US toymaker Mattel is accused of cultural appropriation in Mexico

US toymaker Mattel is accused of cultural appropriation in Mexico after launching a new $72 Day of the Dead ‘skeleton’ Barbie

  • Latest Barbie is based on ‘Catrina’, a Mexican skeletal representation of death
  • Catrina was created by Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada, early 1900s
  • Fans of the doll see Barbie’s latest incarnation as a homage to the rich tradition
  • But critics have said it’s little more than cultural appropriation by the toymaker
  • Día de los Muertos, or ‘Day of the Dead’ festival is celebrated November 1 and 2

U.S. toymaker Mattel has been accused of cultural appropriation in Mexico after launching a new ‘Day of the Dead’ skeletal barbie.  

In the past, Barbie has been a princess, a president, a Marine Corps sergeant, an astronaut and a Star Wars stormtrooper, and now in Mexico – for the Day of the Dead festival – Barbie has taken the form of ‘Catrina’.

But while fans of the iconic doll see her latest incarnation – that will cost around $72 – as an homage to the country’s rich tradition, critics say it is little more than cultural appropriation.

Two Catrina Barbie dolls pictured at the Museum of the Old Mexican Toy in Mexico City. While fans of the iconic doll see Barbies latest incarnation as an homage to the country’s rich tradition, critics say it is little more than cultural appropriation

Mexican doll collector Zoila Muntane poses with two Catrina Barbie doll boxes at the Museum of the Old Mexican Toy. Mattel launched the new Barbie ahead of Mexico’s ‘Day of the Dead’ festival, that will be celebrated on November 1 and 2

Mattel has launched its second Barbie based on ‘Catrina’, a skeletal representation of death created by cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada that is a symbol of one of Mexico’s most important festivals.

The US toymaker says the doll ‘honors the traditions, symbols and rituals’ of the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated on November 1 and 2.

But some in Mexico see the Barbie as just another example of big brands cashing in on the country’s heritage.

‘The cultural, hereditary and symbolic importance that this holiday has for Mexico opens up in the eyes of the market opportunities that are exploited by these firms,’ said sociologist Roberto Alvarez.

The Day of the Dead ‘should be a solemn subject,’ but it has become a commercial event in the United States since featuring in movies such as ‘Coco,’ the computer-animated fantasy released by Disney’s Pixar studio in 2017, Alvarez said.

Fans of the iconic doll see ‘Catrina’ Barbie – which bears certain similarities to renowned painter Frida Kahlo – as a respectful tribute.

Fans of the iconic doll see ‘Catrina’ Barbie – which bears certain similarities to renowned painter Frida Kahlo – as a respectful tribute

‘The cultural, hereditary and symbolic importance that this holiday has for Mexico opens up in the eyes of the market opportunities that are exploited by these firms,’ said sociologist and critic of the doll Roberto Alvarez

‘It means that they take notice of our traditions,’ said Zoila Muntane, a 54-year-old artist and doll collector who has 2,000 Barbies.

Fellow fan Carlos Sandoval says the doll represents ‘a very beautiful tradition, like few others in the world.’ 

This year Barbie wears a blush-colored lace dress and a crown of skeleton hands holding roses and marigolds, unlike the first Day of the Dead edition in 2019 which was dressed in black.

Mexican doll collector Carlos Sandoval poses with two Catrina Barbie dolls at the Museum of the Old Mexican Toy in Mexico City

Its creator, Mexican-American designer Javier Meabe, said he sought to ‘create more awareness about the celebration,’ which UNESCO in 2003 named an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The festival is believed to be when the gateway separating the living and the deceased opens, allowing people to pay their respects to those who have passed.

Librada Moreno, a sociologist and academic at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, sees the Barbie as a ‘cultural hybrid’ and product of migration to the United States, home to 37 million people with Mexican ancestry.

Mexican doll collector Carlos Sandoval shows part of his Barbie doll collection at the Museum of the Old Mexican Toy in Mexico City. More than one billion Barbies have been sold globally since the American brand’s launch 60 years ago

More than one billion Barbies have been sold globally since the American brand’s launch 60 years ago.

An earlier Barbie inspired by Kahlo was not sold in Mexico because her family considered its image at odds with that of the late artist.

Mattel is not the only US brand launching products linked to the Mexican festival: there is also a ‘Catrina’ Minnie Mouse and a Nike Day of the Dead collection.

This year, several points in the nation’s capital have cancelled the festival due to a high number of COVID-19 cases.

The areas include the Xochimilco borough, the San Andres Mixquic community in the southeast of the city and the vast archaeological complex of Teotihuacan to the northeast.

People have been told to avoid staying near Popocatepetl which has seen an accumulation of volcanic gas and ash in the area. 

Día de los Muertos: The Day of the Dead festival and the ‘Catrina Skull’

In Mexico, family and friends gather on the ‘Day of the Dead’, also known as Día de los Muertos, to remember and pray for deceased loved ones.

They sometimes decorate their graves in hopes of helping them on their spiritual journeys. 

It is believed that the children’s spirits visit their loved ones on November 1 – which is the Catholic All Saints Day – and the adults visit the following day on All Souls Day.

The ‘La Calavera Catrina’ (The Catrina Skull, also known as The Elegant Skull) has become the unofficial face of the ‘Day of the Dead’ festival. 

The Catrina Skull was created by Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada satirising Mexicans who tried to adopt European traditions in the 20th Century pre-revolution era

The Catrina Skull was created by Mexican cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada as a satirical view of Mexicans who tried to adopt European traditions during the pre-revolution era in the early 20th century. 

Posada created the original zinc etching some time between 1910 and 1913, and the original leaflet it was distributed in described someone who was ashamed of her indigenous origins, instead choosing to imitate French style, and wearing makeup to make her skin look whiter. 

While Posada originally introduced the character, its popularity – as well as her name – derived from artist Diego Rivera in his 1947 completed mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda), located in Mexico City.

The Elegant Skull has become Mexico’s referential image of death, and reflects the country’s somewhat humours view of it. The country pays homage to death with expressions of offerings, songs, respect and humour. 

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