San Marcos,
11:40 AM

Sugar Skulls and Hipsters: Student Research Looks at Cultural Appropriation

By Whitney Frasier

Dia de los Muertos has become more than just a holiday for Cal State San Marcos graduate Vanessa Martinez.

Calaveras, or sugar skulls, represent departed souls. They originated from the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, also known as Day of the Dead. In its origin, the holiday was an indigenous celebration to honor loved ones who died. For others, it is has become a combination of religious beliefs and indigenous rituals.

Martinez’s research, titled Sugar Skulls and Hipsters: The Cultural Appropriation and the Commodification of Dia de Los Muertos, focuses on the effects that cultural appropriation and the commodification of cultural traditions tied to Dia de los Muertos can have on Latinos.

“Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life through the stage of death, which can be confusing and even seem morbid to others, but it is meant as a time of reflection and joy,” Vanessa said, who majored in human development and sociology. “There are various ways of celebrating it. People celebrate it distinctly throughout Latin America, but it is equally significant and is done in dignified ways.”

Cultural appropriation in this case is the act of a dominant culture taking elements from another culture, such as symbols or attributes, and using them to their advantage without permission or compensation.

“This process contributes to the commodification of Dia de los Muertos objects, such as the sugar skull,” Vanessa said. “Companies, like ones in the alcohol industry, are using these elements to sell products, and by doing so the actual value of the sugar skull is dismissed. This is how commodification occurs.”

Vanessa spent many hours researching the holiday, conducting interviews and participating in events surrounding Dia de los Muertos. She also performed a content analysis of how Halloween trends have become the stage for appropriating the sugar skull image to be used as a costume. As a result, she found that stereotypes were formed through the misinterpretation of information while interacting with other cultural groups.

“I believe there are acts of resistance against the commodification against Dia de Los Muertos, however, the communities that are appropriating may not understand or care about what they are doing,” Vanessa said. “I want to expose how people from dominant groups are appropriating cultures and how it's just another act of oppression directed towards communities of color. People are just not aware of what is happening. 

“With my research, I hope to start a dialogue about people who are striving to protect their cultural identity and how they may be misguided into supporting their culture by consuming brands that portray Dia de los Muertos as anything but the sacred tradition that it is. And to also understand the effects on communities of color, in this case Latinos, and how the holiday has in some cases been reduced to sugar skull cookies and Halloween costumes.”

The importance of studying and recuperating indigenous acts of resistance has become crucial to Vanessa’s research.

“It’s imperative for cultures to stand strong in their own identity in order to maneuver in racially hostile environments,” Vanessa said. “We need to protect our cultures and find guidance in the ways that our communities have done for so long while at the same time learning about different approaches to social justice.”

She noted that it was also critical for her and others to understand how there is always a constant change in the correct way to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, and how to explore the gray area of what is considered cultural appropriation.

“I want people to know that disrespecting a culture by appropriating it for personal interests such as fashion trends or for profit is in part exacerbating conditions for oppressed communities,” Vanessa said. “It has been shaping and strengthening harmful stereotypes that have been attached to our communities. Additionally, people need to realize that stereotypes lead to the discrimination and criminalization of our communities.

“Taking time to research and understand the meaning of symbols will bring awareness to understanding different cultures. It will also make people aware of what we as consumers wear or use and discover who is really benefiting from our purchases.”

Vanessa plans to continue her research regarding the origins of Dia de los Muertos, folklore and indigenous traditions. She also plans to study racial microaggressions in academia, immigration politics, diversity in higher education and feminist studies.