There’s a reason you saw more sugar skulls and calaveras on the streets of the U.S.A. this year.
It’s one of the many after-effects of the second major historical wave of U.S. migration from Mexico, which more or less coalesced around the opening of the North American market and has reached net-zero in relation to migrants who are returning to Mexico. In its wake, Americans have adopted the taco truck, the liberal use of Spanish phrases in rap by major American hip-hop stars like Kayne West and Kendrick Lamar, and the Days of the Dead.
The (Days or) Day of the Dead, aka "Dia de Muertos," is celebrated November 1 to 2, overnight. Mexicans at home make altars for their departed, while on the streets the holiday has morphed into a carnival of sugar skulls, calavera skeleton figures, and crowns of marigold flowers.
Since last weekend, countless communities from big cities to rural counties in the United States took on festivals and special events, concerts, art openings, and exhibits related to Day of the Dead. Morrissey — idol to many, many Mexican American mozheads — headlined last night's Day of the Dead festival in Santa Barbara.
Inevitably, given current trends in liberal academic theory, Day of the Dead has become a flash-point in ongoing debates about cultural appropriation in U.S. consumer culture. The imagery related to the holiday will abound in a forthcoming Disney/Pixar animated feature titled "Coco"; cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz is a consulting producer on the film, which can't be anything but a good thing.
Until then the holiday's peak use by the mad machine occurred last year in the opening sequence of the 007 Mendes-directed movie “Spectre” — which was about the most memorable portion of the film. In the opening, lead Daniel Craig walks along Tacuba Street in downtown Mexico City with Mexican actress Stephanie Sigman, both wearing masks.
They stroll into the lobby of the Gran Hotel (which is actually several blocks away), all the while passing elaborately dressed extras in costumes basically evolved from the Catrina of Porfirian-era illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada, and familiar to anyone who's been to the Muertos festival at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. (I first wrote about it in 2002.)
* Not a "tracking shot."
This year the PRI-led federal tourism agency in Mexico decided to mimic the “Spectre” scene in real life, organizing a Day of the Dead parade and thereby closing a really perfect loop on the cycle of appropriation. All those extras and performers who participated in the original shoot likely got another round of work from it, too.
Some voices — especially among Mexican-Americans north of the border — see all this trendiness as a sign of how rapidly the holiday has been commercialized in the United States, a country where it seems every organic form of cultural expression becomes bought, packaged, and consumed almost as quickly as it arrives. Wearing calavera make-up can be culturally insensitive, some argue, and "cheapens" a custom that originated somewhere far in Pre-Hispanic times.
This argument gets us nowhere — except maybe giving some thinkers another reason to berate and lecture "white people." It presumes Dia de Muertos is culturally pure, and only those of Mexican-origin can correctly practice it. Any adoption of its practices or any tangential expression that occurs when the holiday interacts with a broader society is somehow a threat.
Yes, commercialization is problematic, but it isn't a death sentence. And it is definitely a false arena for engaging in any loopy racial binaries, as Mexicans can be of any race.
Although its roots have never been properly laid out, and are almost besides the point, it is clear Dia de Muertos is far from a pristine cultural tradition. The movie-inspired parade in Mexico City proves the commercialization of Dia de Muertos itself knows no borders. And — just to make your appropriation headache worse — Halloween has conversely spread in the last decade in Mexico.
This whole phenomenon is not simply a "gringo" crime.
As LA Weekly just reported, the modern "Dia de los Muertos" music-and-arts festivals of today probably all find their roots in the first Day of the Dead artist festival help at Self-Help Graphics in East Los Angeles, led by Sister Karen Boccalero, in 1973.
In a recent email chain with Harry Gamboa Jr, artist Ruben Ortiz Torres wrote the following, which I asked to reproduce here:
People dressing and painting themselves like skeletons (although they look more like pandas) is a fairly new thing in Mexico. I would argue [it's] more a Chicano thing to latinize Halloween that ended up inspiring James Bond that now is becoming a tourist spectacle in Mexico City.
And, he added:
By the way it was Robert Rodriguez in one of the installments of “El Mariachi” that invented the Day of the Death parade before James Bond.
I asked historian Claudio Lomnitz, author of the groundbreaking study "Death and the Idea of Mexico," what he thought about the accelerating commercialization of Day of the Dead. This is what he had to say:
In rural towns, Days of the Dead markets were the biggest of the year, and commercialization of the festival in the cities is also a phenomenon that has been around literally for centuries. So, in itself, I don’t see commercialization as something to bemoan or regret.
It is, in fact, also part of the “Mexican way,” and not only of the “American way.” Having said that, I do think that the meaning of the occasion is changing deeply. On one hand, Days of the Dead is increasingly becoming unmoored from the religious beliefs that gave rise to it — especially from the idea of praying for souls in Purgatory — and has become increasingly secularized. On the other hand, the carnivalesque dimensions of the festival are often stressed today — thence its fusion with Halloween and, beyond that, with Hollywood renditions of the festival.
I think that Días de Muertos is bound to continue to pick up interest and popularity in the United States because the tradition of the altar for the departed offers a badly needed time and space for remembrance of our dead. This, more intimate, aspect of the holiday, is genuinely offering something to US culture, regardless of religion. In that respect, Día de Muertos is proving to be not unlike Thanksgiving: it is easy to adopt.
... I just dug through the Intersections archives and found these highlights of my related writing: