This is a common scenario in recent years. You scroll through Instagram looking for Halloween costume ideas, and you end up browsing through grids and hashtags to find make-up tips or hairstyles that stand out from the crowd. A celebrity is seen in an intricate Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead), get-up. Their face is decorated with skulls in the La Catrina style. You then read the comments.

One person wrote, “It would be wonderful if you didn’t apropriate Mexican culture like this,” about Ashley Tisdale’s Day of the Dead Halloween look from 2016. Another replied, “Lighten up ppl. It’s a costume. It’s not just Tisdale that has caused social media debates about the subject.” Many YouTubers, and stars like Kate Hudson and Hilary Duff, have worn what’s commonly called “sugar skull makeup” on All Hallows Eve. This was followed by criticisms from dozens calling it cultural appropriation.  But is it?

woman with sugar skull makeup

Being a Latinx, who lived in Mexico City for most of my childhood and still visits the country regularly, I can admit that I was initially confused about the backlash. Although Dia de los Muertos is not related to Halloween, nor is it only observed in Mexico, it was one my favorite holidays growing up.

We would decorate plates and figurines in bright shapes and bake sweet bread, and then decorate sugar skulls (calaveras-de-azucar) with shiny tissue papers to take to the altar to remember the deaths of our loved ones. Still, for people outside of the culture, not acknowledging the tradition’s origins (which is part-indigenous and part-Catholic), and instead seeing it as nothing but a great Halloween costume, is offensive – but it doesn’t have to be.

“As a makeup artist I’ve seen sugar skull makeup trends explode and fall in line with appropriation but I also love to see people express their culture and art,” said Valeria Leyva, a Mexican-American makeup artist. “Dia de los Muertos” is not just about painting your face in the shape of a sugar skull. We are paying tribute to our loved ones who have passed on. Death is seen as the beginning of another existence. There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. It all depends on how you view it, and how people carry on a tradition that isn’t their own.”

The main point of contention, according to Regina Merson, a Mexican-American beauty entrepreneur who founded Reina Rebelde, is the numerous points of differentiation between Dia de los Muertos, and any other holiday that involves dressing up in costume, such as Halloween.

Merson stated that it is not a holiday about horror or fantasy, but something that is meant be positive and soulful. “It is offensive when people paint Catrinas and make them look scary or bloody. This Catrina is not a comic-book character, but a dead relative.”

Sugar skull makeup can be used if done with the right intentions and respect for its significance. Merson also created three Reina Rebelde products: a 4 play dry eye color in Azteca and an On Your Face Contour + Color Trio, both in Coqueta. The Lip Brilliance color is in Bomba will be available at Walmart this month.

Merson stated, “Once people realize how sacred the holiday, they will be able to participate and appreciate it.” The makeup you make [in celebration of Dia de los Muertos] must be beautiful, vibrant, and uplifting. This is how you honor someone you love, and celebrate their life here on earth as well as their return visit from the afterlife. This feeling of love, respect and admiration should be reflected in the makeup.

woman in red and blue floral headdress

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