Dia de los Muertos Gains Acceptance and Recognition Across the US, but Results in Its Commercialization

Fruitvale Day of the Dead Festival 2016

The Day of the Dead is mixture of ancient rituals and Christian beliefs and therefore according to the author of Day of the Dead in the USA, Regina Marchi, the holiday is “not authentically pre-Hispanic in the sense of being pristine, primitive or natural”, but it forms part of the Mexican and Latino cultural heritage and it continues to be celebrated across Mexico and Latin America.

Regina Marchi says, “Despite its somber-sounding name, el Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is a form of celebrating life, honoring the dead and acknowledging death as a part of life with music, food, and decoration”. Gravestones and alters are adorned with Cempasuchil flowers (yellow marigold flowers that were used by the indigenous and are considered the flower of the dead), candles, incense, skeleton figures, sugar skulls, pan de muerto (all souls’ bread) and colorful papel picado (paper cutouts).

While the holiday is now widely celebrated in the US, that has not always been the case. Before 1970 any display of Latino culture in art, education and mass media was rare. After the 1970’s museums, art galleries, and community centers have brought Latino culture into popular culture by hosting Dia de Los Muertos celebrations and activities surrounding the holiday.

Many people within the Latino community believe the celebration of the Day of the Dead in the US lacks “authenticity” and has drifted from the ways it was celebrated by the indigenous, while others state that the Latino holiday serves as a way of educating the public about aspects of Latino culture, history, and identity.

The rise in popularity of the Day of the Dead has led to large corporations like Walt Disney using the holiday. This became a problem when Disney pursued the rights to the title “Day of the Dead” and themed merchandise, including candy, food, clothing, shoes, jewelry, children games and toys, for their film. Disney’s attempt to trademark Dia de los Muertos is an example of cultural appropriation and exploitation. Underlying this controversy is the question, -shared by many, whether this Latino holiday should be celebrated in the US the way it has been celebrated traditionally: -within a spiritual realm, or if it should be altered according to the local community celebrating it.

Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo argues that the Day of Dead should maintain its “Indian mysticism and aesthetics,” which is being replaced by Halloween symbols due to the increase in tourism and other American influences. Others believe that the holiday is a form of expression and a way for everyone to honor and celebrate their dead –not just Latinos, because it is a celebration that speaks to all people and brings different generations, ethnicities, languages, and cultures together. Regina Marchi states that the “creators of Day of the Dead altars, processions, poetry, and art impart a sense of human interconnectedness on a local, regional, national, and even international level.”

Among the various cities and communities that hold Day of the Dead events, the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland has the largest Day of the Dead festival in the US. The components of the festival include local artists -and artisans displaying their artwork and handmade items, Aztec dancers of all ages, food stands, live music and various alters that are exquisitely detailed and hold a theme or message of local, national and international issues pertaining to the community and groups of people connected to them. It has been celebrated since 1995 and has grown to include 60,000 people from diverse backgrounds. The Fruitvale festival has been recognized by the Smithsonian and the US Library of Congress, listing it as a “Local Legacy” for California. In addition, the holiday even forms part of UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

The ways in which the holiday is celebrated in the US differ across all communities, which has diverged from its more traditional aspects. In some US communities today, for example, celebration of the Day of the Dead may include masks and costumes like Halloween.

Has the popularization of the holiday, made it a less significant cultural heritage event and more like Halloween?