An advertisement Australian Museum's Day of the Dead party.
The words “dressing up is most definitely encouraged” are generally music to my ears. Except in the case of the Australian Museum's planned Day Of The Dead party on November 1st in Sydney. The event, a one-off return of the Museum's popular after-hours party Jurassic Lounge, will see traditional Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) elements - including an ofrenda (altar) and Mariachi music - rub rather uncomfortably up against Day Of The Dead-themed burlesque routines, bodypainting, and a silent disco. It's not a stretch to suggest that they are setting the stage for a whole mess of cultural appropriation as a bunch of white people turn up with their best “sugar skull” face-paint on, or worse, "Mexican" costumes.
Día de Muertos is a holiday that originated in Mexico but is celebrated throughout Latin America, which focuses on gathering family and friends together to pray for and remember loved ones who have passed away. Traditions connected with the holiday include honouring the deceased using sugar skulls and marigolds, and visiting the graves of the departed with their favorite foods and drinks.
This is lost on the growing number of people who throw "Day Of The Dead" parties with scant knowledge of the holiday's true meaning. And yet despite the fact that we now know that grabbing a Native American headdress as an accessory for a magazine cover shoot or cute festival outfit is not appropriate, apparently such cultural sensitivity has not yet filtered down to sugar-skull-crazy partygoers keen to smash a few Tecates.
An institution that you think would have a good handle on protecting the integrity of other cultures is the Australian Museum. But given the organisers’ suggestion that attendees (the event is sold out) dress up, chances are there’ll be plenty of “Mexican” costumes on show. Ricocheting as Día de los Muertos does straight off of Halloween, a holiday that is itself no stranger to culturally insensitive get-ups, perhaps some partygoers will get extended wear from their sombreros and flower crowns.
(Ohio University's "We're A Culture, Not A Costume" poster campaign has spoken to this unfortunate tendency among revelers who think it's cool to be "Mexican", "Black", "Asian" or "Native American" for one night.)
Increasingly, Día de los Muertos is treated as "Mexcian Halloween" by people who are less keen to understand the significance of the holiday than they are to smash tacos and party on. This is inevitably defended as "celebration" or "appreciation", as opposed to appropriation, but as This Is Not Our Día puts it, "When white people use a sacred tradition (that historically, was suppressed by whites) simply as an excuse to throw a party, it's disrespectful [...] It's obnoxious when white people are lauded and admired for appropriating a tradition that's still regarded as "savage" by some Anglo eyes."
Is it possible that Jurassic Lounge's event will be entirely respectful, planned to reflect the rich history of the holiday? It is, after all, a tie-in with the museum's Aztecs exhibition. To which I would say, sure, but then there's also that whole "Day of the Dead burlesque routine" thing. Even if the intentions behind the event are solid, throwing it open to costumes and face-painting and free-flowing alcohol seems like a recipe for appropriative disaster.
This is not about saying "YOU CAN NEVER CELEBRATE THIS", which would be a hoot given I am as white as a glass of 2%; rather, that intercultural celebration of certain holidays and traditions is more than possible if done respectfully (don't make me mention the burlesque again).
In San Diego, the holiday is observed with a long-running event in Old Town: "Remember the Old Town San Diego's Día de los Muertos is all about the history, culture, and heritage of the holiday. Please note it is not a street fair. Día de los Muertos is a very special time, when once a year, the spirits of loved ones who have died return to earth to celebrate this holiday with friends and family."
In other words, if you're heading to Day Of The Dead at the Museum, when the organisers say "dressing up is encouraged", if you're not Latin@, take "dressing up" in the way your grandmother intended it: in a very nice party outfit, not your best "Mexican" costume.