Don’t let commodification reduce the meaning behind Dia de Los Muertos

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Raul Alonzo Jr./ISLAND WAVES – A dancer with Comparsa Tempoal Veracruz participated in the 2016 Dia de Los Muertos Street Festival in downtown Corpus Christi.

When it comes to the debate over the commercialization of holidays and traditions like Dia de Los Muertos, one instance in particular comes to mind for me.

Dia de Los Muertos is a Mexican tradition with pre-Colombian roots in which loved ones who have passed on are honored and celebrated. Per the typical rituals associated with the holiday, some friends and I decided a couple years ago to erect an altar for the annual street festival held downtown in Corpus Christi.

Ours wasn’t so much dedicated to our own personal loved ones. We offered it up more as a way to remember lives that are often marginalized and forgotten in our communities and discourses: the hundreds of migrants who have lost their lives in recent years travelling through the harsh brush country of Brooks County just about an hour down the road from us here in Corpus Christi.

The day of the festival, many stopped by to look at our altar, adorned with white crosses detailing the locations where unidentified remains of migrants had been found. One of the most defining aspects of the altar was a blue water barrel that we set up beside it, painted with the Aztec symbol for “water” as well as featuring the word “agua.” It was inspired by the water jug-filled barrels left out in the brush of Brooks County by the South Texas Human Rights Center, which are often lifesaving means of aid for those who become lost in that arid environment.

It would be a week after the festival that we would return for the ArtWalk altar viewing to find that the barrel had been moved and was being used as a trash receptacle.

We emptied it of the beer cans and other garbage that had accumulated in it and returned it to the altar, quite upset at what we had just discovered. I would return a few days later when we were to disassemble the altar to find the barrel moved and used as a trash can, again.

I don’t recount this as a way to indict or accuse the organizers of the event or those who oversee the presentation as maliciously being behind the vandalism of our altar, though I do not speak for the others who worked on it with me. I understand it’s fully within the realm of possibility that it was simply a mistake. Rather, what I derive from the incident is more of the symbolism at play.

This was an instance that reconfirmed many things to me at the time, and still serves as an example for how I interpret the ways institutions of power interact with culture, in this particular instance, Latinx culture. It is these relations where, through the engrained structures of commercial culture, that substantive aspects of our culture can be reduced, in this specific instance, to mere receptacles of waste.

It’s no secret that Latinx folks have been one of the fastest and consistently-growing populations in the U.S. over the last few decades. And with that comes a growing economic power that corporations are more than happy to cater to. What easier entrance into such a market than by playing on traditions and holidays such as Dia de Los Muertos?

It’s not difficult to see the myriad  of ways the holiday has been reduced to a commodity. We see it in all the plastic dishes, T-shirts and other knick-knacks that become ubiquitous in stores the closer to the holiday it gets.

It’s seen in advertising, as well. Just the other day a friend sent me a video of a Whataburger advertisement where a woman with her face painted in the sugar skull style and flowers in her hair takes a bite out of a burger in frame and in the next is seen setting the burger down without the makeup on. “Vuelve a la vida” appears across the screen — “come back to life” — utilizing the duality of life and death held in sacred regard within the holiday as a means to hawk fast food.

This may all seem like harmless consumerism, obviously a cornerstone of life under late capitalism. But we should also ask what the long-term ramifications of the process is.

So much of what has historically tied underrepresented communities together and been pivotal to that survival has been a preservation of one’s culture, traditions and identity. And if those aspects are reduced to commodity, then those foundations are at risk.

I do not write all this to persuade folks not to attend the festival or anything like that. I’ve attended twice before and enjoyed the music and art and all those good things that should make community events worthwhile. The holiday itself is, after all, a celebration.

Rather, I think it’s always time to give pause and reflect on the deeper processes at work when it comes to our interactions with tradition and things held sacred.