How Day of the Dead became a commercial juggernaut, embraced by Target

poster commercialization of the day of the dead Dia de los Muertos

As a Mexican-American who celebrates Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, at the finish of October and starting of November, I’ve famous an rising concern the previous a number of years that the vacation is turning into extra commercialized.

Certainly, for individuals who maintain the vacation sacred, it’s jarring to see the extent to which it’s now mass-marketed. The proof is in all places. The vacation aisles of Target are full of low cost Day of the Dead crafts throughout October. Halloween shops promote Day of the Dead costumes. Nike makes Day of the Dead shoes. California and Arizona promote Day of the Dead lottery tickets. Disney famously tried to trademark “Día de los Muertos” earlier than its 2017 movie Coco. The examples go on and on.

The underside line is that Día de los Muertos and its related imagery, skulls, and skeletons have turn into stylish and a prime alternative for corporations to make a revenue.


However as a researcher of tradition and efficiency, I do know solely too properly that the reality is Day of the Dead has all the time been commodified.

The roots of commercialization

Day of the Dead is what anthropologist Hugo Nutini calls a syncretic holiday, that means it’s a cultural product of two totally different non secular traditions that hybridized throughout the European colonization of the Americas.

Day of the Dead brings collectively the annual feasts for the useless celebrated by pre-Hispanic Indigenous cultures, comparable to the Aztec, Maya, Zapotec, and Mixtec peoples. Throughout Mexico’s 300-year-long colonial interval, which began in 1521, these Indigenous rituals have been merged with the Spanish Catholic holy days for the useless referred to as All Saints, celebrated on November 1, and All Souls on November 2.

Early Spanish chroniclers in Mesoamerica, comparable to Diego Duran and Bernardino Sahagún, documented the Aztec feasts for the useless referred to as Miccailhuitontli and Huey Miccailhuitl. Duran wrote in the 1570s that he was astounded to see how lavishly the Aztecs spent on provides for his or her choices to the useless.

Sahagún noted the overwhelming bustle and financial activity that passed off at the market in the capital metropolis of Tenochtitlán, modern-day Mexico Metropolis, throughout the Aztec ritual feasts.

All method of meals and items have been offered to residents to celebrate the Aztec feasts of the useless. On this respect, there wasn’t a lot distinction between commercial and spiritual exercise. The non secular feasts supported the market and vice versa.


The Catholic faith additionally emphasised commercial exercise in relation to All Saints and All Souls Day. In accordance with sixteenth and seventeenth century Catholic perception, the majority of souls landed in purgatory after dying, reasonably than heaven or hell. It was the accountability of the dwelling to assist alleviate the struggling of souls in purgatory and help them in attending to heaven. This might be accomplished by prayer or by making offerings to the souls.

In Mexico, that meant Spanish colonizers and newly transformed Indigenous Catholics have been tasked with purchasing instantly from the church candles and different non secular objects that might be utilized in choices to these souls in purgatory. Moreover, they may pay their native priest to say special prayers for the souls throughout Día de los Muertos, a observe that remained in impact by the Twentieth century.

The colonial period

As Day of the Dead became a extra widespread and elaborate pageant in Mexico, the related commercial exercise grew in measurement. In accordance with anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz, in the 1700s, Day of the Dead generated the largest annual market in Mexico City.

Actually, the plazas and streets have been so overwhelmed throughout the vacation with distributors, carts, cubicles, and makeshift markets that the native authorities deemed it a “public disorder.” Mexico Metropolis’s mayor and metropolis council finally needed to management Day of the Dead’s financial frenzy by enacting legal guidelines and issuing vendor permits. In different phrases, the vacation had turn into so commodified in Mexico Metropolis that it required government regulation.

By and enormous, the markets and distributors in Mexico offered objects associated to the vacation—meals, sweet, bread, alcohol, candles, toys, and spiritual objects. Nevertheless, according to Lomnitz, by the 1800s, the Day of the Dead markets in Mexico Metropolis have been additionally promoting clothes, footwear, furnishings, instruments, house decor, and plenty of different issues.

The swell of commercial exercise on Day of the Dead additionally offered a possibility for musicians, dancers, and different entertainers to perform in the streets for money. In brief, Day of the Dead in Mexico Metropolis and different city areas carried each non secular and financial significance.

Trendy-day commercialization

Day of the Dead’s commercialization was additionally fairly pronounced in rural Mexico. A number of anthropologists in Mexico and the U.S. writing about Day of the Dead in the early and mid-Twentieth century make special note of the sizable holiday markets. They write that villages are remodeled into commercial festivals the place individuals collect from communities many miles away to purchase and promote meals, items, and providers throughout the pageant.

The scholarship of anthropologists Stanley Brandes and Ruth Hellier-Tinoco has been influential for understanding how Mexico started “promoting” Day of the Dead to the outside world in the mid-20th century. Mexico’s tourism business began promoting the vacation to U.S. and European vacationers as an “genuine” Mexican expertise.

Many guidebooks and journey brochures highlighted Day of the Dead as a cultural occasion for vacationers to attend and purchase people artwork associated to the vacation. Moreover, Mexico’s tourism business positioned sure regional celebrations as the most “conventional” Day of the Dead festivals for vacationers to discover.

Hellier-Tinoco has proven how Mexico’s “promoting” of the Day of the Dead on the rustic island of Janitzio in the state of Michoacán remodeled the small neighborhood ceremony into a spectacle attended by greater than 100,000 vacationers a 12 months.

Given all this proof, there doesn’t look like an period when Day of the Dead wasn’t intimately tied to monetary actions and profiteering. However the vacation’s commercialization has additionally ensured its survival.


In 2019, I talked to a grandmother constructing a Day of the Dead ofrenda, an altar with choices for her household’s dearly departed that included candles, meals, flowers, and festive decorations. For years, she’d tried to get her grandchildren to assist her erect the altar for his or her ancestors, to no avail. It wasn’t till they watched Disney’s Coco and noticed sugar skulls at Target that they took curiosity in the vacation. Now they eagerly assist their grandmother construct the altar.

Commercialization is and has been remodeling Day of the Dead. However, from what I’ve seen, it’s additionally giving a new era a probability to be proud of their tradition.