A Celebration of Family and Culture: Disney/Pixar’s Coco

by Anthony Reyes on February 3, 2018

Growing up, I noticed that my upbringing was significantly different than that of most of my peers. Kids my age would act in ways that reminded me of the movies: after school and on weekends, they would constantly hang out with friends during sleepovers and birthday parties. By contrast, I would often go entire summers without seeing a school friend at all. When I got older, these differences stood out even more. My friends would not spend their birthdays with their families. Many of them did not talk to their parents after they went away to college, and most spent major holidays with close friends rather than their families. I could not imagine doing the same. In fact, I still remember the day I asked my mother if I could ring in the New Year at a friend’s house—the look of hurt on her face stunned me. My high school girlfriend had so many friends that she would hang out with all the time that I became jealous of her. But when I told her that, she expressed jealousy about the close relationship I had with my family. She saw how warm my household was, with my younger twin sisters, older brother, mother, and father. How most of my stories began and ended with them. How obvious it was that their presence molded me into the person I am today. By no means do I believe that I was right and my friends were wrong in the way we spent our time, but I could never stop marveling at our differences.

To my family, there was no other way to be. Due to my parents’ upbringing in Ecuador and their immigration to New York City, the same message was repeated to me throughout my childhood: nothing is more important than family. But I often resented that idea. I was infuriated when my mother told me I couldn’t go to my friend’s house for New Year’s. Nothing baffled me more than when my parents told me I could not leave the house to hang out with friends two weekends in a row. In retrospect, however, they weren’t trying to keep me from socializing—that’s just how life was for them. They trusted family over everyone else, and they wanted me to be the same way. Now as a more mature person, I see the value in what they taught me and realize how lucky I am to have a family who wants to be so involved in my life.

My childhood was filled with memories of playing with my cousins during birthday parties and get-togethers in Spanish Harlem or Queens every weekend. The adults would get pleasantly drunk while we kids would find some small corner that felt like the whole world to us. On Saturday afternoon barbeques at Randall’s Islands, we would play soccer until the sun went down. At night, when the adults of my family were high on the comfort of being around each other, they would sing. Any song that meant something to my uncles and aunts would be the one that filled our small apartments with life. My parents would sing as well. Their songs reminded my parents of their childhoods, of memories like the ones they were making for my siblings and I. The songs reminded them of playing with their families as children, as they watched their parents sacrifice and work with all they had to provide for them. And through those songs, they dreamed that one day they could do the same for me. The cycle continued, and now I’m here, writing about how rich my parents have made my identity.

So many of my favorite movies deal with the dynamics of familial relationships and the resilient bonds they entail. In fact, that is the reason why I felt drawn towards Coco. I recognized so much of my family and of myself in this film. I am not Mexican, but all Latino-Americans growing up in the United States fall under an umbrella of Mexican influence due to the presence of Mexican media in mainstream Spanish language networks. So from the second Coco began with the Mariachi version of the Disney score, I felt at home.

Coco centers on Miguel Rivera, a young boy living with his tight-knit family in a small Mexican village. He becomes lost in the Land of the Dead during Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) after attempting to borrow the guitar of his late musical idol. The film takes time to set up the story of the Rivera family, starting from the day Miguel’s great-great grandfather abandoned his wife Imelda to pursue music while she was left to provide for her daughter. Music is therefore fiercely forbidden in the Rivera family, much to the dismay of Miguel, who dreams of singing and playing to the whole world like his idol, Ernesto De La Cruz. Coco adeptly establishes Miguel as a person struggling between his dedication to his family (and their shoe-making business) and his personal ambitions. It is a story relatable to anyone who has ever resented their family and hated themselves for doing so. These complicated family dynamics are so well-established that when Miguel finally talks back to his Abuelita (grandmother), the whole audience in the theater around me gasped. It was as if we all understood how upset Miguel must have been to stand up for himself. All of these elements are pieces of the puzzle that is Miguel’s family, and Miguel is the one piece that does not quite fit. Throughout the narrative, Miguel’s character arc does not so much go up and down as it does come full circle: through his dedication to his family and love of music, Miguel learns a lot about what it means to live.

The intricate portrayal of the family dynamics at play in Coco is a testament to its devotion to family traditions. I could tell that there were Latino writers behind this film. The titular character, Coco, is Miguel’s great grandmother—the daughter left behind by her musician father. In the present, she is a wheelchair-bound old lady, confused and unable to recognize members of her family. As I saw Coco gazing into oblivion, with her snow-colored hair in two braids, one on each side and her delicate wrinkled hands resting on the armrests, I could not help but think of my own Abuelita. Despite confusing me for my brother when I once visited her, she always sends a birthday card with $20 in it—even though I’m 23 years old. I almost broke down right the second that I saw this beautiful matriarch, surrounded by people who love and honor her at every opportunity. There was a lot more put into place to build this world centered around family and culture. What amazed me was how entertaining and comedic the filmmakers could make these aspects. I could not help but smile when Miguel could not refuse when his Abuelita offered him more food. I laughed when Abuelita would grab her sandal every time she threatened someone, thinking back to all the times that I saw a sandal in my mother’s hands. My heart was warmed watching how dedicated every member of Miguel’s family was to each other in life and death. Orbiting the center of everyone’s word was Mama Coco.

The beauty of all the details put into the animation of Coco cannot not go unnoticed. Everything from the glow of the bridge leading to the Land of the Dead to the architecture of the underworld itself was vibrant, giving life to this world and the imagination of the audience. This level of sophistication in the animation made me feel giddy at the attention being given to a story about people like me.

As Coco establishes, family is often the motivation behind everything in immigrant families. Imelda learns how to make shoes to provide for Coco; similarly, Abuelita tries to warn Miguel about life’s potential pitfalls because she wants to protect him. Family also forms the foundation upon which the entire Mexican culture is based. Even the celebration of the Dia de Muertos keeps family at its center, focusing on honoring relatives of the past who paved the way. By contrast, in mainstream American cinema, the theme of family is usually followed by dysfunction or crime, as exemplified in The Godfather or The Royal Tenenbaums. It is only recently that movie studios have started celebrating families for the sake of love and progress, especially in films geared towards children. Last year’s Moana saw a young woman brave the treacherous ocean to save her family’s lands. This year, Miguel explores the land of the dead to restore his great-great grandmother’s picture to his family’s ofrenda, or altar. These stories matter to all people: people whose lives revolve around family feel validated by seeing themselves in these movies, while others can be inspired by people who attempt the impossible for their families. Watching Coco made me proud to have a family that has stuck together through so much.

One of the most important aspects of family life that Coco broaches is the idea of memory. How do we honor our families and the people who came before us? We remember them. We put their pictures on the ofrenda and around the home. We honor them by keeping them relevant in everything we do. Miguel often resents his familial obligations, but during his trip throughout the land of the dead, he learns that honoring his family’s memory is the key to life and death. It is not a coincidence that the spirits can only cross into the land of the living if their picture is on their family’s ofrenda; nor is it a coincidence that spirits cease to exist in the land of the dead when the last living person forgets about them. Memory gives purpose to not only the living, but the dead as well. Memories of Miguel’s ancestors motivate his family to flourish and allow them to visit their living families and celebrate Dia de Muertos. Memory is given so much emotional weight in Coco that one of the most touching scenes of the film is Mama Coco remembering her father singing to her when she was a young girl. I was not alone in the theater as I sat sobbing—I cried because Miguel finally understood the significance of remembering and the tragedy of forgetting. And he realized the power music can have in maintaining that connection.

Coco has a lively musical score that is essential for a film set in a country with such a rich musical background. But what surprised me was how much the filmmakers understood the role of music in Latino families. My earliest memories involve parties filled with music and dancing. At night, when my aunts and uncles had already thrown back a few, the drinking songs came on. People would take turns playing their favorite tunes, slurring the lyrics as they remembered the first time they heard that song or the people the songs made them think of. Though some of the songs were romantic, the ones that I’ve always remembered most clearly were the ones about family. The song my father likes to put on by mariachi singer Vicente Fernandez, called El Hombre Que Mas Te Amo (The Man That Loved You The Most), is about a man giving advice to his children before his death. My mother’s favorite song is called Collar De Lagrimas (Necklace of Tears), which describes the singer’s nostalgia for her home country and her mother. My siblings and I think of music as pockets of emotion that remind us of far we have come as a family, and Coco echoes that sentiment perfectly. For most of the film, music is banned because it reminds Miguel’s family of the pain that came after Imelda and Coco were abandoned. But as Miguel and the audience learn, music is actually a magical force that has the power to reunite family. It has the power to reinvigorate old memories and change the minds of the Rivera family.

Coco meant a lot to me for personal reasons. I have been passionate about film since I was a child, but stories that related to my upbringing always affected me differently. These films were self-reflective experiences, moments where I recognized my life onscreen and understood that those emotions are universal. That’s what Coco did for me, more than any other film. This is why equal media representation of all groups matters. It promises the viewers that their stories matter, and that their stories can be found in all corners of the globe. Though I’m not Mexican, the fact that Pixar spent six years making an animated film about traditions of Latin American culture, and that audiences around the world have flocked to indulge in the story, proves to me that we are on the path to seeing more stories being made about people whose stories are so often overlooked. I knew I was not alone when I saw my own family on the screen. After seeing my own Abuelita with her braided white hair, my own parents singing and dancing, and my own upbringing focused on family, I felt that my story was one worth being told. Coco is a wonderful, emotional, and powerful film about family and the ways we honor them. It combines breathtaking, colorful visuals, music played from the strings to one’s heart, and a family that loves one another, honors one another, and lives for one another—in life and death.