Nov 2, 2021 - World

When Día de los Muertos goes Hollywood

aravan of floats and characters representative of Mexican culture passes through 'Avenida Reforma' at the height of 'La Diana' during the annual 'Day of The Dead Parade
Día de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico city. Photo: Medios y Media/Getty Images

Public celebrations of Día de Muertos, underway in Mexico and parts of Latin America, are increasingly falling under the influence of Hollywood.

Why it matters: Movies popularizing the festivities are changing Indigenous traditions that date back 3,000 years. The changes could “muddle” the holiday so much that future generations may not be familiar enough with their roots, says anthropologist Tomás Pérez Suárez.

Details: Mexico City’s celebration now includes a massive parade with Day of the Dead motifs staged for the 2015 James Bond movie “Spectre.”

  • “Coco,” the popular 2018 Disney-Pixar movie partly inspired by Día de Muertos, was initially controversial because Disney tried to trademark the ancient celebration. The company relented.
  • But the film’s popularity led to further commercialization of the observance, such as an official route that makes picturesque celebrations in Michoacán, Oaxaca and Guanajuato tourist fodder.
  • People now dress up, often inspired by the skeleton Catrina, who represents death. Sociologists say that comes from incorporating Halloween elements from the U.S. into celebrations that were private family observances.
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Shots from the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. The parade was first staged for a James Bond movie. Photos: Gobierno de la Ciudad de México

For reference: Pre-Hispanic rites, such as altars known as ofrendas believed to guide the departed to the underworld, were first fused with Spanish colonists’ Catholic tradition of remembering the dead on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

  • The typically Mexican ofrendas, which often include portraits of the deceased, flowers, poured spirits, incense and other elements to guide souls back home, were declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2008.
  • In other parts of Latin America, the festivities include making an offering at loved ones’ graves of flowers and different foods.
  • For example, Guatemala makes a salad called fiambre, while Andean nations cook up a pastry called T'anta wawa, all meant for families to break bread together and welcome their deceased members back for the day.

Of note: Mexicans in the U.S. have observed Day of the Dead since the 1890s, but the observance has boomed in the past decade, from massive ofrendas in California to parades in Texas.

  • The U.S. Postal Service unveiled a Day of the Dead stamp from artist Luis Fitch, who also designed a Día de Muertos collection for Target.
  • However, the date’s commercialization has been decried as cultural appropriation, as when Mattel unveiled a themed Barbie in 2019.

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