The main character from Disney-Pixar's Coco, standing next to his great grandmother.
Photo courtesy of Disney-Pixar

“Coco”

The Heart of Mexican Culture

By Nadia Villanueva Contributor

“Coco” could not have been released at a more perfect time. In an era of discrimination, cultural appropriation and hate, it was nice to see a movie about an aspect of Mexican culture that highlights family values.

The film’s protagonist is Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who wishes to pursue a career in music—something his family is firmly against because his great-great grandfather left the family to follow his dream of music, leaving a mother alone to raise her child—that child being Miguel’s Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia).

Miguel rebels against his family and decides to enter a talent show on Dia de Muertos, the one day it is believed the dead can visit their living family. He instead finds himself on a crazy adventure through the world of the dead, where he befriends the spirit of a Mexican musician, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). Together, they set out to find Miguel’s great-great grandfather.

The film’s narrative is centered around Dia de Muertos and the significance of the ofrenda that carries the pictures and favorite foods of those who have passed. In the movie, Hector can’t make it across to the living to visit his family on Dia de Muertos. Because no one has a picture of him on their ofrendas, Hector is stuck in the land of the dead and fears disappearing forever due to being forgotten by his living family.

Being someone with a Mexican background who was raised very much Americanized, this movie was especially important to me.

My mother came to this country when she was six years old, and as a result grew up here in the states, just like me. So it’s no question that my cultural background has been one of preserving Mexican traditions while adapting to American culture. My Spanish is mediocre at best, and I’ve visited Mexico all but once when I was seven. Nonetheless, I grew up: eating tamales every Christmas, in the midst of mariachi music at family parties, with a doting grandma who loved to feed me, and, even though my Spanish isn’t the best, surrounded by the beautiful language.

When my mom heard about the movie, she was more than excited to watch it. I felt it would be a good way for her and I to bond, and for me to get to know a side of her I didn’t really know. I wasn’t disappointed.

The movie is set in a small town in Mexico that closely resembles the one my mother grew up in. When the opening scene introduced the characteristics of the town, my mom leaned over to whisper to me about the close resemblance it had to her own childhood hometown. But it was the scene depicting people selling items from their windows that really got to her, because it was reminiscent of the stores she was familiar with while growing up in Mexico.

“Coco” also features iconic Mexican figures. Musicians Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, comedian Cantinflas, wrestler Santo El Enmascarado de Plata, and painter Frida Kahlo make appearances.

One character that really touched me was Miguel’s abuelita, with her red apron and undyed grey hair that reminded me of my own grandma. While there were many references in the movie I wasn’t as aware of as I would have liked to be, it was nice to see a character who I was intimately familiar with, through my own abuelita.

In our twenties, I think it’s easy to forget about family—to miss family gatherings or forget to call your tias or tios on a regular basis because we’re too busy trying to pursue careers and build a life. “Coco” reminds us of the importance of keeping those family ties, and remembering the loved ones that came before us.