Rising Popularity of Día de los Muertos
Día de los Muertos is a significant tradition celebrated in Mexico. It's been practiced for thousands of years, beginning with indigenous people such as the Aztecs and Toltecs. This important holiday has been gaining popularity in other countries.
They didn’t consider death the end of one’s existence but simply another chapter of life. Rather than grieve their dead, ancient Mexicans celebrated the lives of the deceased and honored their memories. During Día de los Muertos, observed Oct. 31- Nov. 2, they believed the dead had a brief window to leave the spirit realm and visit their loved ones in the mortal world.
Three thousand years later, Día de los Muertos (called Día de Muertos in Mexico) is celebrated globally. Observers visit gravesites, make altars for the dead, and leave offerings for them. Over the millennia, the holiday has changed in more ways than anyone living now can possibly know. The 16th century arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to Mexico saw the imposition of Catholicism on indigenous customs. The Catholic Church recognizes Nov. 1 and 2 as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, respectively, and scholars say modern Día de los Muertos observances have indigenous roots with European influences. But for generations, the holiday has widely been practiced by people of Mexican ancestry, which is why the recent trend of outsiders partaking in Day of the Dead celebrations has led to cries of cultural appropriation.
The Growing Popularity of Día de los Muertos in the US
It’s difficult to pinpoint just one reason why people who don’t have a cultural connection to Día de los Muertos are rapidly taking interest in the holiday, but the trend has been covered from coast to coast, with the L.A. Times publishing an article about Day of the Dead’s commercialization in 2017 and the New York Times following suit in 2019. Changing aesthetics, demographics, and religious beliefs likely bear as much blame for this phenomenon as social media, geography, and pop culture do.
Two years ago, Walt Disney Studios released its stunning Pixar animated film “Coco,” which had a plot that relied heavily on the Day of the Dead tradition. The movie was both a critical and commercial success, grossing more than $800 million off a $175 million budget. It won an Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and numerous other awards. In addition to “Coco,” the 2015 James Bond film “Spectre” features a scene set during a Día de los Muertos celebration in Mexico City.
Recently, an unlikely influencer sparked a dialogue about cultural appropriation of the holiday. A $75 Barbie Día de los Muertos doll with blue-black braids, a black mermaid dress, and the skull makeup and marigolds associated with the tradition debuted in September and promptly sold out online. (It is still available from select retailers at markedup prices.) Mexican Americans had mixed responses to the doll, with some hoping that it would increase Latinx visibility in the US and others arguing that it constituted cultural appropriation since white-owned corporation Mattel would profit rather than communities of color.
Geography contributes to Day of the Dead’s popularity as well. In cities such as Los Angeles, with large Latinx populations, celebrations of the holiday have taken place for years. An episode of the PBS SoCal show “Artbound” has linked U.S. observances of the holiday to the artists involved with the community arts center Self Help Graphics & Art. They worked to popularize Día de los Muertos in the 1970s, a time when the Chicanx community in L.A. had become politicized while fighting against the Vietnam War and social injustice. On Olvera Street in historic Los Angeles, Día de los Muertos celebrations have taken place for more than 30 years, and at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, it has been observed for 20 years, well before the cultural appropriation debate about Day of the Dead began.
As the Latinx population grows (it is currently the largest minority group in the U.S.), such holidays will continue to have more influence than they once did. But some of the newest Day of the Dead observers likely have no link—geographic, cultural, or otherwise—to these celebrations. Such revelers may be drawn to the holiday for the simple reason that the colorful flowers, food and fashion associated with Día de los Muertos are so Instagrammable. The social media site’s #diadelosmuertos hashtag has more than two million posts. Even altars aren’t sacred on Instagram as more users show off their shrines to ancestors and deities during an age when young people are rejecting traditional religions for witchcraft and paganism. Add in the fact that millennials’ love for makeup has revolutionized the cosmetics industry, and it’s easy to see why droves of hipsters are gravitating to the skull face paint typically worn on Day of the Dead but likely skipping visits to the cemetery to connect with their deceased family members. This isn’t an excuse for cultural appropriation as much as it is an observation of the melding of trends that have attracted outsiders to the holiday, which managed to elude appropriation in the 20th century despite all the American kids exposed to it during Spanish class, if nowhere else.