(In)Appropriation: Disney’s Failed Attempt to Trademark Dia de Los Muertos


By now most of us are aware of Disney’s failed attempt to trademark Dia de Los Muertos for their upcoming animated film, but if by some small chance you didn’t hear about this check out for  more info.

images-7There certainly was an amount of anxiety that many of us had as we  first discovered that a corporation was trying to profit over  Mexican culture. In the most direct way of saying it: Disney’s failed attempt was done out of an ignorance of the history of colonization and how legal structures worked to disconnect indigenous, Mexicans, and Chicanas/os from culture by stealing the material (land) and immaterial (culture). I don’t desire to write a dissertation in the wee hours of the morning, so I’ll keep the philosophical lamenting brief and concise. When I refer to culture as immaterial I am not implying that culture does not produce material items, decorations and symbols come to mind. However, culture is very much an immaterial subject that occurs, first in foremost, in the hearts and minds of communities.


Culture produces symbols and traditions

Sugar skulls

Cultural Production: Sugar skulls

Land on the other hand is material and can produce both material (resources/goods) and immaterial (culture). While Disney’s trademark-gate is an attempt at appropriating the immaterial (culture) in order to produce material goods from cultural productions based upon likely misinterpreted representations of Mexican cultural symbols, the event also falls in line with the larger historical context of colonization robbing our people of the material.

With that said, the history of colonization has been one of stealing the material to create wealth for the settler culture. The land issues in indigenous, Mexican, and Chicana/o cultures are undeniable.  For the colonizer, it has been a way to accumulate vast amounts of wealth as they were/are able to take land, commodify the resources, and transform them into products. In order to do so, legal structures were created and enforced allowing for the privatization of land in cultures that historically believed in communal use and responsibility to land–watch the The Demarest Factor for more info on how this continues today in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Colonizer laws provided legal barriers to blockade indigenous people from using the land that was always  part of their heritage. This created not only a physical disconnect from land and resources, but also a destabilization of cultural connection. Land has many uses, the heritage and culture associated with particular sites present another way that the appropriation of the material can also rob people of the immaterial.

What Disney neglected to understand is the similarities between creating legal barriers to cut people off from their land, as well as the heritage and cultural connection to this land, and the trademarking (legal barriers) of culture. In terms of the latter, it would have it difficult to participate in said culture. According to the LatinTimes:

“Among the trademark applications that The Walt Disney Company has filed for, are education and entertainment services, confectionery, cosmetics, transmission or reproduction of sound or images, computer programs, accessories, jewelry, paper articles, luggage, and more.”

Had this worked, Disney would have legal rights to the name, Dia de Los Muertos, and the images associated with their interpretations and representations of Mexican culture. This images would undoubtedly use traditional cultural productions that would be re-visioned in a stylized manner, but in the above quote we also see “education…services” as part of their trademark. Would this have hindered culturally relevant education that incorporated Dia de Los Muertos (the holiday, not the film)? In all likelihood it would have at the very least complicated any possibility for educators to talk about the subject and showcase the images of Mexican culture.


Regarding the legacy of colonization, the line between stealing the material and immaterial through the colonizers legal structures are pretty clear. Both effectively disconnect people from culture in a variety of ways.  I believe the actions of Disney, whether intentional or not, was a continuation of this process.