Preparations for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, among St. Louis Latino communities are already apparent up and down Cherokee Street and in many of the region’s Mexican businesses. Celebrated the first two days of November, the holiday has the same elements every year: altars, marigolds, sugar skulls — and people comparing the day to Halloween.
“Día de los Muertos isn’t Halloween! It’s not Halloween,” said Minerva Lopez, who lives on Cherokee Street. “We don’t dehumanize death. For us, death is our friend. We see it as something that will happen, and in the meantime that it’s not happening, we’re here to live.”
Lopez has observed Día de los Muertos since she can remember, and has always appreciated its equal reverence to life and death. The holiday rests on the premise that the dead return to mingle with the living. To welcome their loved ones home, people build altars where pictures, food, and drink sit alongside traditional symbols such as crosses, skeleton figurines, marigolds and delicate paper cut-outs.
It’s nothing like Halloween. But it is not uncommon for people to conflate the two, maybe it’s because both holidays have elements that Americans find spooky or their proximity on the calendar. For those who celebrate both, that can be pretty annoying, and even hurtful.
It’s not just that comparing the two holidays can be insulting or disrespectful, said Virginia Braxs, president of the Hispanic Arts Council of St. Louis and a senior Spanish lecturer at Washington University. She said actions that take Day of the Dead imagery outside of its original context (for example, painting your face like a sugar skull for Halloween) can have serious consequences.
“We have to be very careful with cultural appropriation,” Braxs said. “That carries the risk of perpetuating racism, perpetuating stereotypes, and emptying a tradition which is rich with history, ideology, religion, rituals, and trivializing it.”
Día de los Muertos was born from the religious practices of indigenous groups in the heartlands of Mexico, and their passive resistance against Spanish colonial rule in the 16th century, she said.
“They created a synchronicity between the Catholic rituals and indigenous religions, and that continued to evolve over time,” Braxs explained. “During the Mexican revolution in 1910, graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada created the images that we see today of the skeleton that likes to dance, or drink tequila, or do the things we do in life — and that is an intrinsic part of the celebration that we see today.”
Braxs said the historic context and meaning behind each symbol makes the holiday worthy of respect — and not an excuse to drink tequila and stumble around Cherokee street.
Lopez echoes that sentiment.
“At the end of the day we’re celebrating someone’s life,” she said. “It’s not just another day to get drunk. The day of the dead is not like Halloween; it’s the day of the dead. It’s the day that we celebrate life.”
You can learn more about thoughtfully celebrating Día de los Muertos this week during festivities on Cherokee Street and at the Missouri History Museum.
Follow Jenny on Twitter @jnnsmn.