Día de Muertos Barbie: Respectful Tribute, or ‘Obviously Cultural Appropriation’?

In Mexican culture, the Día de Muertos — or Day of the Dead — is when the gateway between the living and the dead is said to open, a holid...

In Mexican culture, the Día de Muertos — or Day of the Dead — is when the gateway between the living and the dead is said to open, a holiday during which the living honor and pay respects to loved ones who have died.

A new Día de Muertos Barbie, set to be released on Thursday, was intended less as a portal into the realm of the dead and more as a gateway into Mexican culture. At least that is what Mattel is hoping for.

“We often look at different ways to continue to engage girls and families to gain knowledge and celebrate other cultures and other parts of the world,” Michelle Chidoni, a spokeswoman for the company, said. “Our hope is for this Día de Muertos Barbie to honor the holiday for the millions that celebrate and to introduce people not familiar with the tradition to the rich meaning.”


The doll, which will retail at $75, has a black mermaid-style dress decorated with monarch butterflies, marigolds and roses. Her face is adorned with Calavera Catrina makeup and her head is embellished with a crown of marigolds.

Many have expressed worries about cultural appropriation and the use of a 3,000-year-old tradition for profit.

“With ‘Coco’ and other movies, I think it has become very popular,” José Higuera López, deputy director of the Jamie Lucero Mexican Studies Institute at Lehman College in the Bronx, said of the holiday. “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.”

For Mariluz Gonzalez, a co-host of a late-night radio show in Los Angeles called “Travel Tips for Aztlan,” Día de Muertos is a solemn tradition that has morphed into a commercial machine in the United States, especially after the success of “Coco,” the 2017 Pixar film.

She added that despite products like the new Barbie doll, the political and lived realities of Mexican immigrants in the United States were too stark to ignore.

“It’s obviously cultural appropriation, but — cómo te digo?” Ms. Gonzalez said. “It’s what our country loves to do. It’s all about marketing.”

“Is our culture benefiting economically because of that?” she continued. “Is our government doing anything for us? And the raids, and all that, and we should be happy about a doll?”

Juan Carlos Aguirre, the executive director of Mano a Mano, a nonprofit that works to preserve and present Mexican culture in New York, said he was more concerned about the watering down of the tradition when it crosses into United States culture.

“There is a loss in translation,” he said. “Day of the Dead in Mexico has a very specific aesthetic. There are a lot of things about the holiday transporting to the United States that will change.

Mr. Aguirre mentioned that even the name of the holiday had changed in its crossover to mainstream American culture. Whereas the Spanish name of the holiday is Día de Muertos, for instance, in English, it is usually rendered as Día de los Muertos.

He also added that the Calavera Catrina makeup evolved once the tradition became popular in the United States.

“In the United States, when they do makeup for Day of the Dead, they actually do a version of it that mixes Halloween and Day of the Dead,” Mr. Aguirre said, adding that while Catrina makeup in the United States often includes a spiderweb on the forehead, “spiderwebs are a Halloween thing.”

Halloween uses the spiderweb as a symbol for an abandonment — a poor fit for Día de Muertos traditions, like family visits to cemeteries to clean headstones and leave offerings of flowers, decorations, bread and candles.

“There are a lot of things that are being added to the holiday that are sort of warped,” Mr. Aguirre said.

The man who designed the Barbie, Javier Meabe, 34, said he drew from his Mexican heritage and his personal experiences celebrating Día de Muertos as a boy.

“I grew up going to Mexico and I pulled a lot of that inspiration and things that I remember growing up,” he said, adding that he fashioned the doll’s dress after ones he saw his mother wear.

“That is something that is very dear to my heart," Mr. Meabe said of the holiday. “I know how important it is to honor and respect family and friends that are no longer with us.”

Many will still welcome the doll.

“I’m going to buy it!” said Patty Rodriguez, a founder and an editor of Lil’ Libros, a publisher of bilingual children’s books. She argued it added immediate visibility to Mexican and Mexican-American identity.

“We’re seeking to be seen, and our contributions, and who we are, we’re constantly struggling with that,” Ms. Rodriguez, 35, said. “The brand Barbie and Mattel are very much part of this country’s zeitgeist, and I think the doll is beautiful.”

Pablo A. Piccato, a Columbia University professor who specializes in Mexican history, said he believed the doll would be of no consequence to the Día de Muertos tradition, which has already “been the object of many changes and reappropriations” since the 20th century.

“It’s always been linked to an essential Mexican identity, too, although the definition of that identity has also changed over the years,” Mr. Piccato said. “I don’t think that a new toy with a Día de Muertos theme will change things much.”

Daniel Hernandez contributed reporting.

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Newsrust: Día de Muertos Barbie: Respectful Tribute, or ‘Obviously Cultural Appropriation’?
Día de Muertos Barbie: Respectful Tribute, or ‘Obviously Cultural Appropriation’?
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