Erasure and Mischaracterization: Dia de los Muertos as a Latinx Culture

Mexico’s Day of the Dead, a custom that continues from Oct. 31 until Nov. 1, has recently ended. Visiting loved ones at their graves and leaving offerings after placing photos and singing songs. Cempasuchil decorating graves with colorful orange petals, and sugar skulls to celebrate the dead who continue to watch over their families. While it sounds like an event of mourning, Dia de los Muertos is a happy celebration to uplift those who have passed on.

Dia de los Muertos has gone from not being known to being highly commercialized by Americans. Consumers who walk into Target will see supplies for Halloween, which is conveniently around the same time, as well as items that are made with Dia de los Muertos in mind. A few of these items include sugar skulls, used to decorate the graves of loved ones; pan de muertos, a special bread that originates from Mexico that is now sold in many places throughout the United States; and different colors of papel picado, a type of Mexican folk art now sold at Michael’s. While this excitement for Dia has skyrocketed, there seems to be a misconception: it’s believed to be universally Latinx.

It’s important to keep in mind that Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico. While there are similar celebrations in Central America, they aren’t the same event, nor are they celebrated the same way. Generalization of Latinx culture leads to a lot of misconceptions and can lead to historical issues like Mexicanization.

Mexicanization on a political level refers to how many Central Americans erased their own identities and would “submit” to Mexican culture in order to benefit from Chicano movements, for lack of having support for their own movements. Chicano by definition only refers to Mexican folks. Due to this, many Central Americans Mexicanized in order to participate in the Chicano movements. By forgetting their own culture, changing their own accents (through usage of Mexican slang), and essentially erasing their real identities, they could classify themselves as Mexican, which was the only way they could be involved in organizations like the Brown Berets and MEChA. Mexican culture became very dominant in the United States. which lead to Central and South American folks being treated as if their own stories did not matter because the focus was on Mexican culture. This hierarchy of Latinx folks still affects us today. When looking at Latinx folks at UCI, we don’t take into account that a vast majority of them are Mexican, meaning there’s much less Central and South Americans. This reflects on the much smaller number of Central and South American organizations available on campus.

With this in mind, it’s important to remember the folks who have lost their identities. Differentiation is important so that we remain respectful to all identities. Just as it’s important to uplift the customs of Mexicans, it’s also important to make sure that we don’t assume that all Latinx folks share the same customs, generalizing and pushing aside other identities. There’s a uniqueness to all identities that should be equally uplifted in our society, more than just assuming that by having a movie like “Coco”, all Americans can relate to the Latinx community completely. Mexican, South, and Central Americans all have different customs, cultures, lifestyles, and lived experiences. There’s no generic Latinx culture, because someone from Guatemala won’t experience the same things as someone from Mexico; that’s why it’s important that as a society we don’t just bunch all cultures as the same thing because they are all “Latinx”.

For example, while Mexico calls their event Dia de los Muertos, in many Central American countries they have an event referred to as Dia de los Santos. While some may believe the two events to be the same thing, Central Americans vary in how they celebrate this event. Guatemala doesn’t actually have a celebration that lasts from October 31st to November 1st – they celebrate All Saints Day on November 1st alone. They fly giant kites on this day, visit their deceased loved ones and make dishes that can only be made with the harvest of the time (fiambre being one of these dishes) — none of which are customs upheld by Mexico.

It’s important to uplift events like Dia de los Muertos and spread positive energy and love for Mexican culture, but it’s also important to make distinctions between Mexican culture and Latinx culture so that commercialization doesn’t try to Mexicanize all Latinx culture. After all, it could get pretty bad, like when you walk into a store and you notice that they have a “Hispanic section” that generalizes what Hispanics eat. Hispanic means “Spanish speaking”, but there’s a few issues with this. A majority of the food in these aisles simply assumes that Hispanics eat spicy food or hot sauce (which isn’t really Hispanic), and a large amount of the food found there also originates from Mexico — other Latinx folks don’t normally eat menudo or pozole.

Identity is important to us, as individuals and as a community, because it gives us validation as people, that’s why we need to make sure that we don’t erase the identities and the stories of others. It’s a lot of baggage to carry, and it’s so important for us to keep their stories and customs alive, so that we validate all people.

Julyssa Sandoval is a third year English major. They can be reached at julyssas@uci.edu.