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Are Sugar Skulls on Halloween Offensive?

Over the past several years, society has highlighted times that certain things may come across as cultural appropriation. Now, some are starting to question if wearing sugar skull makeup on Halloween is inappropriate. It depends on who you ask, but there appears to be agreement that some appreciate others representing their culture. 

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 It's a scenario like so many others in recent years: you're scrolling through Instagram for Halloween costume inspiration, weaving through hashtags and grids for makeup ideas or hairstyles that stand out in a sea of the same. You spot a celebrity in a beautiful, intricate Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) get-up, their face painted with decorated skulls in the style of La Catrina. Then, you read the comments.

"It'd be great if you didn't appropriate Mexican culture like this," one of many people wrote of Ashley Tisdale's Day of the Dead Halloween look in 2016. Another responded, "Lighten up ppl. It's a costume." Of course, it's not just Tisdale who has sparked debates on the matter across social media. Stars like Kate Hudson and Hilary Duff and countless YouTubers have also stepped out on All Hallows' Eve wearing what's often referred to as "sugar skull" makeup, followed by dozens of critics calling it cultural appropriation. But is it?

As a Latinx person who lived in Mexico City during the formative years of my childhood, and who continues to regularly visit the country with deep appreciation for the culture, I'll admit I was initially confused by the backlash. While Día de los Muertos is in no way related to Halloween — in fact, the two holidays are entirely separate — nor is it solely observed in Mexico, it was one of my favorites to celebrate growing up.

Over the course of three days, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, we would paint plates and figurines with bright patterns and shapes, bake delicious pan de muerto (sweet bread), and decorate calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls) with shiny tissue paper to bring to the altar — all to honor the death of 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 the sugar skull makeup trend blow up and fall in the line of appropriation, but I also love seeing people expressing their art and representing my culture," said Mexican-American makeup artist Valeria Leyva. "Día de los Muertos is more than just painting your face with the shape of a sugar skull; we are honoring our loved ones that have left this earth. We see death as the beginning of another life, so there is a very fine line between appropriation and appreciation. It depends on the way you see it and also how people carry a tradition that's not originally theirs."