Mexican Culture in Pixar’s Coco

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 MuertosWhile 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.




I Can’t Stay Away

Spring Break is a beautiful thing. It is so good to have a break from teaching to relax! I was able to return to Guadalajara for the week. Many people here and there have asked me how hard it was to adjust back to American culture or if I have experienced reverse culture shock. The transition has been easier for me than I had expected. I think this is for a few reasons. First, I was quite busy as soon as I arrived home in the U.S. and had a lot going to keep my mind engaged. I was very focused on the task of figuring out my role in my new school and organizing and setting up my classroom. Another thing that made the transition easy was that I kept a tie to Mexican culture by joining a Spanish speaking small group. This helped me make friends with people who know something of the experience of living in Mexico (or another Spanish speaking country). I can keep speaking Spanish, talk about Latino culture, make bilingual jokes, etc. I even have discovered a place to salsa dance in my home town. It is not quite the same as dancing in the streets of Guadalajara, but it was one of the activities I was sad to give up so I am thankful that I still get to do it sometimes. Salsa also provides another opportunity for speaking Spanish! Finally, I have been looking forward to this trip since the summer, knowing I would not be saying goodbye to friends forever.

I prayed for my trip that I would get quality time with as many people as possible. He was so faithful to answer! A fun surprise started out the trip as I had the same flight to Atlanta as a high school group from my school going to Belize. I enjoyed chatting with them in the airport and on the plane. Sunday, I spent the full day with my church on a retreat. It was so encouraging to see how the church has grown in depth and number and many of the individuals I have prayed for are thriving. Monday was dedicated to the school. I wandered around the campus catching up with American and Mexican teachers, staff, students, etc. I loved having lunch with my former students and then playing games with them at recess. I went back nearly every day for this sweet time with my not-so-little ones.


Throughout the week, I caught up individually with many people, often while eating (another thing I have been looking forward to on this trip). I have missed avocados, frijoles, lonches, Mexican popsicles, and, most of all, tacos! It was great to be able to enjoy authentic food and it was so refreshing to go deeper with friends and hear about their ministries, goals, struggles, and joys. I shared tears more than once and lots of laughs as well. God is taking such good care of them, even when I am away. I knew I could trust him with them when I last said, “Adios” (blog post: Good in Good-bye).


My last day, some of the Lincoln teachers joined me in going to Tlaquepaque. We had fun looking around in artisan shops, taking pictures, and even caught a free show which included traditional Mayan dancing, dancers from Veracruz and Jalisco, and live Mariachi music.  I bought a piece of art made by the Huichol people. I recently have been doing some research about this people group. They are one of the least reached in Mexico and are located not far from Guadalajara. I bought the art to remind me to pray for them more often. As a closing gift, I coincidentally ran into the only friend I had not been able to contact during the week. I loved my break and I hope I can visit again soon.


Photos are my own.

A Full Sponge

Well, my two years of teaching in Mexico are over. The day to day experience of learning another culture, seeing new and unfamiliar places, and handling unexpected situations has come to an end. However, my overall experience has not. When I went to Mexico, it was with a very intentional attitude of understanding the culture as much as I could, mimicking it, and being adopted into it if possible. These past two years I have been a sponge of Mexican culture. In a way, the analogy fails because a sponge is passive, but I was actively absorbing. As an example of the level to which I was absorbing, I have been much closer to saying certain words in Spanish (that I would consider inappropriate) than I have ever been tempted to say their English equivalent. Why? Because I took in every single word I heard, processed it, listened to how it was pronounced, listened to the grammar structure around it, said it in my head, practiced using it in sentences in my head, and wanted to utilize it to help me fit in better. Taking in became an unbreakable habit which didn’t slow down even for undesirable words or topics. The same goes for culture and customs. I wanted to understand every pop culture reference, know how to respond like a Tapatía (woman from Guadalajara) in every situation, and be able to sing along to popular or traditional songs. I would cringe any time I gave myself away with a basic language mistake or saw the look of “never mind, she doesn’t get it”. I wanted people to interact with me just as they would their Mexican friends.

I have been a sponge and a mimic, but now… I have nowhere to channel what I have learned. It doesn’t “count” here. Not that there are not people interested in my experience. Many people have sincerely asked me about my experience and I know several friends who will listen to me when I need an outlet. However, knowing a classic Mexican song does not help me fit in here. There will be few with whom I can share a bilingual joke. The Mexican idioms and street expressions I drilled myself in may not even make sense to other Spanish speakers I meet.I would ask for your patience if the sponge leaks on you a bit.

From what I have heard from various speakers, blogs, and personal friends, coming back home after an extended time overseas is almost as difficult as the initial culture shock. Though I am happy to be home, there will be grief and probably reverse culture shock. There will also be some relief as I can take a break from absorbing and mimicking to return to a familiar place.

So some of you may be wondering, is this where the blog ends? “As I Go, I Grow” is a travel blog isn’t it? Even though I am not physically in another country “going” somewhere exciting, I am still growing from the experience. I will continue blogging. For me, this is an important way to process my time in Mexico and the adjustment to life in the U.S. If you continue following the blog, you will probably see less travel posts for the time being, though I do hope to travel again in the future. I will continue to write about my teaching experience and my thoughts on various matters. I am also hoping to take this time to develop my fictional writing more.

What will be new on the blog? I will be writing about some of the observations I have made about Mexican culture, wrapping up loose ends, and writing about the experience of repatriation and reverse culture shock. I hope you continue to read along and give me your feedback.


Photo is my own of some of the good-bye cards written for me at my despedida (good-bye party).

Oaxaca: A Self-appreciative Culture

After a decade of wanting to go, I finally made it to Oaxaca! Though the trip was probably not how I had imagined it years ago, it was a wonderful first exposure. From Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca (more on that later) we took a private plane to the capital. It was just a thirty minute, smooth flight and a pretty fun experience. It gave us a whole extra day in Oaxaca. If we had taken the windy bus ride, we would not have made it there until evening. We had breakfast and began to explore the city. It was amazing how in one day I got a very different sense than I had in Chiapas. Chiapas is the poorest Mexican state and Oaxaca is second. Both have large numbers of indigenous peoples living within them. However, everywhere I went in Chiapas was very commercialized. I already expressed my opinions on the crowded “ecotourism” sites. Apart from this, you cannot go anywhere without very aggressive vendors trying to sell something to you. This included while you were seated inside at a restaurant. It made me not even want to just sit on a bench and enjoy the surroundings for a minute because I didn’t want to have to say “no” ten times in five minutes. There were vendors and peddlers in Oaxaca as well, but not as many and they seemed to be much more respectful of their customers, or maybe respected themselves more. In Chiapas, it seemed like all of the natural assets of the state existed for tourism and were milked for all they were worth, but in Oaxaca, it was different.

The best part of the city for me was the Culture Museum in a restored ex-convent. It was an incredible museum, on par with many in the states and better and bigger than any others I’d seen in Mexico (though I haven’t made it to Mexico City yet). The building it was housed in was beautiful itself. Huge open hallways with gigantic windows at each end, courtyards and balconies overlooking the botanical garden below. Just beautiful. The course of the museum started with the early history of the state of Oaxaca, moved through the Mayan dynasty, the Spanish Conquest, the Independence, and up to modern day. This museum also affirmed my sense that the people of Oaxaca had more personal dignity as the final few rooms of the museum emphasized and celebrated the continued development of the indigenous cultures. Later in the day, I went back to the location to get a tour of the garden surrounding the ex-convent. The garden was not old, but it was very tastefully done and was a showcase of plants and trees indigenous to the state of Oaxaca specifically. We had a great tour guide who was very knowledgeable about the historical and cultural significance of the plants as well as the scientific details.


After a visit to Foundation for His Ministry (more later), I returned to the capital for an evening dinner and show. The show was called the Guelaguetza and was advertised as show casing dances from all seven regions of Oaxaca. While visiting the mission, I happened to pick up a book that gave me some more information. The Guelaguetza was a prehispanic tradition of the people in Oaxaca coming together to share culture, food, and dance from the various indigenous groups. It was a way of celebrating diversity. In 2006, there were a series of strikes that affected Oaxaca all year long. The people were upset with the corruption in the government (an unfortunately common sentiment through Mexican history) and people were striking for better investment in schools, for the rights of the indigenous, etc. At this time, the Guelaguetza had become a commercial annual event which was so expensive only tourists could afford to go. The people decided to boycott the commercial one, eventually forcing them to cancel and the people hosted their own, which was completely free to Oaxacans and represented many more dances and foods than the commercial one ever had. Again, this demonstrated to me an inherent pride in their culture whether it was shared and produced money or not. The show we went to was not the large annual event, but a representation. Watching the dance was a fun experience, as I always enjoy watching good dancing.

Our last day, we created a custom tour of the area. We do things the classy way. We skipped some of the more common tourist sites and went to visit three artisan villages. The first was where they carve and paint alebrijes, incredibly complex wooden statues of animals. Originally, they were tied into the Mayan religion and superstitions as a kind of protection. They remain breathtaking art, which I imagine has only grown more complex and beautiful with time improve the talent.

In the second village, we visited a workshop that makes pottery out of black clay. Oaxaca is known for this particular technique of rubbing the clay with a certain stone before firing to create the appearance of a glaze. What I didn’t realize is that we were taken directly to the workshop of the woman who had discovered the technique in the 1930s! She has since passed away, but her legacy continues.

After a brief stop at the Tule (the widest tree in the world), we finally visited a town that specialized in wool weaving. We visited a co-op of 20 families. One of the weavers gave us an explanation of the natural dyes, showing us how to mix some colors in our palms. In my hand, he broke some pomegranate seeds and mixed it with limestone and created a turquoise. Another woman demonstrated how to card and spin the wool. We also got to watch them creating the pattern on the loom. It was incredible how fast they went because they had a complex pattern memorized in their heads.By the way, they offer workshops where they teach people the process, starting with going out to gather the materials for the natural dyes!

That evening we enjoyed one more walk through the markets and stores with a new appreciation for the art. I wish that I had more money available to support more of these talented, hard working artists. I was happy to make a few small purchases to enjoy for myself and to show appreciation for the culture at the same time. That is how I have come to view souvenir shopping in other countries. It is no fun if I am just looking for myself or am trying to drive the hardest bargain I can (though I do barter a little and I don’t like it when people intentionally take advantage of me being foreign). I get so much more enjoyment knowing that what I am buying is supporting local economy and appreciating local culture, which is why I try to buy directly from the artisans if possible and avoid the manufactured souvenirs.

So thankful to finally have this opportunity!

Photos are my own.