Mexico Has a "Coco" Problem by Juan Letona

There is no surprise. Coco, the next Mexican blockbuster film, is Californian. Pixar has strung together so many successful films with the central theme of family, which Coco does exceptionally well. With a few drawbacks the film strives to be Mexican, and succeeds.

The introduction gives the iconic Disney Castle a Mexican theme by playing mariachi music. From my recent trip to the Disneyland Resort, I can say that the push by Disney and Pixar to get it authentic is evident: the Viva Navidad Celebration; Mickey and Minnie mouse in Baile Folklorico dress; a cover band playing Mana, Santana or Selena greeting visitors in California Adventures. Could Disney and Pixar succeed where other Americans companies fail when they cater to minority groups (ie. Nascar Latino), or be a successful cheap knock off (ie. Taco Bell)? As with Disney's other ethnic movie, Moana, Coco strives to be culturally woke. Consultants were hired for both films. While Coco's story is set in a small Mexican town, the film is made in Marin, not Guadalajara. Can an American film released globally be authentic Mexican? Is it possible a great Mexican film can be made not by Iñárritu, Cuarón, or Del Toro outside of Mexico?

The one weakness of Coco is the basic plot with the familiar Pixar twist. boy lost in a foreign world he never knew existed is racing against the sunrise to save himself and his new found friend. Miguel is torn between following his family’s humble profession of shoe cobbling (which they have been doing so for four generations) and pursuing his dream of becoming a musician, essentially leaving the only way of life that his family has ever known. It is a similar plot to Moana with the Polynesian culture swapped for a Mexican one. Moana wants to go past the reef; Miguel wants to play his music. Both the reef and the music are forbidden in their respective households. While the plot is well tread, the film becomes something more: an important piece of art for Mexicans and their descendants.

In almost every scene there is a sense of nostalgia. One early scenes exemplifies the nostalgia felt. Miguel fawns over his music idol, Ernesto De La Cruz, memorizing movie scenes of love and betrayal. Such movies are immensely popular to this day with Mexicans, as my grandmother would always have the golden age of Mexican cinema films playing repeatedly on her television set. If she was not praying, she was watching her favorite actors dressed as charros, Jorge Negrete, and Pedro Infante. I was instantly pulled, from the first scene to the last, into Mexicanness. As I watched, my own happier memories of  my families past emerged from the littlest details. In one scene, Miguel complains to a mariachi guitarist of his family's ban on music, and with one simple note from the strum of his guitar creates moments that stay. Like, Hey I know that song, it is my mother's favorite. What really saves Coco from being a Moana copycat is the nostalgia that the movie evokes for Mexicans and Latinos. The plot suddenly becomes an afterthought.

As Miguel arrives in The Land of the Dead, a bridge of marigolds connects the land of living to The Land of the Dead on Dias de los Muertos. The dead are calavera catrinas, and if your child has only seen Disney and Pixar movies, it can be traumatizing. Calavera catrinas are the skeletal figures that are popular in Mexican culture, much in part to a Diego Rivera mural and the holiday Dia De Los Muertos. The Dia de Los Muertos celebration became an actual parade in Mexico City after a James Bond movie partnered with the tourism board and created one for the movie’s opening scene. While my own child did not, a few children cried during these scenes. While skeletal figures represent death in most cultures, children are rarely exposed to them in popular media. The only time my child may see skeletons are in the context of Halloween or when I thought it was a great idea to go to a museum to see Egyptian mummies. “The mummies are broken,” my son kept repeating after seeing one. Many children in the theatre I was in must've thought the same. As Miguel ventures into The Land of the Dead there is no explanation of why the place exists, it just does. Does The Land of the Dead exist in relation to a heaven or a hell?

As complicated as Mexican history can be, there is little mention of Catholicism, or the indigenous spiritual beliefs which with it synchronizes create the very holiday the movie is about! Coco avoids any type of religious discussion, not even an ofrendas [alter of offerings] featuring the likeness of Jesus Christ or hung rosaries. But there is a blink-or-you-missed-it moment where the likeness of la Virgen de Guadalupe hangs on an adjacent wall. Why not include a scene where prayer is shown? If la Virgen is shown, there must've been prayers said by the family. While the pyramids of Teotihuacan, Cholula, and Chichen Itza are touristically popular in Mexico, the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe pilgrimage is done by millions every year. Another scene is how the dead ancestors are able to visit the land of the living. The ofrendas are created by descendants of the dead, and to pass the marigold bridge a type of check point is erected. Now, if you are not on one's ofrenda, the dead can not pass. After you are forgotten...well, they cease to exist. Coco suddenly leaps into a magical realism pit which was avoidable.

If I could have one character fleshed out more, it would be Miguel's animal companion: a Xoloitzcuintli named Dante. A Xoloitzcuintli is a hairless dog indigenous to Mesoamerica. Historically they were sacrificed with the death of their owners as they would led them to the underworld. Dante joins Miguel to their journey to The Land of the Dead. Why the name Dante? Dante Alighieri's Inferno is the writer's journey to hell accompanied by the poet Virgil. I feel this was a missed opportunity to strengthen the origin story of The Land of the Dead. But these are minor flaws. Coco excels with its core theme: the Mexican family.

Coco shows the Mexico we all wish Mexico to be. There is a thriving artistic scene of writers, painters and musicians, even after death. Pixar artists took the most iconic pieces of Mexican culture, pre-Aztec mythos of the pyramid platforms, spiritual guides, the fresco colors of Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, the eccentric self of Frida Kahlo, Mexico's crooner Pedro Infante, luchador and action star el Santo, and the comedic genius Cantiflas to create a unique experience.

But in the end, Coco is a movie that Mexicans need. It is a reminder to Mexico of what it should be as it rebuilds itself after a catastrophic earthquake and hurricanes. It is an entertainment experience without narcos, without the tragicomedies of Mexican culture and politics like in Sicario or Y tu Mama Tambien, or hit Neflix shows Ingornable or Club De Cuervos, or the endless parade of Reynas, Señores or Chapos telenovelas. For an American-made movie, Coco does not feel like an imitation, as Jack Black’s Nacho Libre did, or as did Will Ferrell’s Casa de Tu Padre, but a product of Mexico grown, picked and served in California.

For my four-year-old son, his Latinx generation has it good. They will have Disney films with Latino protagonists: a Mexican-American boy searching for his great-great-grandfather and a Guatemalan-American flying an X Wing with his own droid. This is twice as much as we older Chicanos watched in our times.

And to the family sitting directly behind us, where a father consoled his son by saying the characters in Coco are good and not scary at all— so are Mexicans.

Juan Letona is a short story writer who is from the San Francisco Bay Area. Son of Latin American immigrants, Juan's current writing projects focus on Latinx fiction. Juan's recent short story, About My Business, is found here.

Juan Letona is a short story writer who is from the San Francisco Bay Area. Son of Latin American immigrants, Juan's current writing projects focus on Latinx fiction. Juan's recent short story, About My Business, is found here.