Day of the Dead Halloween Costumes: Cultural Appropriation or Good Fun?

FORT WORTH -- Day of the Dead costumes! Come on down! You're next up on the 'Are you cultural appropriation?' list!

We certainly saw a boom in Dia de los Muertos Catrina skull face-painting this Halloween. It even ended up on celebrities like Disney alum Ashley Tisdale and Full House's Jodie Sweetin. Shortly after, though, came comments that they weren't being considerate toward the Hispanic culture that celebrates the holiday.

So what did we do?

You gotta go to the experts! So, doctor, your thoughts?

"No, certainly not," TCU Professor Dr. Rodrigo Figueroa Obregon said.

In fact, he says the costume is a 20th Century addition to a more than thousand year old tradition. On top of that, the skull masks or paint weren't even meant to represent the dead who are honored.

"It was a political character to make fun of certain politicians," Dr. Figueroa Obregon said. "Basically, they are starving us to death, and this is why we have a skull."

"They'll dress up a skull to look like someone that's living, and it's a time to kind of make fun of that person," added fellow TCU professor, Dr. Mary McKinney.

So what is the true tradition of this Central and Southern Mexican holiday that we now celebrate from October 31 through November 2?

"It's a day to remember all your loved ones that have passed either during the year or longer ago than that," Dr. McKinney said. "A lot of families would have a picnic next to the tombs of the deceased. They would go out to the cemetery to clean it, to wash it, to plant fresh flowers. It's a time for families to come together to have a time to share memories of the deceased person, to laugh, to cry, to sing, to dance."

No, it's not Halloween. In fact, it was originally celebrated in the summertime before European Catholics arrived in Mexico, moving it to align with All Saints Day. The skulls and skeletons show just how different the two truly are.

"A lot of people are afraid of it because they just see skulls and don't understand the traditions behind it," Dr. McKinney said. "They just see a skeleton and death, and they don't understand that it's a tradition that people laugh at death or try to see the good side of it."

They also pointed out that, even in Mexico, Dia de los Muertos is constantly evolving.

"Day of the Dead, like many other Mexican holidays and Mexican productions, are always changing," Dr. Figueroa Obregon said. "We do not always agree with how it is celebrated or how it is not celebrated, but it is complex, and it is constantly going to changed. It is not a fixed festivity."

Northern Mexico, including the capital of Mexico City, didn't used to celebrate Dia de los Muertos at all. Dr. Figueroa Obregon grew up only observing Halloween and going trick-or-treating each year in the state capital. Then he found his wife, a devoteeĀ of the Day of the Dead, and he was quickly converted, proving that it's not just the holiday that's changing. It's the people too.

"Your identity keeps changing over time," Dr. Figueroa Obregon said. "I have become more Mexican in some way, if that's such a thing to become more Mexican. In some ways, I have become more Mexican since I have studied the culture, the history. You learn to appreciate a lot of things that you didn't grow up with."

The bigger concern in these professors' eyes isn't costumes.

"Hopefully people aren't upset," Dr. McKinney said. "Imitation is the biggest form of flattery if you look at it from that point of view. Hopefully, they're not doing it to be ugly."

Their true concern is misunderstanding what the holiday is really about.

"It's a very interesting, colorful and fun festivity, but it is also a way to bond with other people to create a larger community in a sense of unity," Dr. Figueroa Obregon said.

So costumes... probably okay.

Let's maybe hold off on turning this one into Cinco de Mayo 2.0, though.

"If that's the way it's going to come to the US, there's nothing anyone can do," Dr. Figueroa Obregon said. "Nonetheless, if we let people know what this festivity is about, people will embrace it as it is in Mexico and more like we celebrate it over there instead of just depriving it from all its contents and making it an opportunity to drink."