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Not 'Mexican Halloween': Day Of The Dead Events Put Spotlight On Culture

When the Longmont Museum began its Dia de los Muertos celebration 18 years ago, the holiday was not well known -- at least not locally.

"That first year maybe 30 people came," said Ann Macca, the museum's curator of education.

Over the years, the event -- and the holiday -- has grown in popularity thanks, in part, to films like "Book of Life" and "Coco." Now the museum hosts one of the largest Day of the Dead events in the state with festivities occurring throughout the month of October leading up to the Nov. 1 and 2 holiday.

That includes an 11-piece series of altars, including contributions from local and national artists and the community, Macca said. But with its increase in popularity -- as well as its proximity to Halloween -- there has also been an increased discussion over cultural appreciation versus appropriation. Appropriation occurs when elements of a minority culture are used without regard for the original context.

"A lot of people think that Day of the Dead is 'Mexican Halloween,' which it is not," Macca said.

Traditional dances are often part of Longmont Museum's Dia de los Muertos celebration. The museum has hosted Day of the Dead events for the past 18 years.

While both holidays are based in Catholicism, Halloween is about scaring away spirits, while Day of the Dead is about inviting the spirits back.

Dia de los Muertos is a way to honor those who have passed away, she said. Traditionally it's celebrated by going to the cemetery, cleaning the graves of loved ones and building altars in their honor. Often an altar includes a photo of the person, along with some of their favorite foods and mementos.

Because of its positive outlook on death, grieving and remembrance, it's no wonder the holiday is so appealing to people of all cultures, Macca said. But it's important to be respectful.

Appropriation could include mixing in aspects from Halloween or participating in Day of the Dead activities without learning about its history. It's not automatically wrong to participate in Dia de los Muertos events without having Mexican heritage, she said.

"The key is doing that from a place of understanding and a place of respect," Macca said. "If you don't understand and respect the traditions and know where they came from (and) respect the people for whom it's a native experience, that's where you get into the weeds around cultural appropriation versus appreciation."

To make sure the museum's events are respectful and in keeping with tradition, organizers work with more than 100 local volunteers, including a committee from Longmont's Mexican-American community.

"When you are representing another culture's traditions and heritage, if you are not consulting people from that culture then you are really in for trouble," Macca said. "Day of the Dead is celebrated all over Mexico and Guatemala, and in different regions there are different traditions. So it's not like there is one right way to celebrate this holiday, but there are a lot of, maybe, not so sensitive ways to do it."

Credit Longmont Museum
Longmont Museum
Local and national artists, as well as community members, create altars each year for the museum to display.

In past years, the museum heard criticism that altars built by community members along downtown Longmont's Main Street did not follow the traditions of a typical altar.

"So in response, we started educating people," Macca said.

Now altar contributors must fill out an application and are given background into the history, symbolism and the cultural significance of the altars.

This year, the museum is also hosting the panel discussion "Stirring the Melting Pot" to examine the issue of cultural appropriation. The museum concludes its Day of the Dead events with a day-long festival, including music, dancing and food, on Saturday, Nov. 3.

Editor's Note: Longmont Museum is an underwriter with KUNC. We maintain a strict firewall between funding sources and the newsroom. Coverage or editorial decisions are solely at the discretion of KUNC's newsroom.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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