If you ask Mexicans how they feel about seeing Day of the Dead makeup on faces around the world… it depends on who you ask. Many say they don’t care. Most are delighted to share their culture and beliefs. Some say it brings positive awareness to a marginalized group.
But in recent years, there has been fierce debate over cultural appropriation. There is a divide on how to define what is ‘cultural appropriation versus ‘culture appreciation.’ This line is especially blurred when talking about wearing artisanal souvenirs and iconic patterns from other cultures.
Mexico’s government has blazed the fire by publicly demanding that several high-profile brands, such as Zara, acknowledge and pay for culturally appropriating indigenous patterns (more on that below). The Minister of Culture argues that each community gets to say whether their culture is being appropriated or not.
La Secretaría de Cultura pide explicación a las marcas #Zara, #Anthropologie y #Patowl por apropiación cultural en diversos diseños textiles— Secretaría de Cultura (@cultura_mx) May 29, 2021
Detalles 👉 https://t.co/VH4wk4G137 pic.twitter.com/reD6vzecNh
But many Mexicans argue Day of the Dead makeup is not cultural because its origins aren’t grounded in indigenous tradition. The imagery was inspired by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada’s satirical depiction of a rich skeleton, printed in a newspaper in the early 20th century.
Artist Judith Bautista argues that celebrating deceased loved ones on Dia de los Muertos is ‘not about being exclusive.’ “This is a topic that can be relatable to anybody… Those who wish to partake just have to do so with respect and knowledge.”
Certainly, most Mexican we talked to agreed that it’s a cultural tradition to share. But as Mexican-American Beauty entrepreneur Regina Merson says, like many others, it’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation when it comes to Day of the Dead makeup… and many easily cross it.
How to Use Day of the Dead Costumes Without Appropriation
Regina says it’s not cultural appropriation if you have good intentions and respect the holiday, which is to celebrate and remember loved ones. But this is vastly different from Halloween and she says painting ‘sugar skull makeup’ with bloody or horror elements is “one of the most offensive things.”
Beauty entrepreneur Yasmin Maya agrees that skull makeup doesn’t need to be strictly for Mexicans. But it started to bother her when she saw people forgetting the significance of the makeup or using it to make money. “To me, it seemed like it wasn’t being respected or honored the way it should be,” she said, according to People. “I think anyone can do sugar skull makeup, but they must honor the holiday and understand the meaning behind it.”
The international community is less sure. When stars such as Kate Hudson and Hilary Duff wore Day of the Dead makeup, many criticized them for cultural appropriation. It’s more cringe-worthy if you consider the thousands of YouTubers with makeup tutorials, on top of the 100,000s of skull makeup images you’ll find searching a few hashtags like #sugarskullmakeup or #dayofthedeadmakeup.
But as is commonly said, ‘there are many Mexico’s.’ It refers to the numerous socio-economic and cultural differences that exist around the country. So it’s no surprise that there is no clear answer to the question: is it cultural appropriation to dress up with the Mexican calavera (skull) makeup?
What Is Mexican Cultural Appropriation?
The big question is, of course, what is ‘culture’ and what is an inappropriate use – ‘appropriation’ – of it?
Cambridge broadly defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”
The BBC defines it further: “Cultural appropriation is when a tradition, such as clothing or a hairstyle, is taken from a culture and used in a different way. Appropriation means taking something from somebody without their permission.”
Oxford adds that appropriation is done by dominant cultures of minority groups.
So, according to these explanations (especially Cambridge’s broad term ‘things’), a non-Mexican dressing up for Halloween with Day of the Dead makeup could easily be defined as cultural appropriation.
But Is Day of the Dead Makeup ‘Cultural’?
Some argue that painting your face like a Mexican skull does not have cultural heritage. It is not an ancient tradition of Day of the Dead but rather draws from the character known as “La Catrina,” created in 1910 by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. The image featured a skeleton in a fancy, feathered hat. It was a satirical comment that no matter our riches or status, we are all equal in death.
However, the fine line arises considering the Catrina has become a dominant costume in Mexico used for a UNESCO-recognized cultural event. The Catrina was also part of an artistic movement to create and strengthen the Mexican cultural identity.
One consideration is that Mexico only declared independence some 200 years ago. It is still in the flux of finding and cementing what is its cultural identity, which is a mix of old and new traditions. For example, the modern version of Day of the Dead is a mix of indigenous and Catholic traditions. We explain more about celebrating Dia de Muertos here.
So it is a fair argument that other countries probably shouldn’t use Mexican iconography if it related to a cultural event, no matter the age. Certainly, many fall on this side of the divide, arguing that Day of the dead is subject to mass cultural appropriation.
But, the reality is that even Mexicans are divided over how ‘appropriation’ should be defined.
So who gets to decide?
Does Mexico Care About Cultural Appropriation? Yes, in a Big Way
This is starkly opposite to the pursuits made by Mexico’s Ministry of Culture in recent years. Cultural Secretary Alejandra Frausto Guerrero has been on a crusade to demand international brands pay their dues to the indigenous communities they culturally exploit.
She has called out many designer brands for inappropriately using cultural elements in their fashion without proper credit and collaboration with Mexico. In a press release, the Ministry of Culture accused brands of ‘privatizing’ the property of indigenous communities and demanding they should create an ‘ethical framework’ directly with these craftspeople.
A long list of designer brands was accused of cultural appropriation of Mexican designs without asking permission and paying due rewards, including:
- Carolina Herrera
- Isabel Marant
- Louis Vuitton
- Michael Kors
In one of the latest crackdowns in 2021, Zara was blasted for copying ‘ancestral symbols’ and designs similar to the ‘huipil’ dresses by Mixtec women in Oaxaca. Zara denied it to CNN and said it “in no way intentionally borrowed from or was influenced by the artistry of the Mixtec people of Mexico.” But the dresses are no longer for sale.
Anthropologie and Patowl were similarly accused and asked to return the ‘benefits’ to the indigenous communities in Oaxaca that Mexico argues invented the embroidery techniques and patterns the brand copied.
This adds to an ever-growing list Mexico has accused of appropriation, although responses have been varied. When Frausto wrote to French designer Isabel Marant that her EUR 490 Gabin Cape appropriated patterns of sarapes and jorongos by the Purepecha community, Marant offered her ‘most sincere apologies.’ BBC reported that she said future designs would ‘pay tribute to our sources of inspiration.’ Yet, Marrant was also accused in 2015 for a similar infringement.
Mexico’s argument to Marrant was based on the abuse of cultural value: “Some symbols that you took have a deep meaning for this culture, whose language has no linguistic kinship with any other language in the world. This symbolism is very old and has been preserved thanks to the memory of the artisans.”
Frausto argues that cultural appropriation is up to the people to decide: “The communities should decide whether to accept it. You have the chance to be an ally in the defense of the cultural heritage of peoples and communities, recognizing the great value of this knowledge that we must respect.”
Frausto also blasted Carolina Herrera in 2019 for using print and embroidery techniques and patterns in its Resort 2020 ‘without permission, without respect, without any economic consideration.’ The cultural connection was acknowledged by creative director Wes Gordon, who said the collection paid ‘tribute to the richness of Mexican culture.’ But this appreciation-appropriation came as surprise seeing Herrera had collaborated with an indigenous community on a bag collection in 2015.
La #4T va por un México sin plagios a artesanos, que las marcas pidan permiso y compartan sus millonarias ganancias con los pueblos indígenas. Y el primer golpe lo dio contra la icónica marca de #CarolinaHerrera y su colección 2020 inspirada en México pic.twitter.com/GckzcTSjaz— Ciro Gómez Leyva (@CiroGomezL) June 13, 2019
The National Regeneration Movement has also been vocal in showing opposition to brands that appropriate, along with several commentators who use the Twitter hashtag #MéxicoSinPlagio – “Mexico Without Plagiarism.” Addidas was one of the latest to be called out by the Oaxacan
Y va de nuevo, ahora con la talavera de Puebla… Empresas irrespetuosas que una vez más se esconden en supuestos “homenajes” a elementos de nuestras diversas culturas.@adidasMX#ElOrigenSíCuenta#DefiendoElArteMexicano#MéxicoSinPlagio pic.twitter.com/ZSuABi6i22— Susana Harp Iturribarría (@SusanaHarp) September 12, 2021
“The communities themselves, creators and bearers of this heritage, must be the center of their economic and cultural development,” Frausto argued.
Some call for Mexico to tighten its copyright laws to better protect indigenous designs. This could significantly change how outsiders will be allowed to use symbols and patterns. Although based on the government’s dialogue, it will be accepted provided the communities allow it and are the ones who receive the benefit.
Certainly, this would be one way to address the government’s otherwise lack of support to indigenous communities.
The Changing Landscape of Mexican Appropriation
Time will tell if the ministry will finally achieve its aim to ‘prevent plagiarism’ by companies and protect the ‘rights of native people who have historically been disregarded.’ But it might also be met with a similar response when Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) demanded Spain apologizes for abusing indigenous rights. Spain rejected AMLO’s proposal in place of agreeing on a “constructive perspective” instead.
Certainly, online searches show that people are starting to question where to draw the line but also highlight the confusion behind it. Searches are as varied as ‘are Mexican blankets culture appropriation’ to ‘is eating Mexican food cultural appropriation.’
With only some 200 years as an independent nation, Mexico’s cultural identity is still developing and shifting. In 10 years, this question will likely be answered in a completely different way.