Union Condemned For Cultural Appropriation

Leeds University Union have been plunged into controversy regarding their Halloween event, which, despite being marketed as ‘The Living Dead Festival’, was populated by decorations emblazoned with the phrase ‘Day of The Dead’.

This has provoked accusations of cultural appropriation from some members of the student body, who feel that the event has trivialised the Mexican cultural festival Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead).

The cultural festival has its roots in the Catholic event of All Souls’ Day, as well as Aztec and other indigenous beliefs. Its aims are to honour deceased relatives and friends, with food and candles being brought to graves as offerings.

As well as the ‘Day of the Dead’ sign which dominated the stage of Stylus, other decorations contained Christian crosses, clearly problematic due to the festival’s Catholic roots. Moreover, there were instances of ornate skull decorations, which most attendees would presume to be inoffensive ‘sugar skulls’. However, ‘sugar skulls’ are inspired by ‘Calavera’ or ‘Catrina’ images, which many Mexicans wear masks of for Dia de Muertos. These masks are a powerful cultural symbol which are used to mock death, to show that the wearer is not afraid of such a fate.

This is not the first time that the issue of appropriating Dia de Muertos has arisen in Leeds. Earlier this year, Leeds based company Sneaky Experience announced that they were hosting a ‘Leeds Day of the Dead Fiesta’  on October 25th-27th which was met with widespread criticism.

Dr Laura Loyola-Hernández, a specialist in the politics and culture of Yucatán, Mexico, has written extensively on the subject, claiming:

“In the last two decades, Halloween marketing around the globe has appropriated Día de los muertos (Day of the Dead). Nowadays, it is very common to find in stores across the UK some type of imagery or costume associated with Día de los muertos. While I welcome people outside of Mexico embracing new customs and traditions, for Mexicans as myself this is something more than a fad. It is part of our culture, a way to see life and a form to remember our ancestors.”

Leeds University Union spokesperson said:

“We are always eager to take all cultures into consideration when planning an event. Unfortunately, our design supplier misinterpreted our brief and provided us with a decoration and signage that could be culturally inappropriate. We will work more closely with companies in the future to make sure we are always celebrating rather than misappropriating cultures.”

For more information on Dr. Loyola’s views, check out her blog on the subject, as part of an ongoing investigation at the University of Leeds History Department:


Reece Parker

(Image: Jonny Chard)