Fall means an abrupt change of the seasons in the Pacific Northwest, as perpetually overcast skies arrive for their months-long stay.
The season also brings a tangible and figurative connection between life and death, as evidenced by the popular cultural practices that resurface every year in late-October-early-November. For many of us who originate from the Mesoamerican region, this is also a time of year that is as much a celebration as it is a time to cringe at mass commercialization and how it perpetuates a caricature of people and cultures, especially those who inhabit the social and economic margins.
I figure this is as a good an opportunity as any to break down how Halloween and, more recently, Día de Los Muertos, are reshaped by capitalist forces to sell imagery that is dehumanizing and strips meaning from these celebrations.
With Halloween, it finally goes without saying: Do not dress in any offensive stereotypical costumes depicting a gross mischaracterization of other cultures. I mean, just don’t. You’ll thank me later. People of color should not be making this public service announcement every year into perpetuity.
People of color should not be making this public service announcement every year into perpetuity.
With Día de Los Muertos, it seems that commercialization is really driving a distortion of symbolism. In Mesoamerica (modern day Mexico), this time of year is meant to remember family and community members who have passed. The altars are created to honor the memory of those before us, whose influence profoundly impacted how we view the world and how we transmit knowledge from one generation to the next.
In the United States it seems that meaning associated with Día de Los Muertos is removed from its original context and conflated with Halloween — which is, of course, not a coincidence. The distortion is every bit a hallmark of commodity fetishization that proliferates under our market economy and recreates a facsimile that is “safe” for replication and consumption.
In our present reality, this is also a sad replication of other historical processes that adapted cultural markers while denying the dignity of the bearers and creators of these cultures.
In sum, there are two different things that are happening with both holidays: the replication of systemic dehumanization (e.g., racist Halloween costumes) and the appropriation and decontextualization of cultural symbols (e.g., crass commercialization).
There are two different things that are happening with both holidays: the replication of systemic dehumanization (e.g., racist Halloween costumes) and the appropriation and decontextualization of cultural symbols (e.g., crass commercialization).
Both are side effects of settler-colonialism, like the practice of obtaining cultural trophies from marginalized and systematically neglected peoples.
Granted, this is a lot to keep in mind as we approach the season. What’s important to remember is that there is distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Making the effort to learn and educate oneself about another culture is a key first step that limits the potential damage inflicted on others.
Oscar Rosales grew up in the Yakima Valley and is a Master of Social Work student at the University of Washington. He has previously contributed to HistoryLink.org and the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project.
Read the full October 23 - 29 issue.
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