The ten biggest retail companies in the United States, including Lowe’s and Amazon, sell Día de los Muertos-themed merchandise often appropriating the celebration and grouping it together with Halloween. These ten corporations cumulatively made over $1.4 trillion in sales in 2020 alone.
Each of these publicly-traded corporations actively look for ways to sell more, even if it means taking elements from other cultures. Since the Latinx population makes up nearly 20% of the entire U.S. population, it is no surprise that big American corporations are capitalizing on different aspects of Mexican culture to increase their sales.
For Latinx individuals, especially those of Mexican descent, who live in the U.S., celebrating Día de los Muertos is a traditional way to stay connected with their roots. It’s a way to commemorate and celebrate the lives of ancestors and loved ones that have passed on. The Smithsonian reports that Mexican immigrants have been celebrating Día de los Muertos in the U.S. since about 1890. According to local news reports, in 2017, about 300,000 people had gathered in Mexico City alone to celebrate Día de los Muertos with elaborately decorated parade floats and carefully curated altars.
After being exposed to the beauty of Día de los Muertos, American companies took countless materials from the tradition to market and sell to their customers. Walgreens, a pharmacy, offers calavera figurines under their Halloween decor section, but if you search Día de los Muertos on their website, there are no relevant matches. Even Barbie has released a special edition Día de los Muertos doll every year since 2019, which is problematic because their dolls have upheld a white passing image and standard of beauty for over half a century. Examples like this perpetuate what American society has placed a high value on. This society’s obsession with material possessions has led to a culture centered around consumerism with little regard for others’ cultural expressions and cultural sensitivity as a whole.
Whether we like living in a consumerist society or not, the reality is that it reaches even the deepest parts of our self-expression. The commercialization of Día de los Muertos was bound to happen.
“It’ll all be rolled up in a consumer culture; it applies to everything. Saying something in the United States should be protected from consumerism is like saying we should protect something from the Coronavirus. It’s everywhere, it’s inevitable,” said Associate Director of the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, Dr. Roberto Suro.
Disney’s movie “Coco” is a quintessential example of the commercialization of Día de los Muertos. This film has had a varying impact on people of Mexican descent. Jetsy Fernandez, a student of Mexican descent at USC, along with her family, keeps altars to celebrate the lives of her loved ones who’ve passed on, year-round. For her, watching “Coco” with her parents and grandparents was more of a learning experience. She had two previous generations of her family by her side to explain the traditions and inaccuracies in the movie.
“Overall it was kind of cool that Disney was exploring Mexican culture. It was nice to see that there was at least some representation, but was it accurate and respectful? My family has their opinions about that,” said Fernandez.
Erick Alvarez, a house music DJ in Los Angeles, grew up in Mexico and celebrated Día de los Muertos as a child. By the age of 10 and later moving to the U.S., his participation on the holiday dwindled, rather, increasing his interest in the Americanized celebration of Halloween. Alvarez had a different experience with Disney’s “Coco.”
“When I saw all the posters and trailers I thought, this looks really pretty and it was a somewhat accurate depiction of what happens in Día de los Muertos,” Alvarez said.
Given Disney’s history of white-washing, perpetuating colorism and discrimination of underrepresented cultures, Alvarez chose to not watch the film. He felt that it was offensive that Disney, an American company, was portraying and profiting from something that isn’t part of American culture.
“I don’t like Disney. I think they rob people’s cultures and experiences. I don’t understand why they had to share this when it isn’t theirs. I feel like I’m so used to people profiting from my culture from cinco de mayo to taco Tuesday, but it’s still damaging,” said Alvarez.
While it is true that Disney has had its share of controversies when portraying characters of color, it’s important to note that “Coco” was the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latino principal cast. “Coco” also made its premiere at the Morelia Int’l Film Festival in Morelia, Mexico. It had its first release in the week after the Día de los Muertos festival, which was about a month before it was released in the U.S.
Through the commercialization of Día de los Muertos, people outside of Mexican culture have had the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the holiday. Instead of supporting corporations that steal culture for their profits, it is important to respect each other’s culture and become educated on the meaning behind the beautiful celebrations.