I finally watched Pixar’s Coco this past week (because it finally got to the discount theater). It is set in Mexico and focuses around Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday in November. Here is a good article if you would like to know more about Día de los Muertos. While some aspects of Mexican culture are easily recognizable to most of us gringos (a creative and somewhat bizarre Frida Kahlo, Mariachi bands, and the beautiful papel picado opening sequence), other things are more subtle, but will make anyone who loves Mexico give a little sigh of contentment.
Here is what you may have missed or what you should look for if you haven’t seen it yet.
In one of the first scenes as Miguel runs through the pueblo, he passes a small stand with brightly painted carved figures of fantastic mythical creatures called alibrijes. This was the first clue to me that the movie is more specifically set in the state of Oaxaca. These figures are made and sold all over the country, but originate from Oaxaca. They also make figures of more realistic animals. Visiting the alibrije workshops was a big highlight of my trip to Oaxaca (blog post here). I had not specifically heard that they represent spirit guides, but this very well could be a folk tale passed around. I think it was very clever of Pixar to incorporate live (or perhaps “real” would be a better word) versions of the alibrijes in the world of the dead.
The beautiful marigolds are said to guide ancestors back to their home. They are used every where for Día de los Muertos! They are used to decorate altars, as well as trail through the streets. The bridge made of the petals in the film was a great touch. Skeletons, often in old fashioned dress, are called catrinas and are also in abundance during the holiday. Do you recognize Frida Kahlo on the right?
The Rivera family also wore wonderful Mexican clothing. The more traditional embroidered clothes worn by Coco, Miguel’s mother, Frida Kahlo, and Tia Victoria (the skeleton with the blue top) are accurate, beautiful examples of the textile work of Oaxaca and neighboring states. On the modern side, the bright make-up on one of Miguel’s aunts was spot on and the green shirt his uncle wears looks suspiciously like a popular futbol jersey. The simple style of the apron Abuelita wears is sold on every street corner and is often used by older women or house help.
I was so happy when I saw the red paint on the lower half of the walls in Miguel’s pueblo. I don’t know the specific purpose or tradition behind this, but it is common in many of the smaller towns in Mexico. Towards the beginning, Miguel is trying to play in the talent show being advertised and performed in el mirador (gazebo). Though many American towns likely had a gazebo in the park a century ago, just about every Mexican town still has one, often a beautiful iron-wrought structure used for festivities, shows, etc. in the main plaza.
It was so refreshing to not only hear the expected Spanish (abuela, gracias, amigo), but also some of the regional, casual expressions used in everyday conversation in Mexico. Miguel at one point exclaims “¡Que padre!” which doesn’t translate correctly, but means “How cool!” Hector refers to Miguel several times as chamaco, an expression which I heard often in Oaxaca, which means “kid”.
While Abuelita hitting the Mariachi man with her sandal is humorous, it is not just a cartoon gag. Hitting a child with a sandal (la chancla) is a traditional form of discipline (especially coming from the mother or grandmother) in Mexico and other Latin-American countries. It would be similar to threatening to use “the belt” in the U.S.
Overall, the movie shows the importance of family in Mexican culture, including the elderly and even deceased. It was interesting that though the movie is very spiritual (in a literal sense), it does not really address religion. Day of the Dead is celebrated by Mexican Catholics (and mostly avoided by the much smaller percentage of Protestants) and is a combination of Prehispanic traditions and Catholic beliefs. In the world of the dead, there are a few clips that show the base of the world being the Aztec pyramids similar to those found near Mexico city, perhaps hinting about the Prehispanic origins of the holiday.
The manner Pixar presents the deceased in this film is not frightening for children, but it definitely could raise some questions about what happens when someone dies. It left me a little sad remembering that many people believe what they do on earth somehow affects those who have died. The idea of second chances after death is also deceptive. Each person must make their own choices about their actions and beliefs while living, which will determine whether they spend eternal life in heaven or hell. No amount of being remembered or honored will ease the pain of hell. Neither will any dishonor or forgetfulness lessen the joy of being in the presence of God.
Photos are my own.