Posted on November 1st, 2019
The commercialization of a people's traditions and culture is a practice which fascinates me. Partly because those traditions are usually sanitized for those who would never make even the slightest effort to understand their origins. But mostly because it creates this disgusting mingling of cultural identity blending with people who loathe those behind the culture. The same people who proudly hate immigrants are the same people who love eating a burrito while chugging $5 margaritas at a bar on Cinco de Mayo. The same people who laugh at the plight of our neighbors to the South trying to escape horrific violence are the same people who get sugar skull tattoos and decorate their homes for the Day of the Dead.
Which is "Dia de los Muertos."
Which is today.
Generally speaking the Day of the Dead is actually a three-day holiday. It begins on All Hallows Eve (October 31) when altars are built to invite the spirits of dead children to visit. On All Saints Day (November 1) spirits of dead adults are invited to visit...
Then it all culminates on All-Souls Day (November 2) when the spirits of relatives are honored by visiting their gravesites to light incense and decorate them with marigolds, skeletons, calavera de azucar (sugar-skulls), and all kinds of other decorations and offerings... including the departed's favorite foods and drinks or, in the case of children, their favorite toys...
I say "general speaking" because Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in many different ways... even between regions of a single country like Mexico where it is a national holiday. Here in the USA there are, of course, traditional celebrations in our Hispanic communities. Everywhere else, Mexican and Latin American bars and restaurants use it as a way to promote their businesses. And, naturally, there are those who just think that sugar-skulls look cool so they display them on their dashboard or on their mantle for exotically fun decorations.
And then there are the cultural-appropriation-for-profit endeavors which actually do try to honor the traditions on which the original culture was built so they can enlighten and educate. Take for example the 2017 Pixar film Coco which is a beautifully animated movie that uses Dia de los Muertos as inspiration for both its story and visuals (it's where the stills above come from). This is a jaw-dropping, gorgeous film with a heartwarming message that works very hard to honor rather than exploit the culture which is responsible for it...
This is not to say that there are not those who would believe that Coco is a prime example of exploitation of a people by a mega-corporation that is appropriating their culture for money... and that's a valid assessment. But there are also those who see the film as a celebration of their culture, and are happy that their traditions are being represented and given visibility so beautifully. This piece on the reaction of indigenous peoples of Oaxaca watching Coco (many of whom had never been to a theater before) is wonderful to see.
As somebody who is not native to Dia de los Muertos, has never had it be a part of their culture, and knew almost nothing about it aside from seeing sugar skull tattoos on Ink Master, I was grateful to Disney/Pixar for educating me about the Day of the Dead. It's thanks to Coco that I took the time to read up on the holiday by those whose culture is responsible for it. And after educating myself I was able to truly appreciate what a beautiful celebration it is. Not necessarily for the dead... but for the living who keep their spirit and memory alive.
If you haven't seen Coco yet, this weekend would be the perfect time to remedy that. And if you have? It's a great time to watch it again. I know I will be!