Miguel Martin always tries to have at least a hint of red in the design of his Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead suit. Not just any shade of red but the brilliant red of cardinals — his mother’s favorite bird and color.
“Her favorite color was red. She used to love red cardinals,” Martin said. “She’s my hero in my life.”
Between creating the perfect suit for Day of the Dead festivities and helping organize the Sundance Square Catrina Contest, this time of year gets very busy for Martin. The Fort Worth artist and co-owner of Coleccion Mexicana goes all out for the traditional Mexican holiday that celebrates and honors loved ones who have died.
He’s far from alone. In recent years, the celebration has become big business, thanks to an increased presence in everything from movies like the 2017 Disney film “Coco” to many retail stores.
In the week running up to the celebration, Martin’s shop is the busiest it’s been all year.
“(We) definitely (had) an increase in flowers and all the items for Dia de los Muertos altars,” he said. “And an increase in sales from people who live overseas.”
Reconnecting with an ancient cultural celebration
Dia de los Muertos, which translates to Day of the Dead, is a holiday originating from Mexico that honors the living and the dead. Families create altars, or ofrendas, to remember loved ones who have passed. They are often decorated with bright yellow marigold flowers, photos of family members who have died along with their favorite foods and drinks.
The holiday starts on Nov. 1 and lasts two days. It is often confused or lumped together with Halloween, which falls on Oct. 31. However, the two are very different, Xavier Medina Vidal, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, said.
“It’s not about scaring anybody. It’s not about that at all,” he said. “Mexicans are very in touch with death all the time.” He notes that the Day of the Dead traditions honor ancestors as well as deceased friends and community members.”
Mexican American families, those who are second generation or more, have also reconnected with this tradition. Anette Landeros, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said many Mexican Americans — herself included — only recently started celebrating Dia de los Muertos.
“If you are Mexican American or Latino American, the likelihood that you 11 years ago celebrated Dia de los Muertos was very slim,” Landeros said. “We knew of it, but it just wasn’t something that we practiced growing up so we spent a lot of time even as predominantly Mexican Americans, learning about our own heritage and culture.”
While many Mexican Americans are happy to see their culture displayed in mainstream media and retailers, there are ongoing efforts to educate consumers that the custom is not a “Mexican Halloween.”
“It does get conflated sometimes with Halloween, but I feel like we’re better off now than maybe a few years ago. The differences are clearer now than in the past,” Medina Vidal said.
Fort Worth’s Artes de la Rosa has been hosting a Dia de los Muertos procession for the last 20 years. But what started as a small neighborhood event has grown into a citywide celebration, especially over the last three years, said William Girón, executive director of Artes de la Rosa.
“It’s been embraced by the city of Fort Worth, and we encourage working with other partners and anyone else, both the business sector and nonprofits, to have a Dia de los Muertos celebration and see how we’re able to work together and cross-promote,” Girón said.
A global reach
Coleccion Mexicana’s Martin was working a regular day in his Sundance Square shop when a customer entered to buy two skull figurines. The customer told Martin he was from Lebanon and was purchasing the items for his altar.
“I’m confused. In my head, I was like, ‘Maybe he’s a Latino living in Lebanon,’” Martin said.
But the customer was not Latino. Instead, like many people worldwide, he and his family had watched the Disney movie “Coco” and found the Day of the Dead celebration portrayed in the film beautiful. They decided to start celebrating it as well.
“That’s what makes me feel so good,” Martin said. “Yes, this is a Mexican tradition and everything but, at the same time, it’s so beautiful that everybody now is taking this time of the year to celebrate their people.”
The increased awareness of Day of the Dead means Martin is shipping his items as far as Finland, South Africa and Australia. That also means he has to start preparing his inventory as early as July, he said.
The rise of Dia de los Muertos in movies and shows — like “Coco” and James Bond’s “Spectre” — has taken the traditionally intimate Mexican holiday to the four corners of the world.
“Any time Mexican culture is put in front of a broader audience or is appealing to a broader audience, I think that’s a positive thing,” Medina Vidal said.
Girón said some businesses will have events or sell items related to Dia de los Muertos to bring in foot traffic or increase sales. But the important part of bringing Dia de los Muertos to a larger audience through commercialization is ensuring that the community is educated on its significance, he said.
“I try to always look for the positive aspect of it,” Girón said. “If you think about it, the people that do walk in, it’s still that curiosity of wanting to know more. So they may leave there and may do a Google search and find out, ‘Hey, who else is doing something?’”
The propulsion of Dia de los Muertos into mainstream media has also opened up a massive tourism market. Cities around Mexico known for their Dia de los Muertos events are seeing increased visitors during the two-day festivities.
The now-famous Mexico City Dia de los Muertos parade became a staple of the city’s celebration after James Bond’s “Spectre.”
Landeros said the Hispanic chamber is working with Visit Fort Worth, the city’s tourism office, to bring similar attention to the many Hispanic businesses and events that are taking place. It’s important to highlight the culture of the people that make up the city, she said.
Many Hispanic restaurants and businesses offer special menus or will have their own altars to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. Landeros and Girón encourage those who celebrate to support the local businesses by buying items for their ofrendas or their Catrina outfits.
You may find a full list of Dia de los Muertos events in Fort Worth on Visit Fort Worth’s website: https://www.fortworth.com/visitafortworth/eventos/dia-de-los-muertos/
“What that does is create a sense of pride for the community that they have a place and that we are making space for culture to be celebrated, but it’s also an opportunity for our Hispanic community to share our culture with others. Culture is a valuable asset. Let’s share it, let’s celebrate it and not shy away from it,” Landeros said.
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.