Day of the Dead Moves Into Mainstream Pop Culture
Día de los Muertos is quickly becoming a large part of Halloween celebrations outside of Mexico, as the holiday gains interest.
The models welcoming guests to an exclusive nightclub for a party to launch Mexico’s annual Formula One race, were tall, mostly blonde and non-Mexican.
Each one had her face painted with the boney features of La Calavera Catrina, the elegant female skeleton once used to mock the rich Mexicans who aspired to be Europeans, but increasingly seen as the personification of the Day of the Dead – and a symbol of Mexican cool.
Día de Muertos was traditionally an intimate occasion, a three-day festival from October 31 to November 2 in which the living communed with the spirits of the dead and families remembered their loved ones at graveyard vigils and altars decorated with offerings of food, drink and flowers.
In recent years, however the festival has moved out of graveyard and private homes and into the public sphere in the form parties and parades, including an annual Day of the Dead parade – inspired by a scene from the James Bond movie Spectre.
The cavalcade of giant skulls and revelers in skeleton costumes has only existed since 2016, but has grown bigger each year. “As with everything in Mexico, if the appreciation comes from abroad, then we appreciate it, too,” said Pedro Zurita, a magazine editor in Mexico City.
Outside Mexico, Day of the Dead has shown signs of becoming a “yuppie Halloween – a bit strange and exotic, but still safe,” said Shawn Haley, a Canadian anthropologist in Oaxaca state. “People outside Mexico are starting to celebrate, but it’s more about the living than the dead.”
Nowadays, ad campaigns on both sides of the US border use the festival to promote everything from trainers and designer clothes to consumer electronics and canned goods.
Day of the Dead has even drawn comparisons to Cinco de Mayo, a public holiday commemorating the 1862 Battle of Puebla which is barely marked in Mexico, but is the focus of aggressive marketing campaigns for beer, tequila and bars in the US.
But the festival has also become as much about celebrating Mexicanidad – or Mexican-ness – as remembering the deceased, especially as the country becomes less Catholic.
And if Mexicans seem sanguine as it strays further into the realm of public spectacle, that may reflect the fact that it has already undergone dramatic changes since its origins as an indigenous ritual, said Abraham Villavicencio, a curator at the National Museum of Art.
From the start, it combined indigenous rites with Catholic settings, while in post-Revolutionary Mexico, the festival – and its iconography of skulls and skeletons – featured in the works of artists such Diego Rivera as a celebration of uniquely Mexican identity.
“The celebration has always changed,” said Villavicencio, whose family builds a mammoth 24-square-metre altar each year.
Not so long ago, some Mexicans fretted that the growing influence of US culture would see Halloween wipe out Day of the Dead – but the festival has proved resilient to outside influences.
Villavicencio, 37, recalls a costume day at his school in Oaxaca, where teachers admonished students to find costumes which were more Mexican, which – given the time of year – meant devils, skeletons and Catrinas.
And Mexican stores are more likely to hang papel picado and install altars than display Halloween images such as pumpkins, black cats and bats.
Ad agency Circus has measured social media mentions of both Halloween and Day of the Dead. In 2014, it found Halloween appeared 51% more often in social media conversations than Day of the Dead. But by 2018 Day of the Dead received 9.5% more mentions than Halloween.
“I don’t think the next generation of Mexicans will celebrate Halloween,” said Humberto Polar, president of Grey Mexico, an ad agency. “It’s a holiday that’s fading away.”