Latino Rebels Talk Halloween and Día de los Muertos

Oct 31, 2014
11:55 am

As expected, whenever our group brings up strange examples of how Día de los Muertos (or Día de Muertos) have penetrated into the corporate minds of the United States (enter Sephora, VeuveClicquot and Sprint) there is this false assumption that we are just knee-jerking a reaction, manufacturing outrage, not presenting the whole picture or crafting an agenda. While all of our community’s opinions are valid, some of them are misinformed and based on reaction, with little insight to how we operate as a collective. In the end, we don’t sit huddled in our group, asking ourselves, “what controversy can we invent today?” Quite the contrary, we will say this: virtually everything we publish in this area comes from our community. In the case of the latest Día de los Muertos silliness, it came from actual employees and they thanked us for amplifying their voices a bit. That is what we do. Nothing will change that.


Nonetheless, we were challenged (in a nice way) by a few in our community to expand the discussion with the whole flip-side of the issue: Sure, Día de los Muertos is the latest example of appropriation in the United States, but what about Mexico and the fact that Halloween has become more popular than Día de los Muertos? And what about the fact that the holiday has also been commercialized there as well, just like any U.S. holiday? For example, it is common to see images like this one in Mexico.

All valid questions, and all a part of what we think is a really important conversation. So in the interest of having more discussion about it, we thought we would share thoughts from some in our group who are of Mexican descent, grew up in or who lived in Mexico for years to address it in more detail.


First up, Marce.

Always special holidays to me—for one, I was actually supposed to be born on Día de los Muertos, but, impatient that I am, decided to get a jump on things and was born on Halloween instead. To a father born on Halloween. Oh yeah, I have a widow’s peak too. I can’t tell you if my dad did though, it’s been a while since his hairline started receding, but you know, boo!

I was probably meant to be born in the US, but as luck would have it, I was actually born and raised in Playas de Tijuana. Attended Catholic school there and ever since I can remember (1st grade or so) this whole invading Halloween argument has been going on. Growing up half a mile from the US / Mexico border, in a city that is alternatively called the place where “Aquí Comienza la Patria” and “La esquina de Latinoamérica” such cultural “invasions” seemed to be par for the course. Except that the cultural invasions actually went both ways – it’s not just Halloween in Mexico (which to be entirely honest has actually changed say, in the last 25 years at least in Tijuana, from being something I did in San Diego with my aunts there, to my Mom now passing candy in Tijuana) but other holidays or Mexican customs to holidays being celebrated in California (i.e. Pastorelas near Christmas). So, just as everything near the border in Tijuana is actually in English, when you cross to San Ysidro—everything is actually in Spanish.

On Día de los Muertos I have memories of going to Church with my grandmother, laying flowers, eating “calaveritas de azécar,” making funny “calaveras” in school (little verses/ditties about people you know that detail their actual demise in a funny way—yeah I know, but it’s funny) and making Altares. In fact, in high cchool my class entered and won a citywide altar contest, with an auditorium-sized altar to poet Jaime Sabines that took up 25 kids’ pocket money (and later, when our parents saw how big it was, additional funds to fill the whole path to the altar with marigolds and candles, like, carpets of marigolds). It was a sight to see – and hear too, as we had an audiobook/cassette whatever we had in the 90’s of Jaime Sabine reading his poems going.

To me they are completely different in nature—one is meant for fun and frolicking, and Día de los Muertos is also fun, but in a more solemn way. As solemn as a country that spawned Posadas and jokes about death poems can be I suppose.

What Día de los Muertos is not though —as I have unfortunately seen here in San Francisco— is a “Mexican Halloween/” “An excuse to keep the party going”, etc. I’m guessing some of this could also be said of the evolution from All Hallows Eve to the current “sexy-nun” extravaganza that is the Halloween as we know it.

On the Sephora deal: their saving grace is that as a makeup outlet (which could definitely benefit from an excuse to sell more eyeliners/foundation/glitter/etc) is that I haven’t seen any pre-marketing to this, but rather day of embrace within the store. I don’t like the idea because I think it’s a slippery slope, and MOST importantly, because some of the people that are being encouraged to paint on are uncomfortable. Some of whom are Latinos I’m guessing. I’ve been in similar situations and it sucks to feel used. Specially because I would venture to say that there not a whole lot Latinos in executive management at Sephora. Like, I wonder who came up with this? Probably some well meaning, but oblivious non Latin@ person.


Up next, Luis.

I am one of those who believes that we live in a hybrid world. My experience in Mexico thirty years ago (as an upper middle-class chilango) is that Halloween was bigger for me, and it was growing. Día de los muertos wasn’t sacred in my family or neighborhood as I remember it. It was more of a tradition‚ indeed commercialized at a local level. We didn’t have an altar in my house (now my sister puts one), but we did buy sugar calaveras and ate pan de muertos. One of my memories is the local panaderías decorating their windows for the day—so it was very commercial in this regard.
For the sacredness, I do remember that people would go to the graves and clean them at the graveyard. And that still continues. And I am certain that among certain sectors of society it is a very important moment.

I don’t think that Halloween is the tourism happening in Mexico. Halloween for me is an Americanized middle class tradition that has taken interesting shifts. Some children in Mexican cities, for example, ask for their Jalouín, with plastic jack-o-lanterns – an interesting appropriation. I’m certain that tourists would prefer the more “authentic” expressions.

My final comment, this makeup that Sephora is recommending is something new to me. I have seen it in the last half decade (perhaps I wasn’t aware of it before). Don’t recall seeing this before. Now, beyond Sephora, this kind of makeup is very popular among those who claim to be “authentic”.

Mónica added this:

Agreed on lots of fronts. It is not just Sephora—I have been preparing for the Día de los Muertos event that we are hosting and several mainstream stores are selling items. Target has calavera kits, Kmart has calaveras hanging as part of their decorations, etc and The Book of Life is promoting Día de los Muertos. One also has to wonder what impact migration —and repatriation— has on the growing trend to celebrate Halloween. The reality is that increasing globalization is likely at the heart of the celebration on both sides of the border.

I was in Janitzeo in 97 —even the it was starting to become commercialized— I was telling Luis that they were giving out glow bracelets and necklaces at the cemetery like it was a club!

Made me sad.


Finally, Jen added her thoughts:

I found that while living in Oaxaca the Día de los Muertos tradition is very much alive and well. It is a time of year when a lot of tourists come to Oaxaca for sure, so for hotels and the like it probably does mean big business. But I never got the sense that the calendas and graveside vigils were aimed at the tourists at all. It seemed more like ‘you can come along if you want, but we’re doing our thing anyway.

Particularly in the pueblos, there is a strong tradition of Día de los Muertos in Oaxaca that has little to do with putting on a show for tourists.

It’s interesting your comment about the commercialisation of Día de los Muertos in DF Luis, because I have heard of other examples of how this happens with indigenous cultures in the wealthier chilango neighbourhoods. A friend of mine is making a documentary about racism in Mexico, and he uses the example of how in wealthy chilango circles, women wearing indigenous clothes is seen as ‘getting back to your roots’ and there is a certain coolness about it. But of course, indigenous women from Oaxaca or Chiapas experience a lot of racism and judgement for dressing in more traditional ways.
I guess my point is that there is appropriation of other peoples cultures, even within Mexico (let alone looking at the US and depictions of Día de los Muertos).

In terms of Halloween – I must admit I did attend a few Halloween parties in Oaxaca, but they were exclusively organised by US ex-pats! I was curious because I am from a part of the world where Halloween doesn’t really exist.

I think the tradition of Día de los Muertos is too strong for Halloween to really resonate with Oaxaqueños.

This is just a sampling of some in our group who have deep ties to Mexico. We could have asked a few more, but some of their comments would echo what Marce, Luis, Mónica and Jen shared.

We wanted to share this thread because, like we said, it is a topic worthy of discussion, and there are no right or wrong opinions. All we want is to have the discussion, just like we do whenever we share stories that come from our community.

Just yesterday, The New York Times ran a piece about how Halloween is celebrated in Mexico. The reporter asked merchants at the Sonora Market in Mexico City:

“Our tradition is Day of the Dead; it’s not Halloween,” Montserrat Hernández, 27, said firmly. Ms. Hernández, who makes and sells cut paper, believes there is a backlash against Halloween. “Now people are asking more for Day of the Dead. We are going back to it.”

Not so, said Daniela Torres, 21, tending a nearby stall. “The kids follow Halloween more,” she said, bemoaning low sales of her paper decorations. “Maybe they prefer to dress up and dance than set up an altar.”

And as one blogger put it this week as well:

Now that Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority and continue to exert more influence on American society, is it inevitable that some aspects of the Latino experience get homogenized and trivialized and morphed into something unrecognizable? Should Latinos brace themselves for more of this?

Let the discussion continue.

(Black-and-white photos by Andrew McDonald.)