The holiday with indigenous roots is being widely adopted by the mainstream, leaving many grappling with how to preserve its cultural significance.
Día de los Muertos is an ancient cultural and spiritual holiday that honors deceased loved ones and celebrates the legacy of mortal life. In recent years, the holiday’s traditions of colorful Mexican marigolds, painted faces etched with dark skeleton outlines and decorated sugar skulls have attracted corporate entities. From 99 Cents Only Stores to Walmart, from Target to Williams-Sonoma, many companies have begun selling mass-produced merchandise depicting imagery rooted in indigenous traditions.
Mattel recently released a Día de los Muertos-themed Barbie, which sold out quickly. Famously, Disney’s 2017 movie “Coco” was mired in controversy at the outset due to their bid to copyright the name “Día de los Muertos” in 2013. But after they withdrew their application in response to major public outcry and brought on community leaders as cultural consultants, the film went on to gain wide popular and critical acclaim, earning more than $800 million at the box office worldwide.
Ligiah Villalobos is a Mexican-born writer, producer and educator based in Los Angeles who earned a consultant credit on the Disney film. Although she did not grow up practicing Día de los Muertos due to her Mormon upbringing, she says she feels a sense of pride at the popularity of the holiday, noting that “Coco” is the highest-grossing Pixar movie not just in Mexico, but also in China.
“We have this beautiful holiday that’s teaching people about the respect and the love that we have for the relatives that have passed,” Villalobos says. “That’s a beautiful thing to share with the world.”
When Villalobos sees Día de los Muertos merchandise being sold by corporate entities, she doesn’t view it any differently than any other holiday that is being commodified, such as Easter or Christmas. She says the film’s popularity has given her greater artistic freedom as a Mexican filmmaker than she had before its release.
However, many say they are worried about the significance of Día de los Muertos being lost.
An altar, or ofrenda, constructed by East L.A. multimedia artist Consuelo G. Flores honoring the dead. Image courtesy of Consuelo G. Flores.
Anita Tijerina Revilla is a professor of Chicana(o) and Latina(o) studies at California State University, Los Angeles. Revilla is a fourth-generation Tejana who grew up celebrating Día de los Muertos in San Antonio but says she particularly noticed its cultural significance to the community when she first moved to Los Angeles in the late ‘90s. She has since seen its popularity explode.
“What’s happening right now is that Latinx culture is, by and large, getting more representation in the mainstream imagination,” Revilla says. “In their minds, in their lives, in their practices. I think that’s great, it’s an act of representation and an act of inclusion.”
But she would like to see people enjoying the culture of Latinx communities — whether its tacos or Día de los Muertos — more thoughtfully, with care and empathy. “In that empathy, what I mean is, I want them to care that Latinx people are being mistreated, by and large, scapegoated by the government and the alleged leadership of this country,” Revilla says. “And I want them to care about what’s happening to them and to their children when they’re being mistreated at the border, for example.”
Revilla notes that one positive side to Día de los Muertos goods being offered inexpensively by some major retailers is that it provides people who might not be able to afford artisan products greater access. For example, educators who wish to buy such goods in bulk for use in cultural education in the classroom. However, she says, it ultimately comes down to the intention of the person.
“One of the biggest critiques is the co-optation of a spiritual and cultural practice,” Revilla says. “The other critique is that Día de los Muertos is conflated with Halloween, versus an actual religious/spiritual connection to the dead.”
Awakening and Reconnecting with the Spiritual World
Ernesto Vega is someone who knows about the spiritual side of Día de los Muertos. As an adult faith formation coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — the largest Catholic diocese in the U.S. — he helps host the diocese’s two annual Día de los Muertos events in Oxnard and East L.A. Originally from Michoacán, Vega has lived in Los Angeles for 30 years. He says his primary role in the diocese involves the study of indigenous civilizations. He grew up celebrating Día de los Muertos but says he didn’t fully understand it until he began studying it in seminary and went on to compile more research in Mexico with priests, anthropologists and indigenous people nearly 25 years ago.
While individual local parishes had celebrated Día de los Muertos previously, the diocese-wide celebration began six years ago with Archbishop José H. Gomez, who is Mexican-born. Vega says this has led to greater awareness and accuracy regarding Día de los Muertos throughout not only the Latinx community, who have often lost touch with their traditions amidst racism and pressure to assimilate but also among the multi-ethnic cultures that make up the parishioners of the diocese.
“One of the things I’ve observed is that by celebrating this festivity you are telling the children of Mexican Americans, or the children of Latino Americans, ‘It’s okay to celebrate your traditions,’” Vega says. “Their identity as a Latino American becomes stronger, self-esteem increases and that is the healthy aspect of the spiritual world, that we are called to another life that is not about spooky, violence, killing. It’s about hope, life, communion, celebration of family, helping each other.”
Beyond Corporations, a Community Experience
Consuelo G. Flores is an East L.A. Chicana multimedia artist and poet who has become known for her public altars, or ofrendas, built to honor the dead. Flores agrees there’s an important community-based intention that goes into altar-making. Her work is often dedicated not only to her own family members but also to those whose lives have been taken from them unjustly, such as the 43 Mexican students who disappeared five years ago.
One such ofrenda, which includes remembrance of San Fernando Valley homicide victims, is on display in downtown at Figat7th. Her work is also featured at Grand Park, along with more than 40 elaborate altars by local artists and community organizations. For the past seven years, Grand Park has hosted public celebrations of Día de los Muertos by partnering with Self Help Graphics & Art, an East Los Angeles Chicanx institution that has been rooted in the community since 1973.
Flores’ family, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, was one of many who had lost touch with the traditional practices of Día de los Muertos. As an adult, Flores began to reconnect with the tradition when she went to Self Help Graphics to seek out resources in the 1980s. Since then, her three sons, her husband and even her infant grandson have all become involved in her process of creating her ofrendas, decorated traditionally with paper flowers in bright colors.
“We talk about the [decorations], the reasons why I’m going to incorporate the butterflies of Michoacan,” Flores says. “We talk about my brother, my mother, my father, the people who have passed on. And then, we also quite frankly come to terms with our own mortality. We talk about how we want to be remembered and what we want for the final days and what we want for the goodbye. It’s something that brings it home. That is lost when it is bought at a store.”
On a recent Monday night, an all-ages procession about 150 strong made their way down Olvera Street past vendors, to the end of L.A.’s historic brick road. Led by men and women in elaborate feather headdresses denoting Aztec heritage, many with faces and clothing decorated to resemble skeletons, they paused. Turning their bodies to each of the four directions in turn, the leaders lifted the incense so it poured richly out into the night sky, calling their deceased loved ones home for a visit.
The Olvera Street procession has been celebrated during the nine days leading up to Día de los Muertos for over 30 years. Accompanying performances by Teatro del Barrio, Aztec dancers of Grupo Tartalejos and a bilingual dedication to an Olvera Street merchant family, as well as public ofrendas are also part of the event.
Andrea Amaya and Alexis Prado, both 19 years old, made the trip from Santa Clarita to participate in the festivities. Each had painted their faces on one side to resemble colorfully decorated skulls — an acknowledgment that the living are mortal and a reminder to honor both life and death.
Amaya’s parents immigrated from Jalisco, Mexico and San Salvador, El Salvador; while Prado’s parents are from Guadalajara and Nayarit, Mexico. But like many Chicanos and Latinos, neither Amaya nor Prado were exposed to an in-depth understanding or regular practice of the tradition as they were growing up.
Amaya says it was less through pop culture and more through social media groups that she’d been able to begin to connect with indigenous community and traditions. It’s something she and Alexis say they are re-introducing back into their families while trying to be conscientious consumers by eschewing mass-produced Día de los Muertos products.
“Business will take advantage of whatever they can,” she says. “Cultural appropriation is a thing, you know, they just want to make money … This is always going to come up because they’re always going to feed off of cultures that are trendy.”
Prado adds, “But then on the flip side, places like [Olvera Street] also benefit because more people want to come to places that have more indigenous items and have been selling stuff like this from the beginning.”
What is the most significant aspect of rediscovering Día de los Muertos for themselves?
“When my parents came here, they were about the age I am now, just starting off by themselves in this whole new place,” Amaya says. “And so with that, they had to really let go of a lot of their culture and their past to be here and assimilate and figure it out. Us making a personal choice to come back to it embraces that culture within my mom. Like, this is the first year we’re building an altar because that’s an idea I’ve pushed to her, but she’s really enjoying it.”