Some would claim that the Day of the Dead holiday goes back thousands of years, while others say it is really just a product of a 1970’s art house. Still others claim the internet is what has made it popular. Regardless of how we got here, the point is it is 2021 and everybody from Disney to Target to your next-door-neighbor’s kids is painting their faces and calling it Day of the Dead. Is it really? Does it matter?
The Zapotecs lay claim to the origination and preservation of the ancient holiday of Dia de los Muertos; however, that is not to say that it has gone un-evolved since its inception thousands of years ago in the ancestral indigenous lands of Oaxaca, Mexico. It changed when the Aztecs adopted it. It changed when the Spaniards adopted it. It changed when the Catholics adopted it. And now it has changed as more and more Latino and Hispanic communities in the United States adopt it. The face paintings and festivals of modern American celebration of this tradition may not resemble the Zapotecs’ original rituals, but it is because the people participating are not all Zapotecs.
Day of the Dead has grown in its appeal and celebration beyond the boundaries of the seed culture from which it sprung. Many celebrants of this tradition have never heard of a Zapotec nor will they ever travel to Oaxaca; still more celebrants are not even ancestrally related to this region. Some seem to see this as a tragedy, but it is also an expression of unity. Celebration of this holiday is indicative of the fact that it is no longer shameful to speak Spanish or to be Latino as it once was in America. The popularization of iconography of Dia de los Muertos being blended with modern pop cultures shows that the Hispanic community has become part of the grander cultural identity and is forming new traditions.
As with all holidays, the essence is in the tradition of ritual. That is the part that makes it meaningful. The way to prevent appropriation is not to lay claim to all things Dia de los Muertos and exclude anyone who is unwilling to celebrate one way; instead, embrace others’ interest and encourage participation through their own experiences and lifestyle or spiritual practices. The universal celebration of the lives of those that were close to us and have passed from this world is something we can all relate to. How we do it are just the details we choose to construct our own traditions. To make it more meaningful to each individual, we must share and embrace the curiosity and willingness of all people to meet at this alter of celebration.