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Duluth Day of the Dead: When is Cultural Appropriation Appropriate?

The short answer is never.

Duluth has a celebration for the Day of the Dead, though it is called All Soul’s Night.  I have not attended, so I am not certain if it is cultural appropriation.  Certainly, it seems gray.  Here’s why:

1.  To my knowledge, Mexicans are not involved in the celebration or planning process of this event.  While Duluth does not have a large Hispanic population, I think caution should be used when adopting images and elements of a holiday.  This is especially true since Day of the Dead, though Catholic, also draws from Aztec beliefs about death and worship.

2. Europeans celebrate All Soul’s Night, but images such as sugar skulls or artifacts such as ofrendas are not a part of this celebration.  Mexicans do not traditionally paint their faces like sugar skulls for Day of the Dead.  This face paint is inspired by the skulls, which are used to honor the deceased.  While these designs look interesting and exotic, what does it mean?  Why is it done?  If it is only because it is artsy, exotic, fun, or interesting, then perhaps it should be considered more deeply.

3.  All Souls Day and Day of the Dead are both similar in that both are holidays that synchronized polytheistic beliefs with Christianity.  This makes the celebration a bit gray.  Duluth, a predominantly white community could celebrate, the former drawing elements from European paganism rather than Aztec/Mexican images.  The Duluth celebration is meant to be mindful of death and put a positive spin on it.  This is not uniquely Mexican.  However, some of the images are Mexican.  In that case, why are they used?  What meaning do they have for white Duluthians?

4. Some areas in the United States do celebrate Day of the Dead and some Mexicans have supported the export of this holiday.  For instance, tourists are allowed to visit Oaxaca during the Day of the Dead and participate in the celebration.  Therefore, it does not seem to be a closed holiday.  Likewise, the Mexican embassy has supported and promoted the celebration of this holiday elsewhere in the world.  Yet, the Duluth celebration, to my knowledge, is not supported or promoted by any Mexican communities or institutions.

5.  Some Mexican American activists are offended by how this holiday has been appropriated.  This year, I saw sugar skulls and Mexican inspired motifs sold in Target.  The meaningless consumption of this holiday does concern some activists.  Others view it as innocent fun and others may think there are more pressing issues (such as immigration and drugs).  So, I am not aware of a united movement against white people celebrating this holiday.  Nevertheless, I think that extreme caution should be used when celebrating it.

6.  I think that Duluth could have a celebration of Day of the Dead or All Soul’s Night, but I think that there needs to be a LOT of transparency and communication on how it is NOT cultural appropriation.  A visible involvement of Mexicans or Mexican Americans might be a start.  I think that perhaps the celebration comes across as a fun time with some artsy and spiritual undertones.  While there is nothing wrong with being expressive and having a good time, it might be more meaningful if it addressed a social issue.  For instance, perhaps it could help fund raise for families or individuals who DIED while crossing the border or who DIED as undocumented workers involved in hazardous jobs.  In this sense, death would be connected to social issues and the celebration wouldn’t consist of artsty, spiritual, fun times…but an attempt at solidarity with Mexicans.

7. The Facebook page for the event mentions that the celebration draws from many traditions.  While I think that celebrating cultures and diversity is good…and it is also good that the point was made that this is not a specifically Mexican celebration, it leaves me with the question, when is it okay to borrow?  I admit it.  Somehow white celebrations and traditions seem boring.  They are familiar.  Even the exotic ones seem to involve too many starchy root vegetables and pickled things.  Where is the color?  Where is the spice?  But….do we have permission to borrow and draw from other traditions?  The world is globalized and society is pluralistic.  The exchange of ideas and culture is almost invisible….but then, so is the theft.  Like the liminal lines between life and death on Halloween (metaphorically speaking) there are liminal lines between exchange and theft (especially when power is hard to see).  Since we are the ones with power….we have to be pretty careful that the exchange is welcome.

I really am curious about the celebration.  I would like to attend.  I have not missed it for any political reasons, but out of a busy schedule.  Because I have not attended, I cannot say with any certainty that it is truly cultural appropriation.  However, it does seem a bit gray and it is something that should be taken seriously.  I want to have fun and I want to celebrate cultures, but….I don’t want to do it in a way that is thoughtless or hurtful.

So, do you think that Duluth’s Day of the Dead is cultural appropriation.  Why or why not?

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