Stores around the U.S. have been reminding us for months that Halloween is coming. In particular the specialty stores with shelves full of all kinds of strange paraphernalia and components necessary to create almost any imaginable costume. These businesses have been popping up earlier every year around the country; this time some of them opened their doors in August!
These stores also remind us that long gone are the days when Halloween was simply a night when children put on a white t-shirt and a cheap plastic mask of Superman, Bugs Bunny, Casper the Friendly Ghost or Speedy González bought at K-Mart and went trick or treating happily around the neighborhood. Today, the “holiday” has been taken over by adults whose desire to create ever more elaborate outfits have pushed the children aside and turned this cultural happening into a monstrous moneymaker for the free marketers and China, where most of these products are made. What is more, the adult halloweeners have also expanded the time and space to celebrate Halloween, as it has become almost de rigor to dress up not just for parties held around October 31, but also to show up at work and at other types of social events in outrageous costumes.
Yes, people spend a lot of time thinking of the special ensemble they want to wear to the party or to work. The idea is to be original, although they aren’t since they usually follow the trends of the market, that is, the cultural market, which in the age of globalization means everything. Nothing exists outside the market. Everything is sellable; everything has a price. And there’s a sucker somewhere ready to buy it.
The market has lately turned multicultural since Wall Street knows that’s where the money is. But alas, now that you have so much diversity, there is the Tantalus complex: you have a variety of ethnic elements at your disposal, but you cannot touch them since to do so would be to appropriate other people’s culture, a big sin in our politically correct world. Be that as it may, the market will find a way to sell ethnicity to you without you feeling guilty about appropriating the other’s culture. This is one of the reasons why Día de los Muertos (Mexican Day of the Death) has grown by leaps and bounds in the United States.
In Mexico, Día de los Muertos was originally a religious day of remembrance and not a holiday to be celebrated like Independence Day. Moreover, not all Mexicans observed this religious ritual; it was mainly to be found in states with large indigenous populations such as Oaxaca and Michoacán. Other parts of the country, especially the northern region, didn’t have anything to do with Día de los Muertos. So in this sense, it is false to believe that all Mexicans commemorate the dead, as many people in the United States seem to believe.
In the areas of Mexico where people observe Día de los Muertos, the dead are memorialized with a simple ofrenda, an offering spread out on a homemade altar in a corner of the house that consists of candles, pictures of dead relatives, and some food and drink that was favored by them while alive. Some people visit cemeteries to clean the tombs of their dead; others may hold a wake at the gravesite. It’s safe to say that only a relatively small amount of people make the colorful baroque altars that people have seen in books and now on the Internet. For the most part that is what Día de los Muertos is in Mexico, a day of respect and remembrance of those who have gone before us to the next world and whose souls some people believe return on November 1-2; on the first the spirits of the children and on the second the spirits of the adults. In any case, these Mexicans observe the two days not so much with a “celebration” but with solemnity, reverence, and respect for the dead
Many immigrants from Mexico brought this tradition to the U.S. and continue to observe it on November 1-2. The market forces never miss a beat though and as soon as they see an opportunity to make money, they jump on it. And Mexican Day of the Dead is a perfect opportunity; for if there’s one thing the market has learned how to sell it is cultural ethnicity. It will take any culture and repackage it and sell it back to you transformed but with added charisma. Así que in the blink of an eye, Día de los Muertos became Mexican Day of the Dead in the U.S. in which people gather to “celebrate” the dead at raucous street fairs with everyone wishing each other a happy Day of the Dead while enjoying music and buying food, drinks, and all kinds of products with calaveras, skeletons, pan de muerto, and t-shirts. Other venues where the event is celebrated are museums where you can admire colorful altars as works of art but little spiritual value. You can also attend workshops where everyone can learn to make these ofrendas. You’ll find them everywhere: at the office, in schools, in stores. The altars are so ubiquitous they are becoming as common and meaningless as piñatas at birthday parties.
The original meaning of Día de los Muertos has disappeared in the commemorations and activities in the United States; the idea of remembering the dead as a sign of respect, the solemnity of the private ritual has been transformed into a public celebration not of the dead but of selling, buying and consuming in honor of the dearly departed. If you’re buying–and you should in order to show you appreciate ethnic cultures–someone is selling and you’ll find Mexican Day of the Dead products everywhere: calendars, mugs, posters, notebooks, agendas, clothing, pictures, pens, earrings, tattoos, and on and on.
Of course, you know that if there’s money to be made, Hollywood is never far behind; especially Disney who has perfected the movie formula that sells whitewashed ethnic cultures and ours arrived in that cute film, The Book of Life (2014), which taught us all about Mexican Day of the Dead. The popularity of this movie confirmed its marketability and Día de los Muertos became a member of that elite group of ethnic holidays that find a money-making home in the United States.
In fact, the success of the film on both sides of the border was not lost on the Mexican government, which also loves the smell of dollars. They immediately recognized the potential for making money with Day of the Dead, so they began to require that school children learn to celebrate Día de los Muertos. Never mind that roughly 20% of Mexico’s population is not Catholic or, more importantly, that Mexico has always prided itself in having a strict separation of Church and State, which is why 90 years ago the country was in the middle of a vicious religious war called, La Guerra de los Cristeros. The government ignored these matters and concentrated on the fact that the U.S. was positioning itself to take over another Mexican holiday as they had already done with Cinco de Mayo. By forcing students to learn and celebrate Día de los Muertos and inventing new ways to commemorate the event, officials hope to convince tourist to visit Mexico on the first and second of November so they can experience the “real” Día de los Muertos and flood our country with dead dollars. To what degree they can accomplish this goal is unknown. Last year, for example, Mexico City held its first Día de los Muertos Parade, which pretty much resembled the version of American parades with the typical floats and orgy of consumption that goes along with these public spectacles.
The irony is that while in the U.S. everyone seems to be jumping on the Mexican Day of the Dead bandwagon and the Mexican government has taken a new interest because of an American film, the children of Mexico are running in droves toward good old Halloween and abandoning Día de los Muertos. This past week I discussed the impact of Halloween with friends from Cuernavaca. I asked them which of the two events students preferred where their sons and daughters attended school. Everyone said Halloween. Day of the Dead was, well, a bit dead. When I inquired about which scary costume was most popular, a friend said it probably was Bob Esponja. I said, oh no, please tell your son not to dress up as Bob Esponja. He doesn’t want to be accused of appropriating American culture. Does he? Tell him to dress up as Cantinflas, la Chilindrina, Chespirito, El Santo or even that new cultural cliché, La Catrina. My friend didn’t know what I was talking about.
So this coming Tuesday, in most urban metropolises and even some small towns where migrants have returned with their families for different reasons, Mexican children will be out trick or treating in their Sponge Bob, Ariel, Elsa, Spiderman, Hulk, and Captain America outfits. And if they want to learn about that old quaint tradition their grandparents used to observe, they’ll just have to go on Netflix and watch The Book of Life, that cute movie that shows how Americans celebrate and interpret Mexican Day of the Dead. And hopefully, someday they’ll travel to the U.S. and participate in this ethnic event, which is part of their cultural heritage.