Almost everyone knows Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life” — and almost everyone believes anything that escaped from Oscar Wilde’s lips. So why was almost everyone so vexed by what happened in Mexico City early this month? The city’s government organized the first-ever Day of the Dead parade very much reproducing the at-the-time fictional parade featured in the opening of the most recent 007 film Spectre. Life imitating art, by definition — or, at least, reality imitating fiction.
Disapproval reverberated across social media. Several independent media sites called out the event’s appearance of a publicity stunt: “it’s as if the cultural policy of Paris were dictated by The Da Vinci Code,” wrote César Albarrán Torres in cultural magazine Icónica; “the parade follows the new paradigm of the private [as opposed to public] city; the ‘brand-city’,” wrote Antonio Martínez Velázquez in political magazine Horizontal. But, as I said, not everyone was vexed. Mainstream media, both national and international, as well as over 250,000 attendees, were pleased. There’s nothing wrong, they thought, with capitalizing on international attention the 007 film brought to the Day of the Dead holiday. Movie watchers and tourists believed the parade to be real — why not cater to that, and replicate it for them? Elizabeth Peniche concluded in marketing analysis magazine Merca2.0: “this successful strategy from the Ministry of Tourism will help to reinforce our identity as a nation of beautiful traditions.”
What gives? The divide between critic and praiser was not symmetrical. The asymmetry was demographical: critics were social media users and independent media, so, primarily the young and/or educated, while praisers were parade attendees, who are mostly underprivileged (as is the case of pretty much all government-sponsored events, evidenced by reports of peasant claques being paid and transported to attend the Independence Day ceremony), and mainstream media, which reported details on the duration, scale and cheerful mood of the parade alongside colourful photos. The asymmetry was also numerical: most opinions available online were of the first kind.
The question, at this point, might not be whether it’s wrong or acceptable for the Mexican government to invest in a such a costly parade — money is probably better spent bringing smiles to children’s faces than joining the pile in politicians’ pockets. But, in my initial indifference, I wondered what side of the reaction to pick. Should one really find fault in the parade as an opinionated writer, social media user or dinner-party goer? This might extend to any comparable event and country.
Upon reflection, I believe one should. But this is not all that obvious.
The first thing that comes to mind is the parade’s absence from the canon of tradition. Somewhat surprisingly, though, interviewed attendees seemed to like the idea of adopting a new event as part of the traditions already celebrated during the holiday. The Day of the Dead itself, after all, did not become a big deal until the 70s. As explains Claudio Lomnitz, this was mainly a consequence of the festival’s fetishisation by American tourists running away from the perceived consumerism of their own Halloween — a further consequence of which was also the touristic bloom of Day-of-the-Dead-related hotspots like Oaxaca. Both critics I mentioned, Albarrán Torres and Martínez Velázquez, seem to agree. “Culture is a living organism that changes as it is influenced by local and foreign forces,” writes Albarrán Torres; “[the issue] is not about opposing the old tradition to the new one,” writes Martínez Velázquez.
A second thing to consider is the fact that the parade wouldn’t have been introduced but for the 007 film. This is the cause of more concern, for some. In the spirit of his comparison with Paris and The Da Vinci Code, Albarrán Torres said that “the problem with the film-inspired parade [is that] film representations be dictating the cultural agenda of Mexico City’s government.” But much of the holiday’s imagery was borrowed from the arts in the first place, most notably from the engravings of José Guadalupe Posada. Albarrán Torres also takes issue with James Bond being “a symbol of British colonialism, leaving unpunished after making a mess in the Third World,” an action which he calls “cultural colonisation.”
Now that is a serious charge. The term typically applies to the process of a nation imposing its culture on some less powerful society. In most of the ways “power” can be defined, Mexico has relatively little, compared to Britain. But the parade is not part of British culture; rather, it reproduced a foreign fiction involving genuine Mexican imagery. More importantly, though, it was not imposed. Mexico City’s ministry of tourism was the authority in charge of the decision. It may be argued that this is worse: a way of soft-imposing, because colonization dynamics are so deeply reinforced that the less-powerful society takes them as a given, and actively, if perhaps unconsciously, promote them. Things would be different, it seems, if the film had been a Mexican production. But then, of course, international attention wouldn’t have bombarded the ministry of tourism with questions about it, as the germ of the idea seems to have sprouted.
A more relevant factor might be the publicity drive: not the parade’s inspiration from fiction but the parade being fiction itself. A big advertisement. Martínez Velázquez himself and Alan Grabinsky have suggested the parade was only a follow-up of the city’s appearance in Spectre — both things, in turn, part of a process of turning Mexico City’s identity into a brand, which is to say, a commodity to sell. But, as Grabinsky notes, branding cities is not new, and apart from practices like driving poor tenants out of touristic areas for the sake of cleaning them up (as Giulani did in New York City, and the Mexico City government has been doing in recent years), it’s not clear why city branding should be wrong in itself. In particular: if the parade is indeed part of a big advertisement, it doesn’t seem to bring collateral damage. On the contrary: revenue from the shooting of the 007 film was significant and the influx of international tourists has increased 9.4% this year.
So if the damn thing seems unobjectionable, what is the fuss about?
I would suggest that the parade itself is fine; what is very much not fine is to talk about it while overlooking the current Mexican context, particularly on the topic of the Day of the Dead.
So far this year, the impressive figures from the Ministry of Tourism have been outnumbered by the homicide rate, which increased 15% since last year. And that’s only for the first trimester of 2016. Predictions are that the year is projected to end with about 18,000 murders.
The very imagery of the holiday was prominent all year long, not just on the Day of the Dead weekend. In demand of accountability on the case of the 43 students from Iguala who have been missing for over two years, demonstrators have worn skull masks, tainted their hands with blood and lit candles, all of which seem more appropriate props in the context of protesting the government’s clear involvement in the students’ mass murder than in the context of a government-sponsored celebration.
And if the issue has proved to involve the topic of Mexico’s self-presentation to the world, the times must be recalled that president Enrique Peña Nieto has been welcomed this year by people calling him an “assassin” on official visits abroad — in Canada and Argentina, for example.
Experience shows the people have no effective power over the decisions of the Mexican government. So it might be of little use, for now, to condemn their addition of the parade to the holiday’s festivities — or of its very likely future iterations. But we do have power over what we say about it. Any report of the parade that leaves unnoticed the irony of its deathly context (such as reports from the BBC, the Guardian and CNN) is irresponsibly incomplete, especially because most news-worthy events in Mexico touch on this very subject. Isn’t it death we’re talking about?