While being here in Barcelona, there’s things I notice everyday that trigger nostalgia and make me miss the familiar. Experiences such as going to grocery stores and finding that the only “Mexican” products available are yellow looking tortillas, guacamole, and some of El Paso’s “very authentic” line of TEX-MEX products. Or perhaps times where people pick up my accent and talk to me about their trips to Mexico and after a few comments about their great times there, I start to miss my family. There’s even times where I’ve met very nice Catalan or Spanish people, but have noticed where I as a Mexican-American am not yet able to enter in terms of intimacy. I’m no expert or anthropologist, but after meeting and observing so many cultures in Latin America and also spending time here in Spain on multiple occasions, I can’t help but to feel like there’s nothing like the welcome of a Latino friend. I become reminded of the warmth of my Mexican roots on a regular basis.
So as soon as I got word of a Dia de los Muertos celebration here in Barcelona I signed up immediately to participate in a catrina parade and contest. If anyone was going to be in a catrina contest in the country that colonized my ancestors it was going to be me! Someone that knew exactly what this special time meant and was going to do this catrina thing the way I knew how. Not someone that fell in love with the “Halloween costume” and wanted to show off their makeup skills, and if anyone wanted to show up and do that…fine, but I was going to be the one happy to share what it means to me and the rest of the people that have celebrated it for generations and generations.
So I arrived to the parade in my catrina face and outfit, excited to finally see and meet the Mexican community in Barna.
What turned out to be a small crowd at the starting point of the catrina parade gradually formed into a pretty large group upon finally getting to the end. The parade made a huge finale at Creu Coberta Meeting Point, an empty, mural decorated lot right by the popular tourist attraction Plaça Espanya and the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. The parade ended at the meeting point celebration where there were bites to eat, ofrendas, artesanias, and performances. I was amazed at how packed the space was. I overheard someone close to the organizers comment that not even the organization in charge of the event anticipated that large of a turn out. Another person replied to this comment very simply with “Coco”, to which everyone else exclaimed a very long “oh yeah”.
I suspected the Mexican community in Barcelona to be quite small, but I was a little disappointed to find that mostly the organizers, vendors, and a few people sprinkled in the huge Spaniard crowd were the only Mexicans there. Most of the catrinas and catrins were actually Spaniard.
Despite the bigger Mexican turnout I wished for, something else was especially caught my eye.
I noticed throughout the day the huge amount of photographers surrounding the parade and celebration. After speculating about them being tourists, I found out that most of them belonged to a sort of photo walk for photographers or photography groups. I’ve been to a few of them in Chicago, they typically are events where photographers meet up to take pictures of a model. In this case they met up to take photographs of the event. While I didn’t mind having my photo taken, and many of them asked or took them anyway, I started to wonder about what this whole catrina fascination business is doing to commodify a pretty sacred holiday. I was moreso wondering how much Western influence has stepped in to even make this Dia de los Muertos character more attractive and more importantly on a global scale. Before the interest in Mexican culture and traditions through the whopping increase of Frida fans, Disney movies like Coco, and The Book of Life, I knew Dia de los Muertos as is normally known in Mexico and I certainly don’t remember it being this globally popular in my childhood in the United States. Given the spread of media through smartphones and the increasing number of Latino immigrants in the States, I felt like there are questions worth asking surrounding the recent hype of Dia de los Muertos.
With more awareness of Day of the Dead through media, I wondered if can culture be respected while being more and more commodified? How do others see the catrina and is her meaning being lost with all the admiration? Will Dia de los Muertos one day be washed out like Christmas and other commercialized holidays?
It would even be incredible to know what my family in Mexico truly thinks, given their view looking from the inside out, rather than me perhaps who has had one foot on the outside and one foot on the inside.
After the parade, while looking for places to go eat and still wearing my full catrina face, I noticed Spaniards react in fear (yes, fear) upon seeing me as a catrina, or some would get excited (expats too) and say “oh look Halloween!” To which I quickly responded “no, not Halloween, just a catrina celebrating Dia de los Muertos”. This is where I start to feel nostalgia for a culture that understands death like mine does and knows the embodiment of the catrina as more than a costume. The catrina figure is meant to remind others of the beauty of death, proving to all that no matter how beautiful, elegant, and well to do you are, we will all still end up in the same place. Printmaker Juan Guadalupe Posada created her to poke fun at garbanzo bean sellers that would dress elegantly and sought to live out a European lifestyle despite their poor indigenous background. Unfortunately she somehow spilled over to Halloween in these recent years, attracting all with her elegance, and her story seems to be getting lost. Enough for people now to assume that it’s a Halloween costume in my case. A few curious folks I spoke with didn’t even know she was related to Dia de los Muertos. This is how I’ve observed firsthand at how commercialized the holiday became as it started to creep more and more into Halloween culture with catrinas being used as costumes. I have even been guilty of doing the same before becoming aware of cultural appropriation and respecting those lines, especially when the culture is mine.
What this experience taught me was that there’s a large opportunity to educate others on culture and origin, no matter how huge of a success it is to Disney, and what they’ve managed to show others about Mexican traditions. There’s even opportunities in countries like Spain, who have had a direct connection to us through colonization. Even here there are still things left to learn and fears to get over. Awareness yet to be touched or encountered.
I don’t have answers but perhaps I can continue to uphold my culture and educate others through representing it the best and most respectful way I can, no matter where I go. Being heedful of others who have yet to discover or fully understand the scope of idiosyncrasies that make it so incredible to admire.