Crying Over Coco: It’s More Than Just a Movie for Mexican-Americans

I knew I would cry during the new movie Coco (bawling is, after all, my MO), but I didn’t know the sniffling would start before it even even started. When the traditional Disney Castle music was recomposed with mariachi music, I felt my throat tighten. My eyes started filling up as the opening background story was lovingly told through animated sheets of papel picado, a traditional form of Mexican folk art made out of paper cut into elaborate designs. I felt a smile spread across my cheeks as Miguel, the film’s star, ran through his native Mexican town’s cobblestone streets past stands filled with fresh food, as street musicians strummed their guitarras and colorful strings of papel picado fluttered in the wind.

All of this in the first five minutes. ¡Qué emoción!

As a Mexican-American born and raised in the predominately-Latino city of San Antonio, I’ve been immersed in my culture since birth, right here at home. I’ve also been fortunate enough to visit Mexico many times, from tiny pueblitos to the biggest city of them all, DF (Mexico City). The filmmakers of Coco did their research, capturing the little sights and sounds that give our cultura such corazón (heart), from the food to the sounds to the dichos, or sayings. But it was the perfectly executed family interactions and behaviors that hit the nail on the head: the dreaded “chancla” that our abuelitas used to threaten us with, the houses shared by generations, the dozens of cousins, aunts, and uncles who are in each other’s business every minute of the day, all parenting the children and giving literal meaning to the term “it takes a village.”

Luckily, I quickly managed to control the floodgates and sit back and enjoy the wonderful details that make Coco so unforgettably authentic. I’m not going to recap the films plot, but I will give you the most succinct summary via Wikipedia: “The story follows a 12-year-old boy named Miguel who is accidentally transported to the land of the dead, where he seeks the help of his musician great-great-grandfather to return him to his family among the living. The concept of the film is based on the Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos” (Day of the Dead, celebrated November 1 and 2 each year).

Having just celebrated Dia de Los Muertos last month, I especially appreciated the educational aspect that went into explaining what the day really means (no, it’s not Mexican Halloween) and what an authentic altar includes: food, candles, incense, photos, and special items that invite the dead to come receive the offerings. Scattered bright orange marigold petals lead souls along the path to their individual altars, inviting the deceased to enjoy each thoughtful gift. A particularly moving scene shows a lively candlelight cemetery filled with dozens of boisterous extended families gathering at the grave-top ofrendas to lost loved ones, while their skeletal dear departed dance, unseen, mere inches away.

A beautiful idea woven into the story is that that souls continue to live in the afterlife as long as someone in the land of the living still remembers them, only extinguishing completely when they have been forgotten by every living being. In Coco, nothing is more tragic than being forgotten. Nothing is more important than familia. Human bonds mean more than material objects. All of this is reinforced with the title song “Remember Me,” which makes its appearance several times throughout the film and instantly restarted the waterworks for me.

My friend Sara said it best in an emotional Facebook post:

“I had this enormous sense of pride as I sat through this movie thinking how much we are scapegoated for things in society and in policy but you can never take away the love we have for our families and our beautiful culture. I can’t even explain how beautiful and sad it was as I thought about our ancestors and relatives we loved so much [who] are now gone. We can’t forget those stories, no matter what happens with generations and being stripped of language or culture for our protection to survive in this land. I’ve had so many conversations lately before this movie about language and what it’s like for Tejanos, and while I came to understand my culture and history better in college, sadly this was the only place that offered that opportunity. I will never let that knowledge go away and will always fight for what is right. Family is important, culture is important, being represented is VERY important. Very proud of being Latina, Chicana, Mexicana!

It’s unapologetically Mexican. Period. No subtitles for the Spanish. Jokes/nuggets/phrases/relationships/objects/colors/metaphors/deeper meanings [sometimes] made me the only person laughing or crying at the theater. (When Miguel says, “No manches,” I LITERALLY DIED.) But I felt so special.”

Me too, Sara. Me too. Seeing our culture understood and honored on the big screen filled me with a sense of deep pride. I was uniquely aware that for my children, this is going to be completely natural and normal, just like seeing a woman as the protagonist in Wonder Woman is too. As the mother of two Mexican-American girls, who will grow up to be proud Latina women, I cannot underemphasize the importance of this.

Is Coco perfect? Of course not! It’s an animated Disney creation. I’ve seen some lengthy articles criticizing its portrayal of women, of Frida, nitpicking everything that wasn’t a perfectly balanced, politically correct commentary. As I read them, I mainly felt sorry for the authors. They are missing the bigger picture, too caught up in being angry to see the beauty that Coco offers and appreciate the significance of this moment in time. There’s also been an uproar over the Frozen “short” that precedes every showing of Coco. Life’s too short to be enraged over a mediocre-at-best mini-film that replaced traditional previews and didn’t add any extra time to the whole movie-going experience. There are more important things to be angry about these days.

It’s been five days since I saw Coco, and scenes continue to swirl in my head every day. The gnarled, arthritic hands of great-grandma Coco, the title character, remind me of my own grandmothers. The scenes with the street musicians make me want to run over to Siete Mares or Mi Tierra to hear this beautiful música in person while eating a bowl of menudo and swaying happily in my chair. In fact, the day after seeing the film I booked my family’s plane ticket to Mexico for a much-anticipated summer vacation. ¡Viva Coco, viva México!

Here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, a sunny, cultura-rich land where la gente are the majority. As a child I spent my days doodling unicorns and puppies and people and anything that caught my fancy. Drawing was my life, and I dreamed of one day being an artist. After high school, I left town for a bit to attend Yale University but ran back to Texas as soon I’d tossed my graduation cap in the air. I got a “real” job in advertising, where I met my wonderful husband, Victor. In 2005, I got a little brave and decided to step into art full time, for the first time. I spent a year recreating the Mexican Loteria, updating it to reflect the symbols and culture I knew: the “Tex Mex” version. The My Loteria game and corresponding line of kitchenware appeared in H-E-B grocery stores and boutiques around the country, which was pretty cool! Fast forward a couple years, and Vic and I decided it made perfect sense to move to the middle of nowhere and sell ice in the desert (in Alpine, Texas, where we opened the Murphy St. Raspa Co., an homage to Mexican shaved ice, candy, art and culture). A baby later and with one more on the way, we decided to come back home to San Antonio to be closer to family. I landed my dream job as the Marketing Director of The DoSeum, San Antonio’s Museum for Kids. Life was good. But I knew deep down in my heart of hearts that I needed to give my art another try. And a little more than a year ago, I took that leap and never looked back. So here I am today: a mom to two awesome little girls, a muralist, portrait artist, wife, and social media addict. I built a tiny house art studio in my backyard, dusted off my paintbrush, and began painting again after a two-year dry spell. I recently completed my first large-scale public mural to celebrate the San Antonio missions’ World Heritage designation, and am plotting my next art move as I type. I spend my days painting portraits, planning murals, perusing social media, and being my kids’ scheduler in chief. And you know what? I’m having the time of my life.