December 5, 2023

Jo Mai Asian Culture

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Day of the Dead is taking on Halloween traditions, but the sacred holiday is far more than a ‘Mexican Halloween’

6 min read

Many Latinos regularly declare: “Día de los Muertos is not Mexican Halloween.” The declaration is increasingly repeated by non-Latinos too.

Drawing a clear line between the two holidays is a rhetorical strategy to protect Day of the Dead’s integrity as Mexican cultural heritage and separate it from American popular culture. However, as a Mexican-American who celebrates Día de los Muertos and as a scholar of culture and performance, I believe it’s time to fully acknowledge the cultural intermixing that’s happening between the two holidays.

Halloween’s influence is transforming Día de los Muertos into a hybrid cultural tradition that simultaneously honors the dead and celebrates the macabre.

The origins of the distinction

Día de los Muertos is a traditional fiesta in honor of the deceased that is celebrated in Mexico and other parts of Latin America on Nov. 1 and 2. The holiday is celebrated though ritual observations like constructing altars filled with offerings to the dead and decorating family gravesites to commune with the dead. Day of the Dead is also commemorated through vivacious fiestas in which communities gather in town plazas and community centers to celebrate by dancing, playing music, feasting, drinking and masquerading as death.

Although Day of the Dead is a long-standing tradition in Mexico, the holiday wasn’t celebrated widely or publicly among Latinos in the U.S. That changed in the 1970s and 1980s when artists and activists introduced Day of the Dead to their communities as part of the Chicano movement, the social and cultural movement for Mexican-American empowerment.

As Latinos began celebrating the holiday proudly and publicly in the U.S., they also began distinguishing it from Halloween. That’s because many non-Latinos mistakenly interpreted Day of the Dead’s skull and skeleton imagery as witchcraft. Latinos used the phrase “Día de los Muertos is not Mexican Halloween” to protect the holiday from misrepresentation, educate the broader public about the cultural tradition and shield themselves from discrimination.

The declaration was also used in the 1970s and 1980s by Mexico’s tourism industry when it began vigorously promoting Day of the Dead internationally as a cultural attraction. Tourists arriving in Mexico were informed that Día de los Muertos was an authentic national holiday that bore no relation to Halloween.

The 1990s and 2000s

In the 1990s, “Día de los Muertos is not Mexican Halloween” became a political statement. The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1994, flooded Mexico with U.S. consumer goods, media and popular culture. Halloween’s importation was seen by some Mexicans as a symbol of U.S. “cultural imperialism,” the process by which the United States uses culture to maintain political and economic domination over Mexico.

But by the early 2000s, Mexican, U.S. and British anthropologists reported that Halloween was already fusing with Día de los Muertos in fascinating ways. Halloween candy, costumes and ornaments appeared in stores and street markets, where it was displayed next to Day of the Dead material. Jack-o-lantern and spider-web decorations adorned ofrendas, the traditional altars erected for the dead. The streets were increasingly filled with trick-or-treating children dressed as witches, vampires and monsters. Bars and nightclubs in southern Mexico hosted Halloween and Day of the Dead costume parties for adults.

Some Mexicans denounced Halloween as “an invasion.” Some referred to Halloween as “cultural pollution.”

Such fears led the United Nations in 2003 to officially designate Día de los Muertos a form of “intangible cultural heritage,” a classification reserved for cultural traditions like rituals, oral traditions and performing arts that are endangered by globalization or lack of support. This gave the United Nations authority to work with the Mexican government to “protect and conserve” Day of the Dead, which would presumably safeguard the holiday from influences like Halloween. But it was too late.

Girl hits pinata at a celebration in Mexico.
Día de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico are adapting and fusing with Halloween in interesting ways.
FG Trade Latin/ Collection E+ via Getty Images

Hollywood’s influence

Today, Halloween haunts Día de Los Muertos in Mexico like never before. Children trick or treat in costume for a full week during Day of the Dead season. They beg for candy from shops and restaurants by crying “Queremos Halloween!” – literally meaning, “We want Halloween!” On Nov. 2 at the country’s largest cemetery, Panteón de Dolores, you’ll find graveyard ofrendas decorated with cobwebs, vampires, witches and pumpkins.

The fusion of Halloween and Day of the Dead is largely facilitated by Hollywood. A prime example is the celebration at the famous Panteón de San Fernando, a cemetery where the remains of some of Mexico’s most important presidents and dignitaries are buried. As part of holiday festivities, the cemetery hosts a screening of the horror classic “Night of the Living Dead.” Hundreds dressed in Day of the Dead attire gather at the tomb of President Benito Juárez, eating candy while watching zombies terrorize a small American community.

The impact of Halloween’s horror movie influence is most noticeable at the country’s largest Día de los Muertos celebration. The Gran Desfile de Día de Muertos, or the Great Day of the Dead parade, which began in 2016 as a simulation of the one depicted in the James Bond movie “Spectre,” annually attracts more than a million attendees.

Hollywood horror movie images at Day of the Dead festivity in Mexico City.
Dia de los Muertos festivities in Mexico City feature Hollywood horror movie images and costumes typically reserved for Halloween.
Mathew Sandoval photo, CC BY

In addition to sugar skull makeup and skeleton attire, participants also don Hollywood horror costumes typically reserved for Halloween. You’ll find people dressed as Jigsaw from the “Saw” movies, Chucky from “Child’s Play,” Ghostface from the “Scream” series and Pennywise from Stephen King’s “It.”

By far the most popular costume in 2022 was Michael Myers from “Halloween.” This is hardly surprising. The franchise’s most recent installment, “Halloween Ends,” was huge in Mexico. When the film was released in Mexico during Day of the Dead and Halloween season, it was one of the highest-grossing movies in the country. In fact, of the 70 counties where the film was released, Mexico had the third-highest ticket sales.

Characters from Disney at celebrations

In particular, Disney’s influence on both Halloween and Día de los Muertos is immense. The number of children and adults costumed as Darth Vader, Spiderman or Jasmine and Aladdin at Day of the Dead celebrations is bewildering.

And they’re not just at the festive events like the Gran Desfile de Muertos, either. They’re at the ritual ceremonies, too. One can find all manner of Avenger superheroes at the Panteón de Dolores gathered graveside and making offerings to the dead.

People in costumes dancing with characters inspired by Disney and Pixar's Coco.
Disney California Adventure Park celebrating Día de los Muertos in 2021.
Joshua Sudock/Handout/Disneyland Resort via Getty Images

Then there’s the dilemma posed by Disney-Pixar’s “Coco,” the beloved animated film about Día de los Muertos. Similar to every Disney entity, companies license and manufacture Halloween costumes based on characters from the movie.

These costumes are now popular in Mexico, where people dress up as characters from “Coco.” But when they masquerade as the skull-faced Miguel, Ernesto de la Cruz or Mama Imelda, it’s hard to say whether they’re wearing a Halloween costume or a Día de los Muertos costume. I’d venture to say that it’s both simultaneously.

And therein lies the crisis of identity currently facing Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The influence of Hollywood is making it more and more difficult to credibly say “Día de los Muertos is not a Mexican Halloween.”

What’s next for Day of the Dead

The fusion between the two holidays is happening in rural and urban areas, and in the borderlands and deeper parts of Mexico. It’s altering Day of the Dead’s popular festive qualities and its ceremonial customs.

Cultural conservatives will no doubt bemoan this as “pollution” of a sacred tradition. But they forget that transformation and adaptation are what ensure any tradition’s survival. Día de los Muertos may live eternally, but it’ll be thanks to the vampire bite of Halloween.

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