Does the United States exploit Mexican culture?


Genaro Servín

A woman dressed in traditional Day of the Dead attire participates in a celebration in Morelia, Mexico. The Day of the Dead is a traditional multi-day Mexican holiday which gathers families to honor their deceased family members and commemorate them with a decorated altar.

Grace Price, Reporter

El Dia de Los Muertos, meaning the Day of the Dead in English, is a traditional Mexican holiday which commemorates deceased family members by honoring them with a decorated altar and ofrenda, “the collection of objects placed on the ritual display”, and inviting their spirits back to the world of the living to accept gifts. Every year, the holiday begins on Oct. 31 and lasts until Nov. 2 with the last two days specializing in a certain demographic; the first of November being for children who have passed away and the second for adults. However, in the United States, this tradition has not emerged; rather, many of the cultural aspects in the celebration are tainted with deplorable capitalistic greed and exploitation.

The Day of the Dead was originally derived from Aztec traditions, a holiday which took place in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar to honor their dead, and it is now primarily celebrated in Guatemala, Spain, Brazil and of course, Mexico. It has cemented itself as one of the most beautiful celebrations in the world, having been ingrained in Latino culture for so many years. In the United States, though it is still celebrated, it seems to be more commercialized rather than a genuine tradition. The beauty of the products, flowers, and culture is abused as its symbols are used for flashy logos, simply to sell products, not to honor the dead as intended.

The real tradition of the Day of the Dead is over 3,000 years old and involves families decorating bewitching altars for their loved ones to visit. Primarily, each ofrenda consists of velas (candles), comida (food), cempasuchiles (Mexican marigolds), mantel blanco y sal (a white tablecloth and salt), agua (water), retratos (photos of the family members), calaveritas (sugar skulls), papel picado (the art of mexican paper cutting) and copal de incienso (a type of incense burned at the altar). 

In the United States, however, the tradition of a decorated ofrenda is tarnished with excessive merchandising. Once Halloween rolls around, local stores like Walmart and Target stock their shelves with sugar skull themed plates, napkins and cocktail glasses. Traditional Mexican dresses and skull face paint for the Day of the Dead turn into costumes for Americans to parade around Halloween night. How many people dressed in those costumes know the culture and indigenous roots behind it? The line between the two celebrations has become completely blurred as the United States continues to rob another nation of its culture and plaster it as their own. 

During the vibrant celebration of the Day of the Dead, the streets of Mexico are decorated with marigolds and papel picado, with many families preparing food and decorations for when their deceased family members visit the altars. Each item has a distinct significance and is placed with deliberate meaning. For example, the white tablecloth and salt represent purity and joy, with the salt also serving as a type of cleanse for the spirits upon arrival. The incense is left to drive away bad vibes and evil spirits, usually accompanied by un cruz de ceniza, an ash cross. The water is left to quench the spirit’s thirst after their journey, and the sugar skulls, which are also sometimes made of chocolate, are used for decoration. Additionally, next to certain photos, it is tradition to leave the visiting spirits’ favorite foods, as well as alcohol or cigars if they enjoyed those  during their life. For children, the altar sometimes contains toys and baby’s breath, a thin white flower, to represent the purity of their departed souls. Each ofrenda is unique and made thoughtfully, and should not be subjected to capitalistic objectification by a country that doesn’t understand the long-standing tradition.

The United States is known for degrading people’s cultures and turning them into  “funny” costumes (they’re not funny). There are so many examples: costumes with blackface, Native American costumes, racial stereotype costumes, even costumes targeting a specific race or religion and calling it a “terrorist”; none of these fail to appear on the streets for Halloween. The Day of the Dead is just another bullet on the long list of targeted traditions. But the extensiveness of these offensive practices should not condone its continuation. In order to combat it, the community needs to provide access to education about other cultures. And while yes, many schools do make an effort to acknowledge the Day of the Dead traditions and teach about its roots, it’s still a growing problem. So, what’s the solution?

One great tactic is exposure, especially in the media. For example, the 2014 release of “Book of Life” and the 2017 release of “Coco” gave great insight into the traditions and legends of the Day of the Dead. These two movies are actually praised for staying true to Mexican folklore and describing the holiday for what it’s really supposed to be. “Coco” had such a huge impact on the world with it’s music and beautiful animation, telling the story of a young boy visiting the world of the dead amidst the holiday. In the movie, the connection between the two worlds is a bridge literally made of marigolds, as they are used in reality to guide the spirits to the altars. Not one detail is missed, and the movie actually achieved worldly acclaim. If the United States continued with projects like “Coco” then so many more people would learn the real culture, especially since this movie was geared towards a younger, impressionable generation who probably hadn’t even been exposed to the cultural exploitation yet.

With this celebration of life after death and its emergence into modern entertainment and media, the Day of the Dead continues to remind people of all cultures to honor their loved ones who have passed away and keep their memories alive. With more recognition in the community, the admiration for the Day of the Dead will only continue to grow. The cliche image of a decorated altar, although it is the most valued component, holds a deeper meaning as people take the time to really look and learn the significance of the tradition. To learn more about the celebration visit websites like and, ask Spanish speakers in the community about it, or simply look up El Dia de Los Muertos.