Back from the dead

Latin America prepares to celebrate their dead as Día de los Muertos returns.

The ‘Día de los Muertos’ is a Latin American syncretic holiday, originally conceived in Mexico from Catholic and pre-Hispanic traditions to pay respects to dead relatives and friends with a joyful celebration. Listed on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, countries throughout the continent have their own local variants of the traditional holiday.

In Guatemala, families gather to eat fiambre, a typical Mayan meat dish with local vegetables. In Ecuador people eat guaguas, a cone-married biscuit shaped like a child accompanied by fruit juice. Further south, in Bolivia, houses set up an altar known as apxata with candles, flowers, sweets, and fruits. Some also include the tantawawa, a bread with human shape representing the dead.

Mexico has sold the ‘Día de los Muertos’ as a genuine local experience since 1990. As a result, commercial activities around the holiday have been growing due to the popularity of the event. Branded trainers, multimedia products, and even lottery tickets are increasingly using imagery associated to the holiday to increase the sales of their mass-market products.

A former government official of Mexico City described how the country celebrates, “All the pantheons of the country are filled with families who honour their ancestors with music, food, sweets, flowers, and incense. Each household has its offerings, in some localities such as Veracruz the tradition is to visit from house to house and in each one they offer something to eat. In some towns of indigenous extraction, like Chiapas, balloons and kites are flown. Of course, Mexico City has had a wide range of activities for many years, from the traditional mega offerings to the walks in Chapultepec and La Llorona in Xochimilco. New traditions have also been added, such as the Day of the Dead Parade. It is a festival of the people, from the people and for the people.”

The economic importance of ‘Dia de los Muertos’ is also increasing each year as the CEO of a Mexican tourist company explained, “The economic boost from Dia de los Muertos is huge. All kinds of businesses wait for this day each year. Florists will sell out, especially of seasonal flowers: marigolds and velvet flowers, but for all flowers in general. Also, for prepared foods and traditional raw materials such as chocolate mole are incredibly popular. For bakeries, it is the main sales season with ‘pan de muerto’ found everywhere from convenience stores to high-end restaurants – it is estimated that between October and November 40% more bread is sold than during August-September.”

“The economic boost from Dia de los Muertos is huge. All kinds of businesses wait for this day each year.”

CEO, tourist company, Mexico

Despite the increasing commercial appeal of ‘Dia de los Muertos’, Matthew Sandoval, professor of culture and performance at the Arizona State University, argues that this business-oriented phenomenon has also given a new Latino generation the chance to be proud of their culture.

“Every year we need to bring new things, make surprises, but without losing sight of tradition.”

Government official, Mexico City, Mexico

The challenge now is to keep improving the events, year after year, to keep the attention of people and attract more tourists. The government official concluded, “Every year we need to bring new things, make surprises, but without losing sight of tradition. After all, it is the tradition that fascinates and attracts the attention of foreign audiences.”

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