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  • Writer's picturebenstephenson

// Disneyfying the Day of the Dead

Updated: Feb 22

The success of a visitor economy may rest on how well the assets of a place can be packaged and sold. As a result, tourism can change the way local people interact with their own heritage and something important may be lost in the process.


You may have seen the jaw-dropping opening scenes to the 2016 James Bond film Spectre, taking place around a huge Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico City. Towering skeletal figures parade through the crowds to deafening Mariachi music. The hero scatters thousands of people as he fights with a baddie in a helicopter over the Plaza de la Constitucion, it's all very exciting.

As it happens, although this event took place in real life, with 200,000 in attendance, it was the first of its type in Mexico City, organised by the tourism authority to facilitate the filming of these scenes. Inspired by the success of the filming, the city Mayor's office has held a parade ever since, and it is now a key moment on the tourist calendar..

More commonly however, the Day of the Dead is a spiritual occasion; a way to reconnect to deceased family members.

Some towns in the south and central parts of the country have celebrations, but they look very different. One popular tradition is for families to picnic at the graveside of deceased relatives and reminisce about them. School children learn that death should not be taken so seriously, but instead should be celebrated as a new phase of life. Altars are built with marigolds, tamales, photographs and beads, and a path of candles or lights is set out to guide the dead toward them.

Great care is taken to ensure everything is done right: many believe that the dead have the means to effect the next harvest, or can bring good fortune to families if the celebration meets their seal of approval. These meanings and nuances are difficult to convey to the outsider.

The Dia de Muertos is really a two-day celebration with origins in Aztec culture, The calavera - a painted skull symbolising resurrection - has been synonymous with it for centuries, although the iconography is more familiar now than the meaning. The conquistadors and the Catholic customs they brought with them may have suppressed the practices of indigenous people, but after Mexican independence, the Day of the Dead survived as a blend of these cultures, and it is now celebrated in the first days of November, after Hallowe'en, or All Saints Eve in the Catholic Calendar.

People have very mixed feelings about what the Day of the Dead has become since Spectre and the Disney film Coco presented it to a mainstream audience. Some argue that the celebration has been commodified and diluted of its spiritual significance in the Mexico City iterations.

Other Mexican people hold that the Day of the Dead has always evolved, alongside other cultural practices and heritage, and that presenting it anew for an international audience is a pragmatic way to boost Mexico's tourist economy. They celebrate the way Mexican culture is being recognised beyond its borders - as one Oaxacan put it, "it feels good to be seen". And given the huge attendance at the Mexico City event in 2015 and since, it's possible to argue there was a 'market' for this type of celebration, both domestically and internationally.

Meanwhile in Oaxaca, the city is flooded with tourists every year to celebrate Dia de Muertos, and locals lament the lack of sensitivity that can be shown by visitors on the hunt for their next Mezcal. These themes have come to a head recently in a street demonstration against tourism which is driving the rise of Air BnB. According to the demonstrators, 'Oaxaca is not an experience'.

The question remains whether it's possible to perform an act of domestic cultural appropriation. If Mexico City authorities decided to introduce a celebration of the Day of the Dead to boost the visitor economy, does this qualify as such an act? Are spiritual aspects of intangible heritage (as recognised by UNESCO) threatened by its commodification? Or is this a good way of keeping tradition alive?

This is a matter of ongoing debate in Mexico and across the globe as heritage, both tangible and intangible, is simplified and packaged for a visitor audience. By its nature, tourism is defined by the surface-level consumption of local culture. In a short time, there's no real way of getting to know a place in any depth and so museums and heritage experiences do their best to educate those tourists that are interested in learning.

Even then, the way culture is presented to tourists is subject to curatorial decisions, painting a generalised and sanitised picture of history that can be contested locally. For instance, in Mexico, care seems to be taken not to labour any points about the brutality of the Conquistadores, where Spanish visitors represent the fifth biggest tourist market, totalling 330,000 visitors in 2022. Tour guides and museums are keen to avoid getting mired in modern day culture wars.

More recently there has been a rise is 'responsible tourism', and initiatives like agritourism, which provides purpose to a trip and promises real immersion into local life, as well as local economic benefits. As younger people travel, sustainability is an increasingly important consideration, and it might be argued that at least some visitors are becoming more aware of the impact of their travel.

Individuals can be insensitive to local customs, but the sheer numbers of visitors to some places can be an insensitivity in itself. The cruise trade is particularly problematic in this respect - a crowd disembarking a cruise ship in Dubrovnik, eager to spot filming locations for Game of Thrones, can triple the daytime population of the Old Town in minutes. And in that case, the culture being commodified is more intangible than most in that it has no relation whatsoever to the place itself. It must be weird to work in Dubrovnik, selling Game of Thrones figurines to tourists.

So what to do? Increasingly cities suffering overtourism are limiting visitors and levying taxes on visitors to mitigate their impact. Amsterdam, Venice and Dubrovnik have all made moves to this effect. And while this might help address the numbers, the problem of cultural insensitivity and commodification remains for many.

Ultimately, if the cultural chasm between tourism and authenticity can never truly be bridged, then the tourist taxes that are currently used to mitigate the impact of tourism in place management terms might also support communities that are effected by the steamroller.

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