de los Muertos say that this is meant to safely guide the spirit of the dead to their altars.

Unlike the basically trademarked and mass-produced Halloween, Dia de los Muertos is steeped in a rich culture and deals with real life celebration that has a sacred meaning. It’s not just about the general idea of life and death; it’s about honoring the life and death of individuals who have actually died.

So no, if your culture does not celebrate Dia de los Muertos, it is not right to walk out in a Dia de los Muertos-inspired costume during Halloween because you thought the art is cute. It is ignorant, disrespectful and complicit in erasing a rich culture and identity.

Likewise, painting your face with sugar skull decorations is not being cultural. Just like how bowing to Asians is not being cultural, but being stupid. There is meaning behind sugar skulls and bowing, and just because you do it doesn’t mean you understand the significance of these symbols.

An LA Times article that came out recently claimed itself to be the guide to have people plan accordingly for the festivities of Dia de los Muertos. The article lists various restaurants with Dia de los Muertos-themed food and alcohol. In fact, each of the restaurants (most of which are in affluent areas like Santa Monica, Hollywood, West Los Angeles and gentrified parts of Downtown Los Angeles), included a complete list of themed alcoholic drinks. This is what I’m talking about: the appropriation and commercialization of a sacred holiday.

Just like how eating Panda Express doesn’t make you an expert on Chinese food (that shit is fake Chinese food), going to Mexican restaurants and drinking Dia de los Muertos-themed alcoholic drinks doesn’t mean you’re celebrating Dia de los Muertos. It means you’re buying into American commercialism and the erasure of someone else’s real culture.

And while we’re on the subject of racism, let’s discuss Halloween costumes. It is not cool to walk out as a Native American princess, a geisha, ninja, samurai, Antoine Dodson (he’s actually selling costumes in his image), or in a Dia de los Muertos-inspired costume. It is offensive, racist and completely ignorant. It’s also not OK to dress up as these identities because you are now in black face, yellow face and brown face.

Each of these costumes carry an actual history, culture and meaning to their respective culture. These costumes were once the historic identities of real people. And Halloween has turned them into novelties to be used to make money in an empty holiday.

With ignorant costumes everywhere, and the complete erasure and appropriation of several cultures in one day, I can’t help but be pissed off. Here’s the takeaway message: if you have to think twice about a potentially offensive costume, it’s probably offensive.

If you are interested in learning more about Dia de los Muertos and want to support cultural groups and efforts at CSUN, consider stopping by the Chicana/o House Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 to celebrate Dia de los Muertos instead of spending your money on overpriced, holiday-themed drinks at a bar or restaurant.

This year for Halloween, don’t be a racist.


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  1. M2000 Nov 5, 2013

    So now we can’t dress up as certain people on Halloween cause that’s “racist”? The PC crowd seems to have hired a new PC police chief the Grinch who has turned his guns on Halloween instead of just Christmas oh wait, it’s really called “Winter Holidays” now even though a Christmas tree has nothing to do with the Christian version of Christmas.

  2. Arman Gosparini Nov 4, 2013

    Samurai and Ninja are not racial stereotypes. They’re occupations. So am I to understand that if, say, an Asian-American chose to don a Cowboy costume, it would be equally insensitive? Of course not. Part of the fun of Halloween is adopting an identity that isn’t your own. I find it incomprehensible that you would suggest that a 9 year old girl that dresses as Pocahontas is somehow offensive, insensitive or inappropriate.

    And the notion that Halloween as it is celebrated in the U.S (along with Thanksgiving and Christmas) is somehow sterile, over-commericialized, and thus not as important or meaningful as other ethnic celebrations is absurd. This goes without saying but America has a culture too, and it is no less valid than Mexico’s.

    The paranoid, tribalist attitude that drives this op-ed is primitive at best, and regressive at worst. If someone wrote an article arguing that only Anglo Saxon Americans should launch fireworks on Independence Day, it would be rightfully attacked for the vile, pernicious, segregational nonsense that it was.

  3. Ally Nov 2, 2013

    “Cultural appropriation can be a wonderful way of uniting people” are you a moron? It’s RACIST and OFFENSIVE.

    1. James Nov 2, 2013

      Yes, Ally, cultural appropriation is a good thing. Cultures have borrowed and stolen from each other since the dawn of civilization. If we isolate ourselves to our own culture, how can we grow?

      Hallowe’en itself has been culturally appropriated from the Celts for the benefit of all people who enjoy it that aren’t of Celtic background. I see no reason why people who aren’t Latino can’t enjoy the beauty of Dia de los Muertos.

      1. trainfarm Nov 3, 2013

        Cultural appropriation, cultural erasure, and cultural *appreciation* are not at all the same things. The first two involve a power imbalance that oppress and tokenize a marginalized group of people without regard for their lived histories.

        1. James Nov 3, 2013

          The problem is, who gets to decide what is the latter and what are the former two? The author has pronounced ninja costumes as racist and a form of cultural appropriation and I would say that most people would reject that assessment.

          1. trainfarm Nov 3, 2013

            Here are some helpful guides and insight:

            “Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation? An Introduction”

            “Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?”

            The first has a list of things to look for in how to draw the line, hope this helps.

            Also, cultural erasure is pretty clear-cut. It is systemic. Such as laws passed that prevented Native people from speaking their own languages (there were harsh corporal punishments) and the legislated dismantling of communities. This also happened with Asian communities exploited in the Americas to build railroads. These things happened in the States and Canada. The last Residential school, where native children were brought to be cleansed of their culture, abused, and punished, was closed in 1996. That is well within our lifetime, that is recent history even. These are not ancient struggles that we are making guesses at as a generation without any comparable lived experiences. The fact that many people think that those lived experiences are outdated is evidence of cultural erasure. We believe that those kinds of things don’t happen anymore, but they do. It’s the same principle as when you make a joke and it’s “too soon” to be funny. This is too soon. Anytime is too soon.

  4. lester jones Nov 2, 2013

    The spanish murdered the native americans and indigenous peoples or south and central america. Spanish stole their lands. Modern Latino societies continue to kill and marginalize their people. All mestizo latinos are complicit in this racism. you are all guilty. Therfore Anglos can wear whatever we want, whenever we want. Youre a hypocrite and your great great great great great grandfather was a rapist killer.

  5. James Oct 31, 2013

    Hallowe’en has much history and as much to do with All Hallow’s Day as Dia de los Muertos does; they come from the same source.

    The more cultures can share together, the more we can understand each other. Dressing up as ninjas is racist? Please. Cultural appropriation can be a wonderful way of uniting people.

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