Nov 1, 2023 - News

How Day of the Dead became mainstream

Illustration of a sugar skull with three GPS location pins on its forehead.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Día de los Muertos, a two-day celebration remembering the dead, begins Wednesday, with festivities honoring the tradition across the state.

Why it matters: Since the 1970s, young Latinos eager to learn more about their cultural roots and a growing Mexican and Central American population have fueled the Day of the Dead's popularity across the U.S., according to Martha Ramirez-Oropeza, a professor at UCLA's Chicana/o and Central American studies department.

Flashback: Before the Chicano Movement was born in the 1960s, widespread racism and discrimination forced families of Mexican descent to assimilate into U.S. culture by speaking English only and celebrating American holidays.

  • "People were taught that their Mexican heritage was … an embarrassment for them. The Chicano Movement was really a reaction against that," Regina Marchi, professor of media studies and cultural studies at Rutgers University, told Axios.
  • Día de los Muertos was an obscure holiday in the Mexican state of Oaxaca for many Mexican Americans.

Chicano activists and artists in the 1970s helped propel Día de los Muertos into the mainstream.

  • Marchi said activists introduced the Day of the Dead in museums, art galleries, elementary schools and universities.

Between the lines: The number of events honoring Día de los Muertos typically correlates with the Hispanic population in a particular city, experts say.

Context: The Mexican holiday dates back centuries to pre-Hispanic cultures and is celebrated between Nov. 1–2.

  • It's one of the few celebrations with both Indigenous and European cultural roots, Arizona State University transborder studies professor Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez told Axios.
  • Families remember the dead by assembling an ofrenda at home. The ofrenda is typically adorned with the deceased's photos, belongings and favorite foods, as well as candles and other symbolic decorations.

The big picture: The tradition has seen increased commercialization over the past several years, from Disney-Pixar's Oscar-winning "Coco," in 2017 to Target offering an ofrenda box complete with accessories. Even Nike cashed in on the holiday with themed footwear.

Yes, but: Scholars worry its meaning will be lost as the ancient holiday grows more commercialized.

What they're saying: "It gets to me. All cultural events in the U.S. eventually acquire this commercial bent, and it dissipates the emotional and cultural meaning of the event itself," Vélez-Ibañez said.

The bottom line: Experts agree that respecting the tradition and understanding its origins are key.

  • Renee Fajardo, a staff member at the Department of Chicana & Chicano Studies at Metro State University of Denver, has a message for people who want to celebrate: Buy from small vendors.
  • This includes bakeries, flower shops, artists and craftspeople whose work creates the materials for altars.
  • This better reflects the nature of the holiday itself, which she says is often a local celebration recognizing people who used to live in the community.

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