Growing up in Mexico, Regina Merson would watch her mum set up an altar in their home days ahead of November 1st, also known as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The holiday is a Mexican celebration intended to honour deceased relatives. She saw religious artifacts and ofrendas (offerings) placed all over the table — like a bottle of vodka for her late grandmother, a record for her late grandfather, and a box of cigarettes for her late uncle. The decor also included sugar skulls (calaveras de azúcar), which are small skull heads made from granulated white sugar and decorated with colours and patterns.
In the days and nights surrounding Dia de los Muertos, festivals took place where Mexican families would paint their faces in the style of La Catrina, a skeleton drawn by cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s as a satirical figure to mock the Eurocentric Mexican elite. The colourful face-painting tradition adds a festive element to the Day of the Dead and still carries political and cultural significance.
Merson would eventually move to the U.S. — taking her Dia De Los Muertes traditions with her. Little did she know that some of these customs were gaining popularity as a costume for the American holiday of Halloween. More specifically, La Catrina, which was being called "sugar skull makeup" was all over the place. "I saw it transform into this thing called the sugar skull," Merson, who founded makeup brand Reina Rebelde, tells Refinery29. "I never knew it as that until this shift started to happen probably like 10 to 15 years ago."
One search for "sugar skull makeup" on YouTube and you'll get thousands of tutorials on the look, and the millions of views solidify the interest in this skull art. Michelle Phan's tutorial has garnered over 5 million views, while Kat Sketch's has over 3 million. And it's only grown more popular after the 2017 award-filming animated film Coco, in which a young character is transported to the Land of the Dead. "It started becoming popular about 15 years ago or so, but it was kicked into high gear by the immense popularity of Coco, in particular, which broke box office records across the globe," says Andrew Chesnut, PhD, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint. He even says that the Disney movie inspired some of his Mexican relatives to start creating altars.
So, how do those who have grown up with these traditions as an integral part of their culture feel about it being recreated by non-Mexicans? Can this favourite Halloween costume be deemed cultural appropriation?
For the most part: no, according to those that we asked. If done without mal intention and with the spirit of the holiday, Merson finds that adaptation can ultimately be positive. "It gives people an entry point into a conversation, and it can make someone more curious about Mexican culture and why we view [this makeup] a certain way," she says.
Mexican-American makeup artists and founders of Salt Spell Beauty, Andrea Ortega Costigan and Mariana McGrath, agree — comparing it to celebrating holidays like Easter and Christmas. "Sugar skull makeup falls at the intersection of creative expression and cultural celebration," they tell us. "There is so much beauty in bringing our cultures together, especially now when the narrative surrounding Mexican culture has so much negativity and heat."
Although there are religious components to Dia de los Muertos, it's celebrated in an uplifting manner and isn't meant to be exclusory. "Day of the Dead is about celebrating your deceased loved ones," says Judith Bautista, an artist who specialises in sugar skull face painting. "This is a topic that can be relatable to anybody. It's not about being exclusive. Those who wish to partake just have to do so with respect and knowledge."
While everyone we spoke to agreed that sugar skull makeup is fine to wear for Halloween parties, there are a few ways to respect the tradition, especially if you are going to a Dia de los Muertos celebration. First of all, it's important to remember that Halloween and Dia de los Muertos are not the same thing, so showing up to a Dia de los Muertos parade or festival with something untraditional can be offensive. "It's excruciating to watch people come to the [Dia de los Muertos] festivities dressed up in Halloween costumes, such as a unicorn or Sailor Moon," says Bautista, who prides herself in educating clients on the significance of the tradition. "Day of the Dead is not Comic Con, Coachella, or Halloween. There is so much historical depth to this holiday."
It's also crucial to know that there shouldn't be any bloody or scary aspect to your sugar skull makeup, even if it's for Halloween and even more so for Dia de los Muertos. "Just think of yourself grieving for your grandmother or grandfather," says Bautista. "Would you dress up in a bloody, scary costume to honour their life?"
If you do want to celebrate the holiday — in the most traditional way possible — the colours you pick hold significance. The primary colours for La Catrina are red, white, and black. "Red symbolises the love for departed family members and friends, while black and white evoke mortality and ghosts," says Dr. Chesnut. However, if you choose to experiment with different colours, it's not unusual to do so.
Ultimately, having this makeup being celebrated beyond Mexico is bringing awareness and appreciation to the Mexican culture, which is important during a time when this group is being villainised in the American political landscape. The important thing is making sure that before you paint your face, you respect the origins of the tradition and take the time to do some research about Dia de los Muertos. As Ortega Costigan and McGrath say, "We hope that the art will draw people to the holiday, and in turn draw them closer to the beauty of the Mexican culture."