My daughter recently picked up a Day of the Dead-inspired calavera (commonly referred to as a "sugar skull" by non-Latinx Americans) at a local shop and told me "it's for Halloween!" Not quite, sweetie! That same afternoon, we turned on Super Monsters: Vida's First Halloween, an extended episode of the Netflix show, and received a child-friendly lesson into precisely this topic.
In the episode, Vida (voiced by Mexican actress and director Gigi Saul Guerrero) experiences her first Halloween with the Pitchfork Pines Preschool monsters, having recently moved to town from Ciudad de Monstruos, where she celebrated Dia de los Muertos. For the first half of the episode, the costumes, jack-o-lanterns, and practice of trick-or-treating are sources of confusion, and sometimes fear, for Vida, but she ends up embracing the differences between these traditions and her own. Although Halloween's origins date back to Celtic times (the Celts believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to Earth on October 31), this part of the story focuses on Halloween's current significance as a day for spooky activities, pumpkins, costumes, and sweet treats.
In the latter half of the episode, however (after a two-day time jump), it's Vida's turn to introduce her friends to Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday of mourning, with the help of her Abuelita (voiced by Maria J. Cruz) and cousin Lobo (Alessandro Juliani). After the monsters try to bring out magic tricks and Halloween-inspired activities, Vida explains that "Dia de los Muertos is a celebration to remember the people who are no longer with us."
"Like my husband, Abuelito," Abuelita adds. "He was Lobo and Vida’s grandfather. He was a wonderful werewolf. He was very speedy, just like you, Lobo. And he was full of life and very loving. Just like you, Vida."
Abuelita even teaches the monsters that the traditional alters seen in Mexican celebrations of Dia de los Muertos are "called an ofrenda, which means it’s an offering. It’s how we remember the people that came before us."
In less than 30 minutes, my 3-year-old was able to understand that Dia de Los Muertos is not just "Mexican Halloween," and to our family, this feels like an important lesson.
As writer Nik Moreno explained in Wear Your Voice Magazine, "The spiritual ritual [of Dia de los Muertos] dates back 3,000 years, and it has outlasted more than 500 years of colonization ... While most people see death as an ending, we view death as a continuation of life. Instead of simply mourning loved ones, we celebrate the lives that they had. On November 1 — Dia de los Inocentes — we celebrate the babies and children that have passed. On the next day, we celebrate the adults."
Moreno further noted that all of the imagery associated with Dia de los Muertos has meaning. Marigolds are utilized because they symbolize death. Pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) and water are placed on alters to give loved ones "nourishment and strength on their journey." Calaveras, both the clay formations referred to as "sugar skulls" and those painted on people's faces, are a "means of mocking death. In this way, we’re telling death that we aren’t afraid of it."
All of these images appeared in Super Monsters, and are handled with the utmost of care. Although Dia de los Muertos originated in Mexico, the celebration has spread to other parts of Latin America, including Colombia, where my family is from. In the U.S. and other Western countries, on the other hand, Day of the Dead imagery has become so popular, with paraphernalia sold everywhere from Target to Spirit Halloween, that the symbols have been turned into costumes in and of themselves — caricatures of everything they are meant to signify.
What I hope that my daughters can understand through learning about the differences between Halloween and Dia de los Muertos is the value of appreciating cultures outside of their own, and participating in them respectfully, without appropriating them.
Vida and Abuelita welcome their friends into their Dia de los Muertos celebrations, but the beauty of the narrative is that those friends (who aren't Latinx) learn that it is not their place to rule over that celebration. Esmie, the monsters' teacher, even tells them early on that "instead of everyone guessing what tonight is about, we should ask Abuelita and Vida to explain it to us."
What I hope that my daughters can understand through learning about the differences between Halloween and Dia de los Muertos is the value of appreciating cultures outside of their own, and participating in them respectfully, without appropriating them. As author and creative writing educator at UC Berkeley Aya de Leon has written on the topic, "It is completely natural that [non-Latinx people] would want to participate in celebrating The Day of The Dead. You, like all human beings, have lineage, ancestors, departed family members."
Unfortunately, the desire to participate can soon turn into domination. "I was shocked this year to find Day of the Dead events in my native Oakland Bay Area not only that were not organized by Chican@s or Mexican@s or Latin@s, but events with zero Latin@ artists participating, involved, consulted, paid, recognized, acknowledged, prayed with," she continued. "Certain announcements of some of this year’s celebrations conjured visions of hipsters drinking special holiday microbrews and listening to live music by white bands and eating white food in calavera face paint and broken trails of marigolds."
Although this is all heavy stuff, the beauty of Vida's First Halloween is that the crux of the information is presented in a way that is accessible to our little ones. There is even a scene that tackles the feelings of sadness that may come with thinking about loved ones who are no longer with us (something especially important to consider when dealing with kids, who are only just beginning to learn about death and loss). When Katya, one of Vida's peers, seems a bit upset during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations, Vida and Lobo come to the rescue. "It can be sad to think about people that aren’t here anymore," Vida notes. "But it can also make you happy to remember when they were here," adds Lobo.
Come the end of the episode, the monsters all have a clear understanding of the differences between their traditions. More importantly, they realize that when it comes to participating in other cultures, there are ways of doing so without taking the culture as your own. All in all, it was a great half an hour spent with my daughter, who will hopefully now have a solid foundation for navigating these big ideas in the future.