Are white people turning Dia de los Muertos into a bummer?

A number of readers pointed us to local writer/performer/mom/activist Aya de Leon‘s blog post titled “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us – Stop Colonizing The Day Of The Dead”:

Dear White People (or should I say Queridos Gringos/Gabachos),

Let me begin by saying it is completely natural that you would find yourself attracted to The Day of The Dead. This indigenous holiday from Mexico celebrates the loving connection between the living and our departed loved ones that is so deeply missing in Western culture. Who wouldn’t feel moved by intricately and lovingly built altars, beautifully painted skull faces, waterfalls of marigold flowers, fragrant sweet breads and delicious meals for those whom we miss sharing our earthly lives. I understand. Many cultures from around the world celebrate these things, and many of them at this time of year. As a woman whose Latin@ heritage is Puerto Rican, I have grown up in California, seeing this ritual all my life and feeling the ancestral kinship to this reverent, prayerful honoring of the departed.

Let me continue by saying that it is completely natural that you would want to participate in celebrating The Day of The Dead. You, like all human beings, have lineage, ancestors, departed family members. You have skulls under the skin of your own faces, bones beneath your flesh. Like all mortals, you seek ways to understand death, to befriend it, and celebrate it in the context of celebrating life and love.

I understand.

And in the tradition of indigenous peoples, Chican@ and Mexican-American communities have not told you not to come, not to join, not to celebrate your dead alongside them. In the tradition of indigenous peoples and of ceremony, you, in your own grief and missing your loved ones have not been turned away. You arrived at the Dia De Los Muertos ceremony shipwrecked, a refugee from a culture that suppresses grief, hides death, banishes it, celebrates it only in the most morbid ways—horror movies, violent television—death is dehumanized, without loving connection, without ceremony. You arrived at El Dia De Los Muertos like a Pilgrim, starving, unequal to survival in the land of grief, and the indigenous ceremonies fed you and took you in and revived you and made a place for you at the table.

And what have you done?

Like the Pilgrims, you have begun to take over, to gentrify and colonize this holiday for yourselves. I was shocked this year to find Day of the Dead events in my native Oakland Bay Area not only that were not organized by Chican@s or Mexican@s or Latin@s, but events with zero Latin@ artists participating, involved, consulted, paid, recognized, acknowledged, prayed with.

Certain announcements of some of this year’s celebrations conjured visions of hipsters drinking special holiday microbrews and listening to live music by white bands and eating white food in calavera facepaint and broken trails of marigolds. Don’t bother to build an altar because your celebration is an altar of death, a ceremony of killing culture by appropriation. Do you really not know how to sit at the table? To say thank you? To be a gracious guest?

Read on for more on the politics of it all, and how Halloween used to be spiritual before white people let it get commercialized.

[Photo by Rusty Hodge]

64 Responses to “Are white people turning Dia de los Muertos into a bummer?”

  1. Hillary says:

    The article continues…. please read this part!


    This year, as midterm elections near and “immigration reform” gets bandied about on the lips of politicians, urban young white voters will wear skull faces and watch puppets with dancing skeleton bones, and party and drink and celebrate. But those same revelers will not think for a single second of deaths of Latin@s trying to cross a militarized border to escape from the deaths caused by NAFTA and CAFTA and US foreign policy and drug policies and dirty wars in Mexico and Central America. Amidst the celebration, there will be no thought for femicide in Juarez, for murdered and missing Indigenous women in North America. As they drink and dance in white-organized and dominated Dia De Los Muertos celebrations without a thought for us, except perhaps the cleaning or custodial staff that will clean up after them, we Latin@s learn what we learned in 1492 about the invaders: you want the golden treasures of our culture, but you don’t want us. Since then, white people have shown that they don’t value indigenous life, but are fascinated by indigenous spirituality.

    Not all white people feel this way. Thank you to those of you who speak up against this. Thank you to all who boycott these events, support Latin@/Chican@/Mexican@-led events, hire our community’s artists, and hold the tradition with reverence. For those of you who haven’t been doing so, it’s not too late to start. Challenge white people who attempt to appropriate. Boycott their events and be noisy about it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to participate in this deeply human holiday, there’s something wrong with wanting to colonize.

    And the urge to colonization is born when your own land and resources have been taken over by the greedy and your cultures have been bankrupted. Halloween has a rich history as an indigenous European holiday that celebrated many of the same themes as Day of the Dead, but you have let it be taken over by Wal-Mart. Now it’s about plastic decorations and cheap polyester costumes and young women having permission to wear sexy clothes without being slut-shamed and kids bingeing on candy. November first finds piles of plastic and synthetic junk headed to the landfill to litter the earth. You have abandoned Halloween, left it laying in the street like a trampled fright wig from the dollar store. Take back your holiday. Take back your own indigenous culture. Fight to reclaim your own spirituality.

    Please. Stop colonizing ours.

  2. 0ddib says:

    segregation now! segregation tomorrow! segregation forever!

    • Hazbeen says:

      Ya, the Mission is really an integrated place in 2014…PS. Your pathetic attempt at satire doesn’t work when white people are the ones who support segregation via socio-economic barriers. So when a POC organizes a group that seeks to support their own people, those being marginalized by barriers of any kind be they racial or economic, the majority in power doesn’t get to claim exclusion. Read a book, study history. MM commenters are so sheltered…

      • Greg says:

        fucking white people

      • BabaBooey says:

        “MM commenters are so sheltered…” says a Mission Mission commenter.

      • 0ddib says:

        Thanks for the history lesson, I had no idea wow my mind is blown!

        Look, I have participated in DDLM before (respectfully, not in the boorish fratboy style), but if the Latino community is saying I am not welcome as a white person, then fine, I can get on with my life.

        But I have a hard time believing that a) the Latino community, as opposed to one activist, is really saying that, and b) that such a philosophy is really the best thing for the community as a whole, or for any subset therein.

        Go after the fratboy culture all you want. Protect the traditions that make DDLM what it is. But avoid the blanket racial statements if you want to have broad support within your community.

  3. m says:

    Dia de los Muertos after party featuring DJ Purple, $1 PBR, and people reading the internet on their iphones.

  4. Truth says:

    It’s surprising that someone with so much education would have such a weak grasp of what the words ‘colonize’ and ‘gentrification’ mean. I know they are fun buzz words, but you cannot ‘colonize’ or ‘gentrify’ a holiday any more than you can colonize a bicycle or gentrify a dog turd. White people participating in DDLM is the least of our problems.

    • Tom_in_SFCA says:

      I’ve participated in DDLM in the Mission for almost thirty years. There have always been lots of white people participating.

    • ofcourse says:

      Abstract reasoning must be a challenge for you.

      • Truth says:

        Stop imperializing my words bro! You have no right to gentrify my sentiments like that, conquistador!

    • gabriel says:

      Holidays can’t be colonized!

      Why, just look at Cinco de Mayo. White people celebrate it all the time, giving proper deference to the significance of expelling the French after the Battle of Puebla.

      Everybody knows who Maximilian is!

      Bonus points to everybody who recognizes the fact it is a concomitant celebration of Confederate defeats during the contemporaneous American Civil War, as the Battle of the Alamo had been waged against immigrants who refused to recognize the Mexican prohibition of slavery.

      There’s no way you could make the argument that Cinco de Mayo has been colonized by people with no interest in Mexican culture or the history of its people.

      I mean, unless you were arguing in good faith. If you were arguing in good faith, you could see that there’s a troubling history of erasing the cultural tradition behind a holiday in the interest of making it more “inclusive” to people who want to “participate” and “honor” the culture.

      In that case, there’s a good case to be made that it’s possible for a holiday to be colonized.

      • Truth says:

        Let me help you out with that: What you are talking about is appropriation. You can appropriate culture. Land is colonized, holidays are not.

        • gabriel says:

          You’re right, actually, although I’d make a case for one being the primary source and one being the entailment of that source, but let’s not be pedantic.

          My original point stands.

      • one says:

        Of course everybody celebrates Cinco de Mayo – it only took off when marketers used it to promote beer. Beer transcends race, duh. A little alcohol poisoning brings everybody together.

  5. J says:

    Now it’s just white people in general, so even if you were born here, and are not a “techie”, you too can feel like you are contributing the destruction of world cultures and everything else good in the world. Well done Mission Mission, well done.

  6. R says:

    Wait, didn’t she say she was Puerto Rican?

    So what does she have to do with a Mexican holiday?

  7. Joe Shlabotnik says:

    Our southern border is “militarized.” You have to be shitting me. That border is wide open for anyone who can get through that most racist of countries, Mexico.

  8. Roger S says:

    There are more Salvadorans and others from Central America in the Mission than there are Mexicans. They are less obvious because they are poorer and more of them are undocumented.

  9. Mike says:

    This isn’t Latin American, but San Francisco, California. Of course there will be cross cultural interest in events celebrating various ethnic traditions. White people at Dia. Mexicans at the Asian Heritage Festival. Asians at the bluegrass festival.

  10. Javier says:

    Geez, though I love checking in on MM from time to time, this whole post and some of its inane comments strike me as so problematic of not just Mission political leanings these days, but of our general inability to understand adaptability.

    As a Mexican American who has celebrated this holiday my entire life, I was taught to share the cultural traditions of my family and community with anyone who is interested in learning and sharing with other cultures different from their own.

    I was also taught not to categorize groups of people wholesale and to make assumptions about others simply based off of their interpretations of what my cultural practices meant to them. Case in point: seeing one of my older sister’s high school friends put ketchup on one of my mother’s tamales. I had never seen that before (none of us had!), but we never saw it as heresy or claimed that our tamales were being colonized.

    Such harsh claims by this post’s author are a sad example of what is termed “Cultural Authenticity” by many Chicano Studies academics: it is the notion that one’s understanding of Chicano/Latino culture is seen by an individual as being “less than” and therefore illegitimate. I’ve had this happen to me simply because I am fair skinned and therefore, not a “true” Mexican.

    -And these kinds of claims are bullshit.

    Claims like these exist in exclusivity, which goes against everything I was ever taught about sharing culture. Perhaps the “white people” targeted in this post are “acculturating” as opposed to “colonizing”? Suggesting otherwise is dangerous, and quite frankly, reminiscent of xenophobic comments hurled at immigrants who come here from Latin American countries.

    I can not “own” a holiday or religious observance any more than I can “own” the Sun. None of us can. I certainly don’t want someone telling me that I can’t have carne asada on the bbq grill when I celebrate July 4th, and honestly, even if they did, I’d tell them to mind their own.

    Every culture or group of people have the ability to adapt or alter (pun intended) an existing celebration, art form or practice. Sometimes it even produces something magical. Polka music is what led to Banda, after all.

    I’m not suggesting that the author does not have the right to feel as if a different take on her understanding of a tradition might significantly bastardize that practice. I definitely wouldn’t want to see DDLM turn into Cinco De Drinko II, after all.

    But a lambasting of ALL white people who celebrate this day without a total 110% adherence to traditional practices is just wrong. It pits us against one another. It prevents people from wanting to try something new or understanding a different point of view.

    As Jose Antonio Burciaga once wrote, practicing one’s cultural traditions is a changing USA is difficult. The damnation, the salvation, the celebration of it all.

    • R says:

      Well said.

    • E.R. says:


    • MissionBell says:

      Very thoughtfully said. Well done!

    • DG says:


      Fair-skinned Mexican here (most folks see me as Euro-American) and I can’t deny I’ve sometimes felt the big ole stank-eye laid upon me when I’ve dared to show my face at Latino events.

      On top of all the million-and-one ways society makes being “white” easier than being not-white, Latinos who pull that shit just further incentivize people like me to say ‘fuck it’ and use my privilege to turn my back on the community and move into some awful condo like Vida or a split-level in Walnut Creek. But yeah, that right there is my privilege to do so, and it’s unfair that I get that choice. But it’s also unfair that I have the same blood as any other Latino flowing through my veins, yet I am suspected of colonizing or appropriating a culture that is mine as well when I attend an event like DDLM.

      • mamiel says:

        Funny, I met with a man yesterday who is Puerto Rican. he has blue eyes and very white skin. I’m sure he would have been scrutinized at the event in the manner De Leon is calling for.

        I grew up in the NY area where there are many white Latino and balck Latinos too. This idea that you have to be brownor metizo looking to be authentic Latino seems to be more of a west coast thing but it always saddens me.

    • 0ddib says:

      Finally, a great comment.

    • BabaBooey says:

      Best comment I’ve ever read on this site.

    • Native says:

      The point is we need to educate people about our culture and traditions. I have seen the change over the years in the mission with dia de los Muertos and its very sad.
      The change I feel is taking away what the tradition is really about. For one, its not a parade or mardi gras, or Mexican Holloween, or a circus or burning man or Carnaval. People should really learn about it and give it the respect for what it is and not change it.

      • nigga jim x says:

        first you fake whiteys come here witout even a slaveship then you expect us to learn your tratitions

      • one says:

        For years the procession was quiet and somber and along a different route. Everyone carried candles and most had pictures or signs with the names of loved ones. The last time the procession went the old route there was a giant puppet skeleton surrounded by Burning Man folks whooping it up – how could I tell? Stupid costumes.

        And since then, wherever I look, there are always bros drinking beer like it’s a fraternity party. I saw fewer costumes this go around tho. Maybe last year’s dud with a Viking helmet and a six-pack got the memo.

        Dear upper class newcomers: Learn something about DdLM traditions, act accordingly, then people will respect you for showing respect. If you carry on like it’s Burning Fucking Man, don’t whine that you’re a victim of racism should you be self-aware enough to notice you are not universally loved. It’s not that you’re white (typically) and/or snotty. It’s that you’re a classist tool, a damn fool and not cool. Solution? Start with manners, even if you think they’re “wasted” on someone you consider beneath you. If you don’t feel it, just pretend they’re Stanford graduates. Stop slumming. Take 3 seconds to look up the term “noblesse oblige.” Regards.

        Btw, Dia de Los Muertos is observed all over Latin America and Spain. It’s not exclusive to Mexico.

        Cinco de Mayo? It’s a marketing scheme from the 80s to promote beer. Genius.

        Yo, MM, no charge.

  11. missionbernal says:

    Let’s take a quick look at history. All Hallows Eve was a Pagan holiday that was appropriated by the Cathloic Church when trying to convert the Pagans over to Christianity. They then took their appropriated holiday to Central & South America when they, again, decided to try and convert them over to Christianity. The Central & South American’s hybridized their existing holidays to honor the dead and All Saints Day and created Dia De Los Muertos. So whose holiday is this? Pagan, Cathloic, Central/South American?

    • allsaintsday says:

      Thank you. You said it better than me. Altars, flowers, candles, family, folklore and even skulls can be found over much of the European continent on this day. After all these years the origins of this celebration bind more than they exclude.

  12. S says:

    Dia de los muertos in the mission as I’ve seen it is a slow procession of people with lit candles – not a street party. Although a bit inflammatory, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with demanding respect for an event that is supposed to be sacred. It’d be like crashing Easter service and turning it into the Giants parade.

    • m says:

      Well…San Francisco (White people) is (are) known for turning any and every imaginable holiday into an excuse to drink and pose for Facebook profile pictures…

      • missionbernal says:

        That’s not a characteristic that is specific to white people or to San Francisco. That’s really a multi-cultural and multi-city scream for attention. Let’s blame the millennials!

  13. david says:

    It is kind of absurd to me that immigrants to the USA think it is fine to partake in American culture and society here and at the same time find it offensive that Americans would want to share in in the culture that they brought to the USA. If it is wrong for a white person to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, is it therefore wrong for a latino to bring their kids trick-or-treating on Halloween or to talk about Santa Claus?

    • gabriel says:

      There’s a difference between wishing to keep the holiday exclusive and wishing for the holiday to remain faithful to its intended purpose.

      Everybody white person posting thus far has indicated that they felt included in years past, so claims that latinos suddenly wish to exclude white people rings hollow.

      It’s dishonest to talk about this holiday as an isolated “holiday” with no acknowledgment of the strains being placed on the latino community in the Mission 364 other days of the year.

      Ignoring the realities faced by the community tends to indicate, in fact, that one is not making a simple request for the community to be more “inclusive”. It sounds more like an argument that the community should not assert its right to exist as a recognizable and distinct community at all.

      • david says:

        I totally for keeping the holiday faithful to its intended purposes and away from the commercialization that happens to basically all holidays in the USA. I have no problem with that point.

        My issue is with the statement/opinions that white people (or some pejorative term for white people) who celebrate Dia de los muerte are ruining it or that they should not celebrate it ( “Like the Pilgrims, you have begun to take over, to gentrify and colonize this holiday for yourselves” “Don’t bother to build an altar because your celebration is an altar of death, a ceremony of killing culture by appropriation.”). In regards to this point, please see my first point.

        • gabriel says:

          I get your first point! It’s a very good point. But it gets lost in the specific argument you make.

          As I stated, nobody objected when white people participated in the past. But to participate now, in the context of the community itself perceiving itself as existentially threatened, makes the community wary of that very same participation.

          You could say the community’s concerns about DDlM are not valid, but then are you really participating as part of the community behind DDlM at that point? Not really.

          Does the participation of white people in the holidays of minority cultures change them? I would point to Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day as examples of this exact phenomenon. Does latino participation in Halloween change the meaning of Halloween? No. You might argue otherwise, but I want specific examples.

          Is this, to you, an “absurd” argument for me to make?

      • Truth says:

        Latin Americans eat tamales and Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas. They are not remaining faithful to the intended purpose of the history! They are doing things different! They should not be allowed to participate. /s

        • gabriel says:

          But how an American eats a tamale is irrelevant to how I eat a tamale. Tamales are sold on street corners in Mexico. It’s no more sacred than a hot dog. Comparing that to observation of a spiritual holiday that doubles as a celebration of a particular community shows a disregard and contempt for both.

          • gabriel says:

            Contempt and disregard for the holiday and the community. Not for tamales. I assume you find them delicious, because they are delicious.

    • gabriel says:

      Also, at the risk of over-posting, part of my reaction to your original post is that Mexicans actually have Santa Claus and go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Like, in Mexico, these are things we actually already do.

      It makes me wary of just how mindful you are of latino culture, given that your examples of latino difference potentially infringing on your culture involve cultural traditions WE BOTH SHARE IN COMMON ALREADY.

      Regardless of whether or not it hurts your feelings to consider this, can you see why your own claim to respect latino culture and desire to participate in that tradition can be questioned here?

  14. BabaBooey says:

    I’m gonna go and colonize me some tacos at El Farolito!

    • gabriel says:

      Tacos often resist, as the fillings escape the tortilla in defiance. El Farolito tacos are often quite intransigent in this regard, though such acts of civil disobedience are easily scooped up and devoured.

      The burritos put up less initial resistance, and taste better if there’s any leftovers in the fridge the next day anyway. Be wary of insurgent roommates who might finish your burrito as you sleep, in some misguided demonstration against your al pastor hegemony. If you leave them chips and salsa, they will be complicit in your imperialist policies and have no claim to solidarity with the burrito.

  15. scum says:

    I blame the Spaniards for ruining the Americas.

  16. mamiel says:

    I remember around 15 years ago inviting a (white) friend to go to the DOTD ceremony in the Mission and her responding “I’ll pass. Isn’t that just some kind of white people thing nowadays?”

  17. mamiel says:

    I always believed that the Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday (OK probably Guatemalan too) that is based in part on Catholic traditions and Aztec or Toltec observances of ancestors and the dead.

    I’ve never seen it as simply a “Latino” tradition. To do that eliminates the Mexican indiginous tradition of the holiday.

    de Leon is trying to co -opt it as “her” holiday based on the fact that she has Puerto Rican heritage but I’m not buying it. I’m glad its been shared with her as it has been shared with Anglos in the community. But it is not “hers”

  18. mamiel says:

    I said Anglos! Not white people. There are many white Latinos, try visiting Argentina or Chile or even Puerto Rico some day.

    So a white Argentinian with an Italian surname has the right to call the Day of the Dead “her” holiday whereas an Italian American from Brooklyn cannot? Explain the nuance to me. Why is this De Leon’s holiday as a Puerto Rican American? Is this or is it not a Mexican holiday based on indiginous traditions?

  19. allsaintsday says:

    Day of the Dead exists in white European culture! Shocker! Except it is not called “Dia De Los Muertos” but All Saints Day (The same title given to the celebration in Puerto Rico). In Austria, for example, there is an entire week called “All Souls Week” where graves are decorated with flowers and candles and the barrier between the dead and the living becomes blurred (¿suena familiar?). This week and, specifically, All Saints Day involves celebration, costumes, family and festivities. You know what else is prevalent in Austria and much of Europe – decorated skulls! These traditions can be found many places in the world with a history of Catholicism. So, just like Austria which has pagan roots it is likely Mexico’s Dia de Los Muertos tradition has its origins in Catholicism. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but Catholicism was brought to Mexico by Europeans. My point is, nobody OWNS this holiday and nobody is committing an act of disrespect by celebrating this holiday.

  20. Fon says:

    I see the changes in DDLM as another excuse for whites and ‘the model minority’ to dress up and get fucked up.

    You can do that in Halloween, but no on DDLM… But, just like 5 de Mayo, which the whites uses to get fucked up! the Mexicans feels they are taking maters off the tangent.See, they take a Mexican festivity and celebrate it, but no way Jose they will support any immigration reform. No mames!

    Just like Europeans think, and the latinos prefer to be silent about it, everything that white america takes over is ruined. They commercialize it, they over do it, they add heavy amounts of alcohol, drugs, party you call it…