Every year as November approaches, my siblings and I begin preparing for what has become an annual tradition since 2008, the year my mom died. We set up altars in our respective homes to honor her memory and lure her from the afterlife with delicious food, aromatic candles, colorful flowers, painted skulls made of sugar . . . and plenty of rum and coke (one of her favorite cocktails).
The ritual is part of a centuries-old Mexican tradition known as Día de los Muertos, a two-day celebration in which the living are reunited with the dead, with November 1 devoted to the souls of little children and November 2 to departed adults.
Día de los Muertos—complete with its unique colors, scents, and decorations—is my favorite tradition back in Mexico. But it’s one I have come to despise on this side of the border, mostly because it has been taken over by large corporations and clueless marketers that now use it (or should I say misuse it?) to peddle all kinds of products and services to my people.
And this past November has not been an exception.
WARNING: Before you keep reading and/or get ready to throw a one-pound sugar skull at this writer, please keep in mind this column was conceived to be handled with a serious dose of humor.
What Is Día de los Muertos All About?
The Día de los Muertos celebration can be traced back thousands of years, even before the Spanish settlers arrived (uninvited) to the so-called New World. In fact, the origins of the festivity can be found in Indigenous cultures, mostly those influenced by the Mexicas or Aztecs, for whom death was not the tragic event we have come to know it as but rather a required passage to eternal afterlife—and a much happier place.
Unlike what many people would have you believe, Día de los Muertos in Mexico is an intimate, family affair. It’s an occasion on which we take a moment to remember those we have lost and allow them to come back and “party” with us, if only for a day. For me, the month of November always brings back memories of lighting up candles, buying cempasúchil flowers and papel picado, eating pan de muerto, and drinking ponche—or hot chocolate—while catching up with the dead.
The cultural significance of the festivity is such that in 2003, Día de los Muertos was proclaimed by UNESCO’s as part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage.
Yet, on this side of the border, it has become quite tangible—and very cringey.
From Barbie Dolls to Tortilla Chips
My beef with Día de los Muertos as it is celebrated here in the US has to do with the uber-commercialization of the festivity. In fact, back in November 2018—way before I started Hisplaining things in this column—I referred to it as the New Cinco de Mayo.
I have lived here long enough to witness the arrival of Día de los Muertos sneakers, Día de los Muertos game consoles, Día de los Muertos tequila, Día de los Muertos ofrendas to sell cars, Día de los Muertos shampoo, and even Día de los Muertos tortilla corn chips.
Oh, and let’s not forget the Día de los Muertos editions of Barbie & Ken dolls, currently selling at $80 apiece.
This year, as yet one more Day of the Dead celebration came to a close, the promotions, events, sales, and merchandising around the occasion were almost as ubiquitous—and annoying—as pumpkin spice.
Bond, (I Blame) James Bond
And here’s something you might not have expected: James Bond is partly to blame for all of this.
That’s because parts of the 2015 film Spectre featured 007 chasing a bad dude through a Day of the Dead parade in the heart of Mexico City. That parade was a colorful festival featuring floats and giant skeleton marionettes—something that didn’t exist prior to the Hollywood blockbuster. Now, it’s an annual event leading lists of top things to do in Mexico City.
Now that Mexicans—those living in Mexico, no less—are participating in a festivity that was only invented by Hollywood a few years ago, the bastardization of Day of the Dead is now complete.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for other people and cultures embracing our traditions, but if you’re going to use them solely for your commercial purposes, you might as well just leave it alone. There is so much nonsense around the festivity, I’m sure my ancestors are all rolling in their graves.
The takeaway: If you’re not Mexican, but really really want to honor our people during this important celebration next year, try doing something meaningful, like sending pan de muerto, tamales, and other goodies to this writer and other Mexicans you know . . . while we’re still alive, that is.
Stay tuned for Laura Martinez’s next Hisplaining column, which will tackle other key biz terms and jargon and help leaders everywhere smoothly navigate the multicultural business world. In the meantime, send us tips and ideas for other terms and jargon that you’d like to see us feature. And remember: Don’t panic . . . it’s just his-PANIC!