This holiday is celebrated in various ways according to location. Many celebrations involve going to the graves of passed loved ones, setting up altars (at home and at the graves), and sharing memories of those who have died. The altars can be decorated with photos, favorite items of the dead, food such as pan de muertos, flowers, and decorated sugar skulls. People often spend the day cleaning and decorating the grave, having meals together, and remembering loved ones. The skull is a commonly recognized symbol of the holiday--not just the intricately decorated sugar skull we all think of today, but traditional skulls too. They can be made of chocolate, sugar, or even worn in mask form. While this sounds morbid to some, it is actually all done with a beautiful lightheartedness, with bright colors and a sense of positivity that is unique to the holiday.
It is from this skull tradition that the increasingly popular sugar skull face painting originated. Celebrators wearing masks during the holiday has evolved and grown into actually painting their own faces. It is seen as a chance to overcome your fear of death, and get in touch with a darker side of yourself. This has often been the role of masks throughout history in every culture around the world--if your real face is hidden, you become a different version of yourself not normally seen. All types of skulls have long been an element used in art, especially tattooing, and the sugar skull is growing in popularity as a tattoo motif as well. Artists explore the meaning of it while the designs become more and more intricate and beautiful.
Many people object to the mainstream, widespread use of sugar skull motifs. They see it as cultural appropriation of something that is part of a sacred holiday, and if you don't belong to the culture or celebrate the holiday then you shouldn't participate. As face painters, this is not a view we quite agree with. While we firmly believe that use of motifs from other cultures should be done with a healthy dose of respect and knowledge of the history of the symbols, we do not think that because we aren't of Mexican heritage that we cannot explore the culture and art. Attitudes like this just promote ignorance and intolerance--education and knowledge are the keys to tolerance. Understanding the traditions of other cultures allows us to connect to others on a human level, where previously we did not understand and hence were fearful or even hateful of that culture. So this is where we stand on this issue--do not paint your face as a sugar skull just because you appreciate its beauty. Appreciate its beauty, learn about where it came from, and use it as a touchstone to further your own knowledge. Then maybe it will have a deeper meaning for you.
Explore & learn! Local Southern California Dia de los Muertos celebrations include the 13th annual celebration at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, an intercultural event combining old traditions and exploring new ones.