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“We all suffer three deaths, and the first death is the day that we die. The second death is the day that we’re buried, never to be seen on the earth again. And the third, but the most dreaded death of all, is to be forgotten.”—Ofelia Esparza, artist, recounting her mother’s words on Día de los Muertos
Screenings of the popular Pixar film Coco have become commonplace across the United States during the fall season. Released by Walt Disney Pictures in 2017, Coco follows the adventures of a young Mexican boy named Miguel who finds himself in the Land of the Dead. The film is steeped in the cultural aesthetic of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, replete with calaveras, or sugar skulls, and marigold flowers. Today, thanks in no small part to Coco, Día de los Muertos is a de facto aspect of Halloween festivities across the United States.
Chicano artists in East Los Angeles helped to popularize the celebration starting in the 1970s, expanding on an Indigenous tradition that had been melded with Catholic observances of All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1 and 2. Now, with the mass appeal of Día de los Muertos culminating in commercially produced art and a Disney film, observers of the holiday are questioning whether the sought-after visibility has come at a price too steep.
The Disney-fication of Day of the Dead
Walk into any department store, drug store, or even 99-cent store after August and you’ll find alongside seasonal markers like jack-o’-lanterns and scarecrows, Día de los Muertos-themed decorations, figurines, temporary tattoos, coloring books, and other knick-knacks. Halloween costumes of Coco characters are easily available, as well as makeup kits with accompanying instructions for transforming one’s face into a calavera.
Even before Coco’s release, the tradition had started to gain traction across the U.S. and beyond. “It’s not Pixar or Disney’s fault—they’re not responsible for it,” says Lalo Alcaraz, a well-known political cartoonist and writer. Speculating about why Día de los Muertos is popular, Alcaraz says, “It just has been a general trend because of mass communication, capitalism, and maybe NAFTA,” (because of the cross-border commerce between the U.S. and Mexico via the trade agreement). Disney and Pixar jumped on board a train that was already going full steam ahead.
Still, there is perhaps no more fitting an example of the attempted commercialization of the tradition than Disney’s 2013 effort to file a trademark application for the phrase “Día de los Muertos,” which was the original working title of Coco. “When we all found out, all the rabble, all the Raza, we went crazy,” says Alcaraz, who drew a scathing cartoon titled Muerto Mouse as part of the campaign to oppose the trademark.
Alcaraz relates how, “the Disney attorneys did not think twice about trademarking a community’s religious and cultural observance. They thought it was just part of doing business,” he says.
“In our country, every tradition, every celebration can become so commercialized that it loses its significance,” worries Ofelia Esparza, an East Los Angeles-based master altar-maker whose cultivation of the art of Día de los Muertos earned her a prestigious fellowship in 2018 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Artists like Alcaraz and Esparza have feared that without their stewardship, companies like Disney and Walmart will appropriate and exploit the tradition of the cultural holiday. Disney, embarrassed by the negative attention over its trademark application, quickly backed off. Eventually the filmmakers at Pixar invited Alcaraz, Esparza, and other Chicano artists to be cultural consultants for Coco to influence the film’s plotline and visuals.
A Mash-up of Culture, Religion, and History
“The origins of this tradition go back thousands of years before the Europeans came in with the Catholic church,” Esparza says. Indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America melded their traditions with those of the Catholic Church. According to Alcaraz they, “mixed it together and came up with something new,” creating a “mix-master of culture and ingredients.”
Infused into this was the work of the famed Mexican political artist and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada, whose art satirized corruption in politics more than a century ago in the form of calacas, or skeletons, and who is credited with originating the iconic La Calavera de la Catrina imagery. Guadalupe Posada’s work, according to Alcaraz, “was cutting-edge back then” even as it has now become a mainstream aspect of Día de los Muertos.
Alongside the skeleton imagery, a hallmark of the festival is the ofrenda, or altar—a visually arresting display of paper and real flowers, candles, food, water, and, most importantly, images of lost loved ones. The word ofrenda means “offering” in Spanish and each October, artists like Esparza make an offering to their local community during Día de los Muertos celebrations.
How Chicano Artists Shaped the Modern-Day Tradition
Esparza first learned how to make altars from her mother who learned the art of altar-making from earlier generations. Today, the 89-year-old matriarch has passed down her expertise to her nine children and members of her local community.
While families of Mexican and Central American Catholic background often built altars in their homes to honor their ancestors, the evolution of Día de los Muertos into a community event with social significance can be traced to the 1970s, when Chicano artists at a small East LA-based non-profit organization called Self Help Graphics began promoting it.
The organization claims credit for originating the practice of face painting the familiar calavera designs that are a signature of Día de los Muertos community events. And, it was at SHG where Esparza turned her family tradition into a community art form, creating large-scale interactive altars as art installations.
Betty Avila, executive director of SHG, explains that the organization’s co-founders, “were interested in providing a cultural celebration that wasn’t Cinco de Mayo, that wasn’t totally commodified, and that was truly grounded in the culture of the community.” The early Día de los Muertos celebrations were “closely tied to this very nascent identity of the time—the Chicano aesthetic political identity,” she says.
Decades later, SHG continues to organize large community celebrations in LA each October leading into early November, promoting the rich cultural tradition that it helped to craft and popularize. “It’s evolved over time for both the processing of communal grief and trauma and also as a platform to speak on issues that are impacting the community,” Avila says.
Large altars at Grand Park in downtown LA invite interaction from attendees who are invited to display photos of their own loved ones who have passed away. The point is, according to Avila, for the community to acknowledge “things that are extremely personal but that are also universal.”
Alongside personal altars, it is common to see altars reflecting social movements centered on collective traumas such as remembrances of the victims of police brutality, of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and of undocumented migrant deaths along the border.
Over the years, many other community organizations in U.S. cities with large Mexican American populations have held annual Día de los Muertos celebrations, bringing together families for events that feature face painting and costumes, altar-making workshops, local artist performances and exhibitions, and food vendors.
“Culture is shared and transported between people and it flows in both directions,” Avila says. Still, she finds the inevitable conflation of Día de los Muertos with Halloween to be particularly galling, saying that the Day of the Dead celebration “is very different, it is totally something else.”
Eventually the Chicano-led cultural movement that SHG was central in promoting throughout LA spread across the U.S. and even flowed back across the southern border, feeding into Mexican celebrations. Outside of cities like Oaxaca, “it wasn’t really a huge, huge tradition [in Mexico] until now,” Alcaraz says.
“Chicano artists had everything to do with making it popular,” he continues. “It only took 40 to 50 years. But that’s how culture works, and then all of a sudden, boom! It explodes, and there’s Día de los Muertos in every corner.”
Recentering the Tradition’s Original Intent: To Honor the Dead
Years before Coco was conceived, Sony Pictures Entertainment invited Alcaraz to pitch a Day of the Dead-themed animated film. Alcaraz remembers the studio executives telling him, “We like the pretty flowers and the sugar skulls, but could you keep the ‘death’ part out of it?”
But of course, death is central. “It was the ancient belief that death is not the end of life but another phase of life,” says Esparza, who sees the altars she builds each year as “a bridge between life and death.”
At the heart of the yearly celebration is family, ancestral memory, and the intimate connections between generations. Esparza recalls her mother telling her that “the remembrance of our ancestors, of our family members,” is the most important part of the celebration. “We are here on their shoulders, on their resistance, their resilience, their survival, their love.”
It is a concept that can get lost amid the eye-catching motifs of skeletons and flowers, both for consumers and those seeking to capitalize on the tradition. And it is what practitioners of the traditions are hoping to remind those who revel in the art, face paint, costumery, and other accoutrements of Día de los Muertos.
Chicano Artists Continue Their Fight for Visibility
“I told them, ‘I’m not going to rubberstamp your project,” says Alcaraz, recalling his reaction when Disney/Pixar invited him to be a consultant on Coco. He told the filmmakers then that he wanted no part of a film that would engage in what he called “Brown-facing,” with White actors playing the roles of characters of Mexican origin.
Participating in the making of Coco offered Alcaraz, Esparza, and others an opportunity to shape the way in which their cultural tradition would be presented to the world by a massive commercial enterprise.
Ultimately the film’s cast was almost entirely Latinx, a significant achievement for a community that is routinely underrepresented on American screens. “We needed that film to show Indigenous people, brown-skinned Mexican people on screen. It’s super important to show that,” Alcaraz says.
Día de los Muertos has offered Chicanos and Mexican Americans the chance to be uniquely visible in a nation that has overwhelmingly marginalized and oppressed their communities. If the tradition has become so pervasive today that it faces cultural appropriation and commercial exploitation, some see that as a marker of success and an opportunity for practitioners to continually re-center their communities and the original intent of ancestral connectedness.
While artists like Esparza have seen the demand for their work increase dramatically over the years, they have faced increasingly powerful pressures to commercialize their art. “I feel it’s a spiritual endeavor far removed from being commercial,” says Esparza, who is often offered commissions to create altars that include product advertisement and has refused.
Others see a bright side to the visibility. “Mexican culture is already a super popular culture all across the planet. I think that’s fantastic and I think we should get more of it,” Alcaraz says. “More, more, more!”
Sonali Kolhatkar is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. She was previously a weekly columnist for Truthdig.com. She is also the host and creator of Rising Up with Sonali, a nationally syndicated television and radio program airing on Free Speech TV and dozens of independent and community radio stations. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women's Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023). She has a Master’s in Astronomy from the University of Hawai’i, and two undergraduate degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin. She reflects on her professional path in her 2014 TEDx talk, “My Journey From Astrophysicist to Radio Host.” She can be reached at sonalikolhatkar.com