Calaveras can be stunning. The replicas of human skulls made of clay or sugar often feature intricate patterns and bright colors that are best described as beautiful. But calaveras aren't just decorative objects for your home or inspiration for Halloween costumes. They're part of Mexican culture.
Unfortunately, and without fail on a yearly basis, people paint their faces to look like calaveras and wear costumes to mimic the "grand dame of death" — or La Catrina — for Halloween. This year was no different. High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale posted photos of herself wearing a Day of the Dead-inspired look.
Fans critiqued the outfit, writing, "Literally this is cultural appropriation" and another stating in all caps, "THERE'S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REPRESENTING AND APPROPRIATING A CULTURE." While some defended the costume, it didn't quell the anger from fans to whom the costume is offensive.
Fuller House star Jodie Sweetin posted photos of her matching Halloween costume with fiancé Justin Hodak on Saturday. Sweetin and Hodak had their faces painted like calaveras while Hodak wore a mariachi outfit.
In one photo, the pair is holding a trophy, their prize for "best couples costume" at a Halloween party. While their friends may have thought the look was awesome, Instagram users were quick to call out Sweetin for the offensive makeup.
"Thanks for wearing my culture as a costume. Really appreciate it," one person commented on Instagram. Another user wrote, "That is NOT a Halloween costume. It's the way my people celebrate the lives of those who have passed on. Please stop appropriating a tradition you don't fully practice or embrace."
If you're not sure why this is a big deal, it's because Day of the Dead (or Día de los Muertos) is a Mexican celebration intended to honor deceased relatives. From October 28 through November 2, families remember family members who died in accidents, children who died in birth, and other relatives who died tragically. Families set up shrines for their deceased loved ones decorated with religious artifacts and yes, calaveras.
Perhaps the most recognizable element of Día de los Muertos is La Catrina, the elegant skull that is symbolic during Day of the Dead commemorations. According to Andrew Chesnut, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of religious studies who specializes in Latin America, La Catrina was created originally "as a satirical figure to mock the Eurocentric Mexican elite, whose policies were resulting in hunger and starvation for 90% of the Mexican populace."
He told Refinery29 that "the skeleton is the representation of the death of the policies this dictatorship was having in Mexico." Clearly, there is a much deeper meaning to Día de los Muertos than pretty face makeup.
It's a sacred family holiday, so when people try to sexualize La Catrina, it's offensive. And it's not Mexican Halloween. So when people wear face paint to look like calaveras or don ethnic costumes to mimic the culture, they're not honoring the holiday. Instead, they're using someone's culture as a costume. And as we've written before: that's just wrong.
Unfortunately, these celebrities didn't get that message before stepping out for Halloween. For Sweetin, Tisdale, and anyone who might have considered this as a viable costume, please use this guide if you're unsure whether or not you might be committing cultural appropriation. Remember: Certain things are off-limits and “relax, it’s just a costume” is a lame cop-out — especially when you know the entire world is going to be watching on social media.
Correction: An original version of this story misstated that Jodie Sweetin was wearing a mariachi-inspired outfit. It was actually Sweetin's fiancé who was wearing the mariachi-inspired outfit.