Known in Spanish as Día de los MuertosDay of the Dead is usually celebrated every year on November 1 and 2. Although the ritual “belongs” to Mexico, it is in fact a global phenomenon celebrated in Latin America, the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa by Mexican migrant communities.
With its Mesoamerican, Roman Catholic and pagan roots, this deeply religious celebration sees families gather annually to honor and celebrate their loved ones. They build altars and parade the streets dressed as skeletons or Catrinas – “the grand lady of the afterlife” – and bake sugar skulls and “bread of the dead”.
But the Day of the Dead is often misunderstood in some countries, including the UK, where the perception is that this very important ritual is simply a Mexican version of Halloween.
My work looks at how Day of the Dead is viewed and consumed in the UK and Ireland, and how Mexican communities celebrate their customs there. The UK has a Mexican community of around 10,000 people and although not all take part, many will celebrate the Day of the Dead from Fife and Dublin, to London and Southampton, as an important way to connect with each other and Mexico. The event is a valuable way for Mexicans to promote pride in their cultural heritage, celebrate diversity and inclusion – and showcase the festivity of not a Mexican Halloween.
In Bournemouth for example, the Mexican community has organized public street events welcoming the wider community by building community altars, offering delicious ‘bread of the dead’ with orange blossoms and by dancing special folkloric Day of the Dead dances.
Elisa Ponce, founder of the Mexicans of Bournemouth, and co-founder of the folkloric dance group Colores Mexicanos, made up of Mexican and Latin American women, mothers and daughters, sees their local Day of the Dead celebrations as vital to the community’s cultural pride:
We were so proud to hear the excitement of the passers-by, the conversations about death, suffering and grief turned into happiness and colors. Just like in Mexico.
Such events create a sense of belonging by passing the cultural heritage from one generation to the next, and raise awareness among the general public.
The “Halloweenization” of a Mexican custom
As my previous research shows, interest in all things Mexican has been steadily increasing in the UK due to tourism, the media and Day of the Dead events organized by Mexican communities in the UK.
Although many Britons are aware that Day of the Dead is not a Mexican Halloween, the so-called “Halloweenization” is still widespread. The two may have similar Catholic origins, but the former has lost its religious roots and is now just a commercialized phenomenon.
In addition to retailers and the media, Day of the Dead’s Halloweenisation has been fueled by Hollywood films such as the Bond film Specter (2015) with its Day of the Dead parade, and to some extent Coco (2018) the Pixar animation about a young Mexican boy who ends up in the land of the dead.
The festival has undergone a worldwide cultural transformation due to globalization and the internet-based world we live in, which can have a bulldozing effect on individual cultures. This has led to Day of the Dead being divested of its local roots and religious meanings and turned into an object of mass consumption.
During Halloween, Day of the Dead costumes and accessories have become an increasingly familiar sight in stores across the UK. With its strikingly colorful patterns and iconography, it’s not hard to understand the attraction. With UK retailers selling Halloween costumes and decorations interspersed with Day of the Dead items, it’s no wonder the public may perceive the Mexican practice as an extension of Halloween.
Yet this Halloweenization of the Day of the Dead has resulted in heated debates about whether this is cultural appropriation, capturing polarized opinions ranging from accusations of offensive appropriation to celebrations of cultural fusion.
Nowhere is this response better exemplified than when the Mexican celebration was dedicated to the ever-popular BBC dance show Strictly Come Dancing. In 2018, its Halloween episode featured a colorful Day of the Dead-themed opening dance performance featuring mariachi singers, sombreros, papier mache skeletons and dancers wearing sexy Catrina dresses and alluring skeleton makeup.
A row ensued, with the media picking up on the mixed response to the controversial performance. For example, the Huffington Post reported that the performance was blasted for cultural appropriation and featured several tweets from unhappy viewers who found it “racist” and “offensive”.
But others praised the show’s celebration of heritage and its amalgamation of Halloween, Day of the Dead and the film Coco, with some drawing happy comparisons to the popular film that has brought Day of the Dead to prominence. Such comparisons suggest that some believe the ritual is based on a movie rather than a Mexican religious practice, fueling further misconceptions about Day of the Dead as “another Halloween.”
As the Mexican community in the UK plays an important role in contributing to the local economy, culture and society, more visibility of Day of the Dead celebrations is needed to break with unhelpful racial stereotypes and issues of mislabelling.
This lack of visibility could be addressed by encouraging retailers to rethink how they sell and label their goods. Local councils could promote and fund Day of the Dead events to the wider community by including them in their post-COVOD social and cultural regeneration strategies. And schools could do more to teach kids about what the practice is actually about—and why it’s not an extension of Halloween but something culturally distinct underpinned by its own religious history, meaning, and rituals.