After two weeks of waiting for the international release, I saw the film last Friday. I haven’t been spoiled by any plot points, but sure there were reactions that had me biased. At the end, the film made me cry, laugh and be in awe as Pixar represented a delicate celebration of Mexico’s culture.
As a Latin American, I’m tired to see cartoons of our cultures on screen. Even Mexicans represented in entertainment are a bland, Tex-Mex version of themselves. In many cases, Hollywood attempt at diversity ends up doing more harm than good.
Coco’s different. In the first few minutes, we are immersed in the narrative of Miguel’s family by telling what we need to know via ‘papelillos’ or little banners used in Mexican festivities. I may not be Mexican myself, but our cross-cultural bonding leads to common customs manifested in different ways.
What makes Coco a great film is that it tells an universal story in a local culture setting. Family is the center of western families, which makes it a topic you can empathize no matter your relation with it.
I’l try to pinpoint certain aspects of the film that make it truly Mexican and Latin American in a way. Enough has been said about the plot and story, so I’m not getting deeper on this side of the film.
Family is the core of any Latin-American society. Compared to other cultures that I know, our bonding with what might be considered distant relatives (aunts, uncles, nieces) is much closer. We meet regularly and we enjoy it, compared to the tortuous Thanksgiving dinner that many North Americans get stressed about. We try to stay in contact as much as possible. In the end, we love our families (most of the time).
In the first few minutes of the film, this family bonding is shown. The Riviera’s live and work in the same place. Grandmothers stay with their sons and nietos. They have a small business that goes from generation to generation, like a tradition. Sometimes this tradition is great; sometimes people are locked into a job they don’t like (like Miguel’s case).
I have friends with businesses that go from generation to generation: from small shops, to bakeries, to architectural firms. It is common to keep the business within the family, as it is the group of people we trust the most (most of the time).
Belonging To Your Town
That small pueblo were Miguel lives is present in every single Latin American community. These small towns, filled with tight bondings and ancient traditions, is where the culture shines compared to more metropolitan areas. These small towns know each other from generation to generation and they don’t consider moving to more urban areas. They enjoy a simpler way of life.
I’ve been to Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia. Each of these countries have some sort of pueblo just like the one shown in Coco. It is where our cultures flourish and expand the magical myths that surround them. In this case, we have an opportunity to experience El Día De Los Muertos within Miguel’s pueblo.
If you’re Latin American, you know about la chancla. That heavy, sturdy and solid piece of shoemaking that can be slapped as a lovely (but harmful) way to tell you that is not what you should do. Let me state that I’m not embracing la chancla as a way to teach children. What I’m stating is that it is common, mostly with elders, to use la chancla as a punishment device. In my house, I’ve never had a chancla experience, but some of my friends do have had experiences with it.
What I like about la chancla in the movie is that it shows the grandmother’s almost dictatorial approach to how family and traditions work. It is clear this is a wounded family, trying to vanish a past that haunts them in a way. La chancla establishes the character and isn’t used as a running gag.
Most Latin American Countries Have Their Ernesto De La Cruz
When Ernesto De La Cruz appears on screen, it is reminiscent of every single artist demigod present in most Latin American countries. Carlos Gardel, Chico Buarque, Ilan Chester, and more are some of the famous singers that have the same demigod quality shown in Ernesto De La Cruz. We love our local artists but there are just a few that go straight to that demigod star quality.
In some cases, these artists are filled with controversies, like the Willie Colon and Ruben Blades controversy with the song ‘El Cantante’, the song that made Hector Lavoe famous as a solo singer. This is reminiscent of the Hector and Ernesto story, much more complicated and offensive. Still, it has that essence of artist controversy that plagues the stardom of some of these demigod singers.
It Isn’t Only About Mexico
As I have tried to explain in this article, Coco has a local Mexican appeal, yet it reflects as a consequence many of the motifs and tropes around Latin American culture. It shows our own origins, keeping with the authenticity. I don’t know if Pixar made this on purpose or they are even aware of it. I’m glad they took the time to use Mexico as a whole, with its traditions, culture, and overall settings. The plot drives this necessity and I’m glad Pixar took the leap to engage in the culture instead of imposing a plot within a setting.
I remember when us Venezuelans were happy to see that the landscape near Angel Falls inspired the setting were ‘Up’ is set. In this case, they only took the landscaping, kidnapping it from the culture it represents. Even though I’m fine with it and I understood they were only interested in using it as a setting, maybe they could have explored the culture and take part of it for the story like they did with Coco.
El Día De Los Muertos
Coco’s story occurs on a local holiday that ends up being more universal. Pixar does a good job at explaining elements of the holiday and the universe they’re building, just like they had to in the first act of Inside Out.
Lee Unkrich and the Pixar team have done a great film, with the little touches that make it authentic to the culture it represents. Mexico and the Latin American community just had proof that Hollywood can reflect their cultures in a respectful way. They did a fantastic film (among my top 3 Pixar films) with enough special touches that make it stand out as a storytelling masterpiece.