ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When Lalo Alcaraz saw a tweet this week that Disney was seeking to trademark “Dia de los Muertos,” the name of the traditional “Day of the Dead” celebrated by millions in Mexico and the U.S., the Los Angeles-based cartoonist immediately pressed “retweet.”
The humorist then sent out a series of satirical social media posts warning that Disney was out to trademark dead Latino relatives. He also created a cartoon, which quickly went viral, of a skeletal Godzilla-size Mickey Mouse destroying a city. The words on top of the monster read: “It’s coming to trademark your cultura (culture).”
Those tweets, along with tens of thousands of other similar social media posts, prompted Disney Enterprises Inc. into announcing that the company was withdrawing a “Dia de los Muertos” trademark request it made on May 1 to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Disney had hoped to secure name rights for merchandise such as snack foods and Christmas ornaments as it partners with Pixar Animation Studios Inc. to create an animated movie inspired by the holiday.
“Disney’s trademark filing was intended to protect any potential title for our film and related activities,” a company statement said. “It has since been determined that the title of the film will change and therefore we are withdrawing our trademark filing.”
But the anger and ridicule expressed on social media largely by Latinos is being credited with the company’s retreat by Tuesday as word began to spread on Twitter and Facebook. Within hours, online petitions were created and the organizers started openly discussing plans to boycott whatever movie or products would be linked to the trademark request.
Critics charged that Disney, or any other corporation, for that matter, had no right to trademark a cultural holiday like November’s Day of the Dead. Not only was the move insensitive, critics said that trademarking the popular holiday put thousands of businesses that made products linked to the day at risk.
“It’s a terrible idea. I’m outraged,” said Kiko Torres, owner of Masks y Mas in Albuquerque, a shop that sells Day of the Dead art and clothing year-round. “I mean, what’s the purpose of that?”
Elainne Ramos, vice chair of LATISM, a nonprofit Latino social media group, said the trademark dispute momentarily replaced immigration as the hottest topic among Latinos on Twitter. “Some people saw it as an attempt to own our culture and profit from it,” Ramos said. “This is going to be a marketing case study on what not to do.”
The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos, honors departed souls of loved ones who are welcomed back for a few intimate hours. At burial sites or intricately built altars, photos of loved ones are centered on skeleton figurines, bright decorations, candles, candy and other offerings such as the favorite foods of the departed. Pre-Columbian in origin, many of the themes and rituals now are mixtures of indigenous practices and Roman Catholicism.
In the past decade or so, this traditional Latin American holiday with indigenous roots has spread throughout the U.S. along with migration from Mexico and other countries where it is observed. Not only are U.S.-born Latinos adopting the Day of the Dead, but various underground and artistic non-Latino groups have begun to mark the Nov. 1-2 holidays through colorful celebrations, parades, exhibits and even bike rides and mixed martial arts fights.
Lois Zamora, a University of Houston English professor who has studied the Day of the Dead, said Disney’s interest shows how much this once obscure holiday has grown in the U.S. But she said the trademark attempt was odd. “Disney doesn’t quite get it,” Zamora said. “It would be like copyrighting ‘Christmas’ or ‘Easter’ or, for that matter, ‘Halloween.’ It doesn’t make sense.”