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.




Saludos Sayulita!

Our little weekend trip to the beach literally started with a flash and a bang, when lightning struck the ground very close to where we had stopped for road side tacos. This was followed by an hour or so of heavy rain. Our luggage was in the back of an open truck, but fortunately we had put all the luggage in garbage bags (not entirely water proof it turns out, but better than nothing). Those who had been riding in the back of the truck crammed up front with us for the remainder of the trip after tacos. We reached Sayulita around 9 in the evening and after getting the keys to our super cute bungalow, we went into the town square to look at the shops and watch the people dancing to the band playing in the gazebo (a feature of almost every Mexican town I have been in).

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After going to bed early and sleeping in late, we enjoyed biscuits and gravy with eggs and bacon for breakfast before heading to the beach. We had heard that there was a pretty beach just a 10 minute walk away from the main beach area. We got all of our gear together and went to check it out. We walked past some super fancy villas and then came to a little sign pointing us away from the coast toward Playa de Los Muertos.


This was a little short cut through a cemetery of sorts to a beautiful cove. This cove had natural rocks around it which we all enjoyed exploring. The waves were fairly gentle and more than half of the beach was naturally shaded by palm trees. I didn’t even have to set up an umbrella to be in the shade and read my book! That was a wonderful experience.

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After lunch, we decided to check out the main beach. It was quite a bit more crowded and noisy. There were also a lot of vendors and people offering to braid hair, give massages, make tattoos, etc. I hope you all appreciate the irony of this picture. In case you can’t read the key, the red flag means “no swimming”.


For dinner, our group got to meet up with a couple from Lincoln who spontaneously decided to camp at Sayulita the same weekend. It took some looking, but we finally found a place where there was enough seating for 10 of us which also offered seafood tacos at a reasonable price. Shrimp tacos are just amazing. We got caught in a heavy rain on the short walk back to our bungalow so we hung out under an awning for about 15 minutes until is stopped. Rainy season isn’t over yet apparently!

Sunday morning, we all went our own ways until departure at 1:30. I enjoyed an hour or so at Playa de Los Muertos by myself. It was so lovely to just rest in the shade as I read The Princess Bride and listened to the waves crash. I also got some coconut ice cream in town because it was quite hot and how could I pass up coconut ice cream at the beach?


The ride back had beautiful mountainous views. Our weekend wasn’t even over when we got back because we had Monday off because a good chunk of Guadalajara was celebrating the Virgin of Zapopan. I took the afternoon to go with my housemates to El Centro in Guadalajara to see the cathedral, the theater, and some other sites. We had a great time.

All photos are my own.