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-sized 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 others similar social media posts, sparked 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 are 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."
That’s what probably angered most and got people to respond via social media, an increasingly popular venture for Latinos to express opinions and call for action, said Alcaraz. "On Twitter, you can tag it and (Disney) sees it," he said. "They were worried about their band."
The Disney trademark flap was just the latest episode where loosely-organized networks of Latino activists, writers and artists used social media to stop an action or rally around a cause.
Last year, the Houston-based Librotraficante, a group of writers, used social media to get people to donate books for "underground libraries" after Tucson, Ariz., schools were ordered to end Mexican American studies programs. The group also successfully used social media to stop a proposed Texas state law they said would weaken ethnic studies programs at state colleges.
Ramos said social media is a helpful venue since it allows Latinos from diverse backgrounds and across state and national boundaries to share information and update each other in real time.
"It allows us to question everything, even ourselves," she said. "And people hear us asking these questions."
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.