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Commercialization of Día de Muertos in the US – Meriden Record-Journal

Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is a two-day Mexican holiday that takes place every year on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 as an occasion to reunite families and remember the lives of their deceased relatives through food and celebration.

In America, before the leaves start to yellow, major retailers start to roll out Halloween merchandise along with Day of the Dead paraphernalia. The season is framed with scary masks, Trick-or-Treat bags, Día de Muertos-themed costumes and sugar skull make-up kits or masks. Like many other holidays, increased commercialization can lead to questioning the meaning of each celebration and its cultural appropriation.

“For us, it is mostly about honoring the lives of our loved ones and about the afterlife,” said Frida Cano, co-owner of Viva La Vida, a Mexican family-owned restaurant in Meriden. “It’s mostly like a holiday that allows us to connect to them. And to all those that have passed. And Halloween is more focused on scary costumes.”

Commercialization

For Regina Marchi, an affiliated professor of Latino studies at Rutgers University, the commercialization of the celebration heightened over the last decade. Marchi is also the author of “Day of the Dead in the USA, The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon.”

“There are Day of the Dead costumes and face painting kits and Day of the Dead sneakers by Nike, Day of the Dead Barbie dolls, Day of the Dead NFL T-shirts, and even Day of the Dead lottery tickets in at least 10 states,” Marchi said. “There are Day of the Dead fashion shows and “Catrina Contests” and altar contests where people have to pay $25 or $35 or more dollars to enter.”

As businesses continue to ignore the meaning behind Día de Muertos by pushing products into the mass market, Marchi said the holiday is being exploited for profit in the United States.

“These types of things stray fairly far from the origins and intentions of the celebration, which is about lovingly and respectfully honoring deceased loved ones,” Marchi said.

Frida explained that although she doesn’t have a problem with the monetization of her traditions she has found it difficult to find Día de Muertos decorations in Spanish.

Frida, who is a first-generation Mexican, along with her brother Yael Cano, said despite the differences between the American holiday and Día de Muertos, she and her brother feel like it hasn’t been exploited for profit, but rather, brings awareness to their heritage.

“It’s kind of like appreciating our side of the story,” Cano said. “And although Halloween and Día de Los Muertos are two different things, I think it brings forth appreciation. Like in popular culture, you have the movie, “Coco.” I think that’s kind of like a more of a form of respect. A lot of people learned about the holiday.”

Marchi said the fascination with the Mexican tradition among people with no Mexican ancestry in the United States stems from the United States not having a specific time of year to celebrate and remember the dead publicly.

“The concept of making beautiful altars decorated with flowers, foods and photos, candles and mementos of the deceased person’s life is very special. The altar becomes a storytelling communication medium for publicly remembering and honoring the deceased,” Marchi said.

Día de Muertos in the United States

Marchi said before the 1970s, many Mexican Americans did not celebrate Día de Muertos while living in the United States, but rather, the Roman Catholic dates of All Saints Day, on Nov. 1, and All Souls’ Day, on Nov. 2. They would attend Catholic mass, have a meal as a family and visit their loved ones at their place of rest to leave flowers.

“The term ‘Día de Los Muertos’ was not in common usage among Mexican Americans,” Marchi said. “People did not make multi-tiered altars for their ancestors, decorated with sugar skulls, pan de muerto and other foods. In fact, most Mexican Americans were unfamiliar with sugar skulls and pan de muerto, prior to the 1970s.”

According to Marchi, Chicanos in Los Angeles and the Bay area in California brought Día de Muertos traditions to art galleries with traditional altar installations in 1972. Despite not having grown up with the tradition, the art galleries’ altar installations were “works of art.”

Marchi explained that after decades of being pressured to only speak English and celebrate Anglo-American holidays, Chicana/o artists ventured out to Indigenous regions of central and southern Mexico to learn more about their customs and traditions like traditional altar-making, weaving and music.

“We need to be careful not to romanticize the celebration, acting like it has always been a beloved and cherished tradition of all Mexicans because it wasn’t the case,” Marchi said. “When we get nostalgic and pretend this celebration has always been observed by all Mexicans, we erase histories of colonization, forced assimilation, discrimination, and violence that greatly marginalized the tradition.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Chicano-style Día de Muertos traditions in the United States.

“These altars differed from private family altars created by Indigenous peoples in Mexico because they were done in public, secular spaces like art galleries, museums and schools,” Marchi said. “They spread to public libraries, universities, (and) public parks. Over time, altars began to be made by Mexican restaurants and shopkeepers. But this was gradual and grew and grew over the past 50 years.”

Being appreciative, not appropriative

Día de Muertos is a time to celebrate the souls of the deceased, which, according to Marchi, is a healing process for a lot of people, and not just another Halloween costume.

“A lot of people get so wrapped up in the face painting and dress-up aspect (dressing like “La Catrina”),” Marchi said. “That they are more focused on the outward ‘look’ and not on the inward reflections and remembrance of the deceased.

However, Cano said that the commercialization of the holiday in the United States allows non-Mexicans to have an interest in the holiday and ask questions.

“I think it’s a good way for people to become curious about the holiday, and maybe do a little bit more research on their own or ask people that they know are Mexican and ask them to interpret it for them,” Cano said. “So I don’t really see it as a bad thing. I think it’s a good way to just showcase our culture and it’s just like a good stepping stone.”

Cano said that their family celebrates the holiday in the United States by decorating an altar in their restaurant, which was met with positive reviews, while also having one at their home with a bit more personalization to it.

“Here at the restaurant, we made it kind of more general for people to you know, become curious about it,” Cano said. “But it’s something that anybody who celebrates or even doesn’t celebrate the holiday can do at home with their own custom twist to it.”

Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is a two-day Mexican holiday that takes place every year on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 as an occasion to reunite families and remember the lives of their deceased relatives through food and celebration.
In America, before the leaves start to yellow, major retailers start to roll out Halloween merchandise along with Day of the Dead paraphernalia. The season is framed with scary masks, Trick-or-Treat bags, Día de Muertos-themed costumes and sugar skull make-up kits or masks. Like many other holidays, increased commercialization can lead to questioning the meaning of each celebration and its cultural appropriation.
“For us, it is mostly about honoring the lives of our loved ones and about the afterlife,” said Frida Cano, co-owner of Viva La Vida, a Mexican family-owned restaurant in Meriden. “It’s mostly like a holiday that allows us to connect to them. And to all those that have passed. And Halloween is more focused on scary costumes.”
For Regina Marchi, an affiliated professor of Latino studies at Rutgers University, the commercialization of the celebration heightened over the last decade. Marchi is also the author of “Day of the Dead in the USA, The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon.”
“There are Day of the Dead costumes and face painting kits and Day of the Dead sneakers by Nike, Day of the Dead Barbie dolls, Day of the Dead NFL T-shirts, and even Day of the Dead lottery tickets in at least 10 states,” Marchi said. “There are Day of the Dead fashion shows and “Catrina Contests” and altar contests where people have to pay $25 or $35 or more dollars to enter.”
As businesses continue to ignore the meaning behind Día de Muertos by pushing products into the mass market, Marchi said the holiday is being exploited for profit in the United States.
“These types of things stray fairly far from the origins and intentions of the celebration, which is about lovingly and respectfully honoring deceased loved ones,” Marchi said.
Frida explained that although she doesn’t have a problem with the monetization of her traditions she has found it difficult to find Día de Muertos decorations in Spanish.
Frida, who is a first-generation Mexican, along with her brother Yael Cano, said despite the differences between the American holiday and Día de Muertos, she and her brother feel like it hasn’t been exploited for profit, but rather, brings awareness to their heritage.
“It’s kind of like appreciating our side of the story,” Cano said. “And although Halloween and Día de Los Muertos are two different things, I think it brings forth appreciation. Like in popular culture, you have the movie, “Coco.” I think that’s kind of like a more of a form of respect. A lot of people learned about the holiday.”
Marchi said the fascination with the Mexican tradition among people with no Mexican ancestry in the United States stems from the United States not having a specific time of year to celebrate and remember the dead publicly.
“The concept of making beautiful altars decorated with flowers, foods and photos, candles and mementos of the deceased person’s life is very special. The altar becomes a storytelling communication medium for publicly remembering and honoring the deceased,” Marchi said.
Marchi said before the 1970s, many Mexican Americans did not celebrate Día de Muertos while living in the United States, but rather, the Roman Catholic dates of All Saints Day, on Nov. 1, and All Souls’ Day, on Nov. 2. They would attend Catholic mass, have a meal as a family and visit their loved ones at their place of rest to leave flowers.
“The term ‘Día de Los Muertos’ was not in common usage among Mexican Americans,” Marchi said. “People did not make multi-tiered altars for their ancestors, decorated with sugar skulls, pan de muerto and other foods. In fact, most Mexican Americans were unfamiliar with sugar skulls and pan de muerto, prior to the 1970s.”
According to Marchi, Chicanos in Los Angeles and the Bay area in California brought Día de Muertos traditions to art galleries with traditional altar installations in 1972. Despite not having grown up with the tradition, the art galleries’ altar installations were “works of art.”
Marchi explained that after decades of being pressured to only speak English and celebrate Anglo-American holidays, Chicana/o artists ventured out to Indigenous regions of central and southern Mexico to learn more about their customs and traditions like traditional altar-making, weaving and music.
“We need to be careful not to romanticize the celebration, acting like it has always been a beloved and cherished tradition of all Mexicans because it wasn’t the case,” Marchi said. “When we get nostalgic and pretend this celebration has always been observed by all Mexicans, we erase histories of colonization, forced assimilation, discrimination, and violence that greatly marginalized the tradition.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Chicano-style Día de Muertos traditions in the United States.
“These altars differed from private family altars created by Indigenous peoples in Mexico because they were done in public, secular spaces like art galleries, museums and schools,” Marchi said. “They spread to public libraries, universities, (and) public parks. Over time, altars began to be made by Mexican restaurants and shopkeepers. But this was gradual and grew and grew over the past 50 years.”
Día de Muertos is a time to celebrate the souls of the deceased, which, according to Marchi, is a healing process for a lot of people, and not just another Halloween costume.
“A lot of people get so wrapped up in the face painting and dress-up aspect (dressing like “La Catrina”),” Marchi said. “That they are more focused on the outward ‘look’ and not on the inward reflections and remembrance of the deceased.
However, Cano said that the commercialization of the holiday in the United States allows non-Mexicans to have an interest in the holiday and ask questions.
“I think it’s a good way for people to become curious about the holiday, and maybe do a little bit more research on their own or ask people that they know are Mexican and ask them to interpret it for them,” Cano said. “So I don’t really see it as a bad thing. I think it’s a good way to just showcase our culture and it’s just like a good stepping stone.”
Cano said that their family celebrates the holiday in the United States by decorating an altar in their restaurant, which was met with positive reviews, while also having one at their home with a bit more personalization to it.
“Here at the restaurant, we made it kind of more general for people to you know, become curious about it,” Cano said. “But it’s something that anybody who celebrates or even doesn’t celebrate the holiday can do at home with their own custom twist to it.”

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