Mexico City is having its biggest event of the year, the Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead) celebration. It is unclear how much money Mexico City is spending on this event, but the festivities include free concerts at the central plaza (Zócalo) and other locations across the city with famous latin artists such as Yuri, Mijares, Orquesta Guayacán and Sonora Dinamita. The city has also arranged for guest performances from 21 countries, including Bolivia, China, Ukraine, Venezuela, among others.
For the last twenty years, the Día de Muertos celebration had been losing strength, with the younger generations favoring Halloween instead. A clear example of this is how the way children ask for candy in Mexico had been opaqued by Halloween. Very much like in the U.S., children in Mexico usually go around their neighborhood asking for candy. However, the phrase “trick or treat” is not used in Mexico, but rather the phrase ¿me da mi calaverita? (can I have a sugar skull?), where “calaverita” (sugar skull) is a metonym for “candy”. This traditional way of asking for candy had been progressively substituted for the last twenty or so years by ¿me da mi Halloween? More recently, the interest in the Día de Muertos has been rekindled by no others than the James Bond franchise and Walt Disney’s Coco movie. This new-found momentum is being seized by several private and public organizations in Mexico, reaffirming the holiday along with its traditions. Mexico City’s government itself has publicly recognized this as an effort to “reanimate one of the oldest traditions of the country”. Below you can find an official communication from Mexico City’s “Citizen Advice” Tweeter account using the phrase “pedir calaverita” (asking for candy) instead of “pedir Halloween”.
Much has been written about the Día de Muertos through the years ever since it was incorporated to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO in 2008. It suffices to say here that this official Mexican holiday is commonly celebrated from November 1st to November 2nd, with the addition of October 31st in some communities within Mexico and in other countries such as in the U.S., where Día de Muertos is commonly referred to as “Día de los Muertos”. During these days, people honor friends and family members who have passed by leaving flowers, food and drinks at an altar. The popular belief is that the souls of these loved ones will come to the altar and feast during the night of the 1st for children and the 2nd for adults. The celebration is brought to life in different ways: from the intimate altars inside people’s homes to the public offerings in city parks, plazas, and schools. However, for the past three years, the celebrations have gained even more visibility, as with the massive 4-mile international parade from the Zócalo to Polanco:
Probably the key factor that propelled people’s interest in the tradition was the inclusion of a fictitious Día de Muertos parade on the 2015 James Bond Movie, Spectre, which was shot in the downtown streets of Mexico City. Parades are not really a tradition in Mexico, where processions and peregrinations are much more common and which are more ceremonial in nature.
I was in Mexico City at the time when they were rolling Spectre. I distinctly remember looking over the barricade next to the Palacio de Correos de México and thinking something like “This is horrible… The skeletons are all wrong, nobody dresses like that on the streets and this pretended parade is not even a Mexican tradition. People who watch it will think that we actually do this here!” The next year, the first Día de Muertos parade was taking place in Mexico City and, to this day, the parade is seen by some as emblematic. Some others see it, however, as a strange form of cultural appropriation seeded in the very streets of Mexico City. Looking back to that moment, it is a strange phenomenon indeed the creation of a fictional cinematic space that was later brought to life in the very streets where it was shot.
A second success factor in bringing back the Día de Muertos is Walt Disney’s movie Coco, which popularized the celebration among the younger generations not only in Mexico, but across the world. As in the case of Spectre, Coco was not exempt from controversy when Disney tried to patent the “Día de los Muertos”, as the movie’s first title.
Another controversy related to Coco is the inclusion of the word “los” when referring to the Día de Muertos, which happens across the movie. While it is accepted to call the celebration “Día de los Muertos” in the United States, especially by second and third generation speakers, this is considered culturally inappropriate in most places in Mexico, and as yet another form of cultural appropriation coming from the United States. The issue is mainly the fact that the movie is explicitly situated in a fictitious town in Mexico, not in the U.S. Had the movie been situated in a community of Mexican heritage in the U.S., using “Día de los Muertos” would have been culturally appropriate
A third layer of controversy generated by this movie is the use of “alebrijes“, manticoresque sculptures not traditionally associated with Día de Muertos, as part of the altars and the general concept of Día de Muertos in the movie. The alebrijes in Coco are represented as spirit animals that acquire the role of guides or companions in the afterworld. Alebrijes are not a traditional element of Mexican altars, unlike other elements which are included in this he movie such as the flor de cempasúchil, maíz, water and fruit. The fact that alebrijes are seamlessly integrated in the visual elements and narrative of Coco makes people think that they must be part of the Día de Muertos, especially those younger generations who may not know otherwise. The use of alebrijes in Coco and in the international Day of the Dead Parade in Mexico City has been condemned by some as much as the Día de Muertos Parade itself.
In spite of all these misrepresentations, the celebration has gained more and more audience nationally and internationally. This year, the celebrations started on October 15th with an artistic intervention called Celebrating Eternity, with light shows and offerings aimed to recreate flower fields and cemeteries honoring both national heroes and people’s loved ones.
From October 19 to the 22 the city celebrated a festival of coffee, chocolate and the traditional pan de muerto bread, as well as an alebrije parade.
Later, on October 24th, the Mexico City’s Secretariat of Culture announced the official start of the festivities at the emblematic Monumento a la Revolución. The video below shows some of these images.
On October 26th, the city organized a Mega Procesión de Catrinas. Catrinas are one of the most iconic representations of death in Mexican culture which were created by the late artist José Guadalupe Posada and now adopted all around the world. The catrinas are represented and re-imagined using face paint and different decorations.
The “Mega Procession” of the catrinas started at the Angel de la Independencia and finished at el Zócalo. Everyone was allowed to join this procession and people showed their creativity by dressing up in different costumes and designing their own make up. There were also official face-paint artists along the route in case people wanted an expert to work on their Día de Muertos look.
After the procession, on October 27th, Mexico City hosted the third International Day of the Dead Parade; a mile-long parade covering a 4-mile route, which according to official communication “had to be epic”. More than 800 groups participated in the parade. The parade was divided into two sections with different motifs and included dancers, alebrijes, giant puppets, carts and several national and international performances.
Today, on November 1st, the city will inaugurate a mega offering in el Zócalo, which will feature four main altars, one for each cardinal point. Each of these altars will represent a different tradition. For this project, Mexico City’s Secretariat of Culture organized a public consultation for the creation of the offering. The consultation was open to everyone and resulted with Vladimir Maislin Topete’s winning design called Altar de Altares (Altar of Altars), which will commemorate several traditions.
The Zócalo is not the only place in Mexico City that will host a mega offering. Other places such as the Autonomous University of Mexico will also have it’s own mega offering where the altars will enter a contest which will be open until November 3rd.
Other cities as well across Mexico are having their own festivities, as is the case of the very well-known celebrations in the city of Oaxaca and others such as the one in Aguascalientes. However, none has as as much drive as the ones going on in Mexico City, where the government started a project called “Mexico City: Cultural Capital of America” [America as in the continent]. This self-proclaimed title emerges from a public agenda that aims to turn Mexico City in one of the three most visited cities around the world. Mexico City is expecting on this second-half of 2019 over 7 million tourists and an economic impact of more than 1.5 billion dollars, which is 2% more than 2018. Because of the private and public interests associated with this agenda, many people are asking whether the incorporation of new tendencies (parades, alebrijes, the inclusion of international communities) and over-the-top events (massive altars and overflow of food offerings, “Mega” processions, etc…) is really a re-appropriation of the very cultural appropriation that started them in the first place or a mere touristic devise.
An even more pressing question to ask is weather these changes will affect the narratives ande meanings associated traditionally with the celebration which has at its core the intimate nature of the ancient belief that people’s loved visit the living in spirit once a year? It is possible that this new wave of festivities might have just endangered the meaning of the Día de Muertos for Mexican nationals. Will the future generations place altars at their homes and commemorate their ancestors, or will they see that as an old tradition with little or no meaning? Will the traditional calaveritas be turned into a purely commercial icon just like the Christmas tree is for many?
In other cities outside Mexico, the syncretism between hispanic/latino and their own particular context and people has given birth to a plethora of celebrations akin to the Día de Muertos. For example, in the city of Tucson, Arizona, this tradition is constantly re-inventing itself. This year, the acclaimed Mexican musician, Lila Downs, presented her performance: Día de Muertos: al Chile at the University of Arizona where tickets were sold out and she was welcomed by an audience full of excitement.
At the University of Arizona, several departments and divisions have also put up altars and have organized presentations on the meaning of the Día de Muertos and other similar celebrations that happen across Latin America. Thousands of people are also preparing for the All Souls Procession, an event where most of Tucson comes together to honor those who have passed to their after life.
Dear reader, If you are one of those who celebrates the Día de Muertos, I hope that whatever you do, you enjoy it and have a good time. ¡Felíz día de Muertos! Here is a fun papel picado animation for you!
- Checkout the official YouTube channel of Mexico City here and Twitter here.
- Click on the following links for videos that talk more about the Catrina, the coloitzcuintlis and the flor de cempasúchil.
- f you know Spanish would like to read more about the Día de Muertos, you can go to the UNESCO site, which summarizes the Día de Muertos as it is conceived in 2019.
I was pointed out to this resource (in Spanish) that talks about some of the traditional elements in the Day of the Dead altars: