Why You Should Think Twice Before Using Sugar Skulls as Halloween Decorations

published Oct 19, 2020
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Day of the dead altar with sugar skulls

Halloween is coming up, and whether you’ve always celebrated the holiday or are getting extra into the festivities to inject a little joy into your life wherever you can, you’re probably amping up how you set the spooky mood indoors. I’ve never been a “Halloween person”—and there likely won’t be trick-or-treaters stopping by my door this year—but I’ve recently splurged on some pumpkins and taper candles and even considered buying a festive welcome mat. However, I’ve noticed something alarming while perusing the seasonal aisle: A careless lumping of Día de Muertos traditions, such as elaborately painted skulls and papel picado, alongside Halloween decor. 

I can understand why this happens. Calaveras—or the representation of a skull in clay or candy form, hence the English term “sugar skull”—are kind of spooky. They’re skulls! But that’s where the resemblance stops. Unlike the viral 12-foot skeleton from Home Depot, calaveras and other symbols of Día de Muertos have a deeper meaning for people who observe the holiday: They are the loving, joyful representations of loved ones who have passed away. Unlike Halloween, which has become commercialized and secularized, Dia de Muertos is proof of Indigenous survival—and conflating the two through shared imagery whitewashes both a holiday and the memory of so many beloved ancestors. 

For thousands of years, the Aztec peoples of what is now Southern Mexico honored and remembered their dead during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar. Theirs was not an observance of grief, however: They celebrated death with love, knowing that their dead were moving onto a new stage of life, a practice opposite of what happens in many Western traditions. But when conquistadors imposed Catholicism in the 16th century, the pre-Hispanic month of celebration was tacked onto All Saints Day, forcing the Aztecs who weren’t killed by disease or violence to adapt and assimilate. 

“Prior to the Spanish invasion, people in Mexico used to make altars for the dead, and they used to put real skulls on them,” Juan Aguirre, director of the Mexican heritage nonprofit Mano a Mano, said in an interview with Refinery29. “But the Spaniards, when they saw those celebrations, didn’t like them. They thought it was gruesome to put bones on altars.” That’s when the new tradition of leaving calaveras or the family member’s favorite foods at the ofrenda emerged. 

Not all visual signifiers originated as a result of Spanish disdain, though. The inverse is also true: Arguably one of the most famous modern Día de Muertos traditions stems from an early 20th century political cartoon by José Guadalupe Posada, portraying a skeletal woman wearing a European-style hat with feathers. Known as La Calavera Catrina—or La Catrina for short—the cartoon took aim at Mexicans who were seemingly all too willing to abandon their Indigenous ways in an effort to emulate Eurocentric standards. His point: We are all equal in death. La Catrina soon became an icon, a middle finger to colonization, and a callback to the Aztecs’ first goddess of the dead, Mictecacihuatl. 

At the core of Día de Muertos is flourishing perseverance. It’s a holiday that has outlived the intentions of colonization and subsequent co-opting by the assimilated Mexican elite. Despite Mexico’s oppressive treatment of Indigenous traditions, Día de Muertos remains cherished not only in Mexico, but in the other parts of the world that are now home to members of the Mexican and Indigenuos diasporas. For instance in the U.S., Chicanos and Tejanos have been tapping into their heritage by hosting huge parades, educational events, and history teach-ins, all tied to Día de Muertos. 

But with visibility comes its own set of problems: The reclaiming of Mexican heritage has been beautiful to witness, but runs a risk of non-Indigenous audiences deciding they are “trendy” or flattening their traditions to aesthetic choices alone. Movies like Disney’s “Coco, Barbie’s Catrina doll, and even makeup artists on Youtube may all mean well, but can divorce powerful imagery from their historical context. While some of these nods to the holiday attempt to raise awareness and celebrate heritage in an accessible way, it often comes with a hefty price: The door to cultural appropriation—when someone takes from a culture that is not their own, and often in an offensive way—can be left wide open. (For its part, Pinterest took steps earlier this month to further educate users searching for so-called “day of the dead” content, and especially the popular calavera makeup that is often stripped of meaning.)

While many Mexicans are happy to share the special traditions of Día de Muertos with  non-Mexicans, we are also understandably wary about seeing a holiday with such a painful past become diluted once again. To remove Día de Muertos from its context is to willingly colonize it. To decorate your home with cempasúchils and calaveras alongside Frankenstein cutouts and bats cheapens the meaning of a reverent holiday, and is in many ways insulting to the memory of many people’s ancestors. 

When I think about Día de Muertos, I think about small smiles passed from elders to toddlers, hot chocolate spiced with a little bit of chipotle, intricate papel picado tattering in the cool November air, and most importantly photographs of loved ones lined up on an ofrenda adorned with marigold petals. A few years ago, a beloved member of my dad’s best friend’s family passed away shortly before Día de Muertos. We hired a mariachi band and danced in her memory, knowing that her spirit may no longer be suffering in the mortal realm, but that she is always with us. This year, I will find similar ways to celebrate my own grandmother who passed away in August—and while I will be doing so alone and from the quiet of my Brooklyn apartment, her presence will still be felt. The decor I buy will be with intention and care, to honor a loved one whose memory lives on through me and our traditions.