Are Day of the Dead traditions at risk of falling to the influence of Hollywood? Some people think so.
The November celebration — El Día de Muertos in Spanish — is like the Mexican culture, the result of the blending of indigenous traditions with those of other countries over hundreds of years.
A UNESCO-protected celebration, the Day of the Dead as it is celebrated today has its foundation in the deeply rooted Mesoamerican traditions of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Catholic ritual introduced in the 1600s.
While every region of the country has its own particular way of celebrating the event, the common denominator is the remembrance of a family’s departed loved ones, who are visited at cemeteries and honored by an altar that includes the meals, drinks and vices favored by the deceased.
On Saturday, the inception of what could well become the newest addition to the Day of the Dead tradition in Mexico took place in the country’s capital, drawing inspiration from one of the least likely cultural sources, Hollywood.
The Mexico City government seized on the idea of mounting a carnivalesque Parade of the Dead after one such event was depicted last year in the opening sequence of the latest James Bond action film, Spectre, in which the movie’s hero can be seen chasing a villain through a Day of the Dead celebration in the city’s historical center.
In one more case of life imitating art, the now officially-sponsored parade attracted thousands of people — reports varied from 100,000 to a quarter of a million— who enjoyed a full-blown spectacle of skulls, skeletons, calaveras catrinas — a female skeleton dashing in its old-fashioned Sunday best — and the ever-present bright oranges of the flowers of the dead, or flores de cempasúchil, as marigolds are known in Mexico.
Deemed by many to have been a success in its first edition, there have been detractors. The editor of the political magazine Nexos tweeted: “This is a cheap stunt. They film James Bond here and now we have the ‘traditional Day of the Dead parade.’ Let’s see what happens when (the mayor) finishes reading The Da Vinci Code.”
But as far as government officials are concerned, the parade is here to stay. They have been quoted saying that this particular aspect of the celebrations “will be bigger than the Veracruz carnival, and within a few years will be at the same level as the Rio carnival.”
Shawn Haley, a Canadian who lives in the state of Oaxaca and a student of the Day of the Dead, told The Guardian newspaper that the tradition of big parades has been evolving since 2000. He predicted it would continue its transformation into a less spiritual occasion, especially in urban areas.
Haley sees it transitioning from a “private family celebration with folks who truly believed the dead family members returned home to a much more community oriented event [which] has removed much of the sincere belief.”
In its reporting of the parade, the Spanish newspaper El País stated that “it appears that there can be traditions that are just a year old.”
But surely all traditions had to be brand new at some time.