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Can the Day of the Dead survive commercialization?

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A woman paints a girl's face for Dia de los Muertos.
A woman paints a girl's face for Día de los Muertos.

In recent years, Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, has become more and more popular. But now that it's mainstream, will it survive as its own distinct holiday?

Thursday marks the last day of the Día de los Muertos – Day of the Dead – celebration. Even if you don't know much about it, you're probably familiar with the holiday's colorful sugar skull make-up. Or maybe you've seen some Día de los Muertos merchandise at Target or Party City.

Day of the Dead is becoming a part of the whirlwind of commercialization that now defines Halloween. That begs the question: Can the Day of the Dead survive as its own distinct holiday?

Helping Take Two answer that question is Charlene Villasenor Black, who was in Mexico City celebrating the Day of the Dead. She's a Chicano Studies professor at UCLA.

Understanding the holiday

Although this holiday has really been growing in popularity in recent years, a lot of people still don't exactly know what it's about. Black broke it down:

"Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday, celebrated actually two days, November 1 and 2. It's a holiday that remembers, celebrates and honors our ancestors. What's really interesting is how hybrid it is ... meaning it has roots in both Spanish Catholic and pre-Columbian (before Christopher Columbus) indigenous Mexican cultures.

It combines the celebration of two Catholic holidays, All Saints and All Souls day, with pre-Columbian traditions. So, it's not Halloween, but Halloween is related."

Is it being gentrified?

It's been happening in the past few years. Movies like "Spectre" and Disney's upcoming "Coco" have been featuring Day of the Dead either subtly or prominently.

Slowly, large-scale retailers have been including more and more merchandise on their store shelves.

As with anything that gets pulled from the culture of a minority, the question of whether it's being appropriated or gentrified arises.

"What does it mean to culturally appropriate Day of the Dead? For me, this would mean people picking up aspects of the culture without really understanding it. Or people who are able to pick up aspects of the culture and still retain their privilege.

So, I think there's a way in which outsiders can pick up certain traits of Day of the Dead and celebrate it, without perhaps understanding it, but they also escape the oppressive side of being Mexican. So, they can act like they're Mexican easily and move about the world easily when there are Mexican people, Latino people in the United States who have trouble simply being at this moment."

Can Day of the Dead survive commercialization?

The appearance of Día de los Muertos merchandise in big retail chains such as Target and Party City have made some of those who celebrate it uneasy. Is it being sucked into the commercial vortex known as the Halloween holiday or can it survive on its own?

"I think there are enough Latinos and I think it's important enough to us that we're going to keep knowledge about the holiday present in people's minds ...

These are big corporations making a profit off of the Latino population. Are these the kinds of decorations I want to have at my offrenda? No, I’m not going to be buying things from Target or Party City for that. I feel conflicted about it."

To hear more about Día de los Muertos and how its become popular in the recent years, click the blue play button above.

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