A Gringo’s Guide to Dia de Muertos – Part 2

by on November 1, 2022 · 0 comments

in Ocean Beach, World News

By Mike James / Special to the OB Rag

(Here is Part 1.)

Every year the Dia de Muertos grows in popularity internationally. Yet this growth is fairly recent.

In the late 1930’s, the Càrdenas presidency embraced the holiday to celebrate the indigenous culture and create an inclusive national identity. Yet for decades the holiday was mainly observed in Mexico as a private family ceremony, with the ofrenda being the main component.

Much of the credit of an increase in the popularity of El Dia de los Muertos can be traced back to the Chicano movement in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Antonio in the early 70’s. The activist and the artist of the Chicano movement promoted Dia de Muertos as a way to reconnect with their pre-Hispanic and Mexican Identity as a community. Processions through Mexican American neighborhoods and celebrations of Dia de Muertos became more commonplace.

From the 1970s, a procession of floats on Día de Los Muertos day traveled from a local cemetery to Self-Help Graphics, an organization promoting the Chicano movement in Los Angeles

The artists of the Chicano movement incorporated the symbols of Dia de Muertos in their work further popularizing iconic elements such as La Catrina and the calavera (sugar skull). Still it was mostly unknown or misunderstood outside of Mexico and the Mexican American population.

Over the years, there has been an increase in curious travelers who sought out to observe the tradition in Mexico, creating an economic windfall for areas such as Oaxaca and Pátzcuero.

Hundreds of thousand of tourist from around the world come to Mexico every year to experience Dia de Muertos

Yet it was just recently that Hollywood has influenced its popularity exponentially. In the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre, the opening scene shows Bond navigating through a Dia de Muertos parade in Mexico City.

The opening scene features Bond at the fictional Dia de Muertos Parade in Mexico City.

The funny thing is that Mexico City had never had such a parade. Knowing that tourists from around the world would be showing up for Dia de Muertos and expecting a parade, in 2016, the capital city held its first official Gran Desfile Día de Muerto.

The Dia de Muertos celebration brings massive crowds to the Zocalo in Mexico City

The release in 2017 of the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has had the greatest influence in introducing Dia de los Muertos to the world. Even Mexico has seen an increase in the observance of the holiday because of the movie.

Scene from Coco, the Disney/Pixar movie that has made Dia de Muertos known world wide.

This year’s parade had over 2.5 million spectators along its four mile parade route. The parade ended at the massive plaza called the Zócalo, where hundreds of thousands watched a concert and a fireworks show.

The Dia de Muertos parade nows draws over 2.5 million spectators along its four mile route

In the United States there has been an increase in recognition of Dia de Muertos with various events and ceremonies in all parts of the country.

A Kia Soul ad with a Dia de Muertos theme

Recently I viewed a feature on national news on the holiday and have seen numerous articles on the subject. Unfortunately with the popularity of the holiday, the question needs to be asked what is cultural appropriation and what is cultural appreciation. Currently playing on U.S. television there is a national car commercial where giant skeletons (La Catrinas) were featured. The car advertised was the Kia Soul!

It is important at least to approach Dia de Muertos with the due respect it deserves by understanding the significance and the history of the tradition. I hope it does not become a holiday where gringos use it as an excuse to drink cheap tequila and eat at Taco Bell.

Then again, it took gringos decades to finally figure out that Cinco de Mayo was not Mexican Independence Day.

In future columns, I will be sharing stories and observations of my current Dia de Muertos adventure in Mexico City and the state of Puebla.
Mike James is an Ocean Beach resident and community activist. He is currently in Cholula, Mexico recovering from observing the Dia de Muertos celebration in Mexico City. More photos and stories of his travels to Latin America can be found on his Gringo in Paradise facebook group and instagram profile.

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