Day of the dead doll

Dia De Los Muertos Barbie: Appreciation Or Appropriation?

Dia De Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a traditional Mexican holiday that is meant to honor and celebrate loved ones who have passed, but still live on in our hearts. According to CNN Travel, San Miguel’s Día De Los Muertos festivities are a four-day-long celebration of history and family, arts and culture, food and frolic referred to as La Calaca.

“On November 1, costumed revelers with skulls painted on their faces slowly snake through the cobblestone streets of San Miguel, ending at Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the 17th-century cathedral in the town’s main square. This ancient tradition — a mix of Aztec and Christian modalities — has been celebrated throughout Central America and Mexico for thousands of years.”

This year, famous toy company Mattel is celebrating by releasing a Day of the Dead Barbie. The collectible doll was released last Thursday and is already being sold across the internet by second party sellers due to the high demand. The doll, originally priced at $75, is meant to honor and appreciate the tradition that has been celebrated by so many. The doll herself (as seen in the image below) is set with traditional skull face painting, floral embroideries in her long flowing black dress, and monarch butterflies engulfing her. 

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Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico around the same time as the festival every year. The influx of the species is meant to represent the souls of departed loved ones returning home to celebrate and be reunited with their families. Marigold flowers are often used to decorate homes during the holiday. 

The sacred nature of this holiday has caused Mattel to receive a lot of backlash, and has opened up the debate over whether “Day of the Dead Barbie” is working to appreciate, or appropriate Mexican tradition. “I think we have to be careful in the way that we portray our celebrations as Mexicans. It’s important that it is not a parody of the celebration, and more of a representation of Latinos,” José Higuera López, deputy director of the Mexican Studies Institute at Lehman College in New York, told The New York Times. However, the Mattel designer behind the new doll, Javier Meabe, also talked to The New York Times, and discussed how he is of Mexican heritage and wanted to ensure the new Barbie was respectful of his culture.

 “I grew up going to Mexico and I pulled a lot of that inspiration and things that I remember growing up. That is something that is very dear to my heart. I know how important it is to honor and respect family and friends that are no longer with us.”

Dia De Los Muertos will take place on November 1 and 2, in addition to citywide celebrations taking over the streets of Mexico, families set up altars meant to honor their loved ones who have passed. Altars include photographs, and personal memorabilia that embodies who the late relative of the individuals are. This could mean setting up their favorite foods, drinks, clothing items, music, etc. in an extravagant display. People have also left representations of human remains (mainly skeleton or skull related) with their specific items in order to be seen as a peace offering to welcome back the souls of their loved ones. 

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The holiday was also placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2008, and has seen an increase in visibility and popularity throughout recent years, as representations of the holiday have been infused into pop culture more. One of the greatest examples being Disney Pixar’s 2017 film Coco, which received worldwide recognition and praise for fully representing Mexican tradition, without appropriating or turning it into a spectacle.

Mattel received criticism mainly due to the fact that they’re just creating a product for profit, even if it was created by a Mexican individual who is familiar with the tradition. Selling a representation of a sacred holiday painted onto a doll that is mainly known for being a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, vision of European beauty standards, isn’t appreciation. Individuals felt like there was nothing truly indigenous about the dolls outfit or face paint, besides the fact that it just followed the basic elements to an otherwise complex holiday. 

If anything, the doll itself opens up the door for an important conversation. What we choose to be our own representations of our own cultures tradition. To some people, Day of the Dead Barbie is just a doll, to others it’s an appreciation/representation of a traditional holiday, and to others it’s a capitalist scheme to appropriate and sell another culture’s traditions for profit. The biggest take away individuals of all cultures should gain from this is the ability to at least understand and hear all sides of the argument, while taking into account their own privilege on the position. Listen to Mexican individuals and their thoughts on the doll, and know that at the end of the day it’s their culture and tradition for us to appreciate, not appropriate.