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Day of the Dead was a defining local custom. Then came ‘Coco.’

How Disney is re-writing the script on one of Mexico’s beloved traditions

By John Fox

“Is everyone ready for a fun surprise?” asked the eager Mexican tour guide at the front of the bus, his voice distorted through the microphone. Half of us nodded tenuously, the other half too consumed by the contents of their free snack boxes to register his announcement. As the Disney logo flickered onto the tiny TV, I thought to myself, “No, this can’t be…”

But it was. The unmistakable strains of strumming guitars, blaring trumpets and the grito shouts of mariachis in the opening credits gave it away. On Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, I was heading off to experience this ancient holiday in a traditional Mexican village — and there I was, strapped into my seat with a snack box like a toddler in a minivan, watching the Pixar animated film “Coco.”

For the handful of folks who have yet to see it, “Coco” is the blockbuster Oscar-winning 2017 movie inspired by the Mexican holiday. The movie, which follows the exploits of a 12-year-old boy who accidentally crosses over to the land of the dead, has grossed over $800 million at box offices around the world. Along with other big-screen depictions of the long-standing Mexican tradition, it has sparked an international frenzy of tourist interest — and in the process, perhaps forever changed the way an ancient holiday is celebrated.

“Coco” follows the exploits of a 12-year-old boy who accidentally crosses over to the land of the dead.

Although it overlaps with both All Soul’s Day and Halloween in the Christian calendar, Day of the Dead is different than both. More raucous than somber, and more happy than scary, the holiday is a quintessentially Mexican celebration of life and the inseverable bonds of family. According to the writer Octavio Paz, the Mexican has a unique relationship with death. He “jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves.”

For Day of the Dead rituals and festivities, families build private altars called ofrendas in their homes, elaborately decorated with loaves of specially baked bread (pan de muerto), sugar skulls called calaveras, bottles of their loved ones’ favorite tequila, and family photos and mementos. They similarly decorate the graves of the deceased to entice and welcome them home for that one special night. Marigold flowers on graves and altars mark the magical path connecting the worlds of the living and the dead.

In a perfect case of life imitating art, city authorities thought the parade from a James Bond movie would be a great tourist attraction.

Across Mexico, celebrations big and small can be found in nearly every community. In Mexico City, a massive Day of the Dead parade takes over the city center with rolling ofrenda floats, skeleton puppets, and hundreds of people sporting extravagant dresses and suits, their faces painted as catrinas, the elegantly dressed skeletons famous from Mexican folklore.

But as homegrown as it feels, the parade, which now attracts millions of visitors, only began in 2016 — and was, in fact, inspired by the opening scene in the 2015 James Bond movie “Spectre.” In a classic over-the-top Bond scene that unfolds across the city’s rooftops and clogged streets, Daniel Craig foils a terrorist plot that threatens to unleash death and destruction in the midst of a Day of the Dead parade. In a perfect case of life imitating art, city authorities thought the parade (sans terrorist plot) would be a great tourist attraction.

I decided to pass on the Hollywood-inspired festivities and make my way, instead, to a traditional town widely regarded as one of the places to experience the holiday. Located 25 miles from Mexico City, San Andrés Mixquic was first settled over a thousand years ago on an island in the middle of a lake. Its original residents farmed floating gardens and left behind ruins of ancient temples and other traces of pre-Hispanic life. Getting to Mixquic from Mexico City would be easy enough by taxi or rideshare. But finding a ride back from the village late at night, I learned, would be nearly impossible. Thus the tour bus, snack box, and forced “Coco” screening.

With darkness descending, the bus deposited us a half-mile from the crowded town center. The cheery tour guide did his best to look stern, warning us to return by 10 p.m. or risk being left behind. As I walked toward town, throngs of visitors converged from every angle. What was clearly a year-round sign greeted us: Bienvenido al pueblo de los muertos! “Welcome to the town of the dead!”

On Mixquic’s narrow main street, swarms of people shuffled by under crisscrossed rows of papel picado, paper flags decorated with skulls and perforated to allow the souls of the dead to pass through. On one corner, children were getting their picture taken astride a massive bull. On the other, a catrina dressed as Frida Kahlo was posing (for a fee) for photos. Vendors lined the road selling commemorative T-shirts, sugar skull candies, pan de muerto, tacos, sandwiches, and homemade horchata. I turned down a side street to escape the crowds and encountered an Instagram-ready scene, labeled as an ofrenda, featuring paper machete skeletons and familiar characters from “Coco.” For a few pesos, tourists could sit in a chair and pose with the characters.

I found my way into a line to enter Mixquic’s cemetery, which sprawls picturesquely around the crumbling walls of a 16th century church. Said to have inspired the cemetery scene in “Coco,” the church cemetery was aglow with the light of hundreds of candles. Clouds of incense rose toward the steeple. Everywhere, families were settling in for the evening at the candle-lit graves of loved ones, laying down elaborate marigold wreaths, making offerings, and sharing quiet memories of the deceased. But as the night wore on, rowdy face-painted tourists crowded in on all sides, stepping over graves to snap selfies.

Despite my quest to experience Day of the Dead in some idealized authentic form, it became clear to me that even in Mixquic, commercialism had infiltrated the holiday. According to author Mary Andrade, who has written multiple books on the Mexican tradition, outside influence and tourism have shaped the tradition for years — but never in the way she has seen since the release of “Coco.” Andrade served as a cultural advisor to Disney Pixar for the film, a role she now sounds conflicted about. “It’s a beautiful movie that did a nice job of paying homage to the spiritual essence of the tradition,” she says. Andrade applauds the accuracy of the film’s portrayals — “except the bridge to the land of the dead. That’s pure Hollywood.” But she laments the fallout from what she calls the “Disney effect,” as tourists flood in and communities amp up their celebrations to compete for income. “Suddenly there’s this competition over who can make the biggest altar or the tallest catrina.”

With my bus tour deadline looming, I fled the cemetery, apologizing in my mind to every family I passed. Ducking down a quiet alley to find sanctuary from the madness, I walked past the open door of a home and peeked inside. “Adelante,” said an elderly man seated near the door, gesturing for me to enter. Several generations of a family sat around a living room facing an elaborate altar. Piles of fruit, loaves of pan de muerto, and sugar skulls of all sizes surrounded the photos of deceased family members. Two young boys sat on the floor lighting candles. At their grandfather’s prompting, the children began to tell me about the people in the photos. It was a beautiful, touching scene. Just like in the movie.

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John Fox, a Boston-based writer, also took the photographs.

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