Over the past several years, sugar skulls (Spanish: calaveras de azúcar, or simply Calaveras for short) have become increasingly popular in art and fashion. Inevitably, this has led to mass-produced Halloween costumes and face painting kits that show up every October. Of course, sugar skulls do not originate from Halloween celebrations at all, but rather are a traditional part of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. Día de los Muertos is growing in popularity in the United States, which is why the calavera has become such a popular symbol. Before include calaveras in your artwork, however, there are a few things you should know.
In these modern times, Halloween is associated with trick or treating, costumes, and candy. It’s also associated with the grotesque, horror and fear. It is largely a hedonistic holiday all about indulging in food, sweets, and alcohol. Costumes vary between terrifying, provocative, hillarious, and strange. In short, it is a holiday all about the self.
Día de los Muertos, on the other hand, is a holiday honoring deceased relatives and friends. Rooting from the Catholic All Souls’ Day as well as Aztec and other indigenous beliefs, it is a vibrant holiday that bears little resemblance to the Halloween we celebrate today. Food, candles, and Calaveras are brought to the graves of those who have passed on as ofrendas, or offerings. Marigolds are used in abundance due to the belief that they invite the spirits of the dead back to earth. Contrary to the spooky connotations of Halloween, Día de los Muertos is a bright, cheerful celebration.
Sure, it involves hanging out in a graveyard all night with the spirits of the dead while surrounded by skull and skeleton-themed decorations. However, there is absolutely nothing scary or grotesque about a sugar skull. You won’t find ghosts, monsters, or pumpkins on these decorative confections. Instead, sugar skulls are adorned with brightly colored frosting, foil, beads, feathers and even rhinestones. Common decorative motifs include crosses (a product of the Catholic influence on the holiday), marigolds, mandalas and all sorts of patterns. Oftentimes the name of the deceased person the sugar skull is made for will be written across the forehead. The key to sugar skull decorating is remembering that it is about celebrating the life of a loved one – it is a joyous activity, not macabre.
One of the biggest challenges artists face when exploring the art of other cultures is avoiding the cultural appropriation trap. Cultural appropriation is when the dominant culture, or the majority, borrows aspects from minority cultures outside of their intended context. It differs from cultural assimilation, in which minority cultures adopt aspects of the majority culture in order to fit in. Cultural assimilation is forced upon people – cultural appropriation is a means of oppressing minority groups.
A recognized form of cultural appropriation that occurs in the United States is the use and portrayal of Native American symbols in a way that is both incorrect and upholds stereotype. All those “Pocahontas” and Native American costumes you see each year? That’s cultural appropriation. But so are the “Mexican” and “Sugar Skull” costumes (and every other costume that seeks to mimic cultural or ethnic clothing). Painting your face like a sugar skull for Halloween? Definitely cultural appropriation.
The question of calaveras in art is trickier. As a general rule, we let ourselves get away with a lot more in the name of art than we would in our daily life. Art, after all, is a form of expression that shouldn’t be censored. However, there is most certainly a proper way of going about it. Remember, the key definition of cultural appropriation is when the majority culture adopts part of a minority culture out of context.
So, find yourself wanting to include sugar skulls in your artwork but you don’t know how? The first step is to stop and think. Analyze why you want to include calaveras in your work. Why do they inspire you? If the only reason that immediately jumps to your mind is “Because it looks cool,” stop right there. Don’t.
If it’s closer to “Because I want to show my appreciation for the vibrancy of Mexican culture.” Awesome! Please proceed, but with caution.
When proceeding, constantly ask yourself questions. Do you understand the significance of the calavera as a symbol? Have you done your research? Pro tip: Never skip the research portion. You’d be surprised what you will learn, even if you think you already know all about the culture in question.
Don’t limit your research to what you can look up on Wikipedia – go out and live it. Want to learn more about Calaveras and Mexican folk art? Find a friend who celebrates Día de los Muertos and ask if you can join this year. See if your local community hosts any events and don’t be afraid to jump in. In general, people are usually willing to share their culture and knowledge as long as you approach it with respect and an open mind. Participation may not give you rights to a culture, but it does give both perspective and understanding.
Remember, context is everything. If you find yourself still uncertain as to whether or not something is cultural appropriation, stay safe and don’t include it.
And above all, remember this: Día de los Muertos is NOT Mexican Halloween.