For the third weekend in a row, Disney/Pixar’s Coco has dominated the box office, beating out Justice League to bring its domestic total profit to $135.5 million. This success is inspiring. Coco is a lively, fun film. It’s worth seeing as a family, especially because we need films for children that grapple with death and loss. But as we present a new generation of Latinx kids with their culture on the big screen, we need to ask a big question: Should we really trust a Disney production as our spirit guide to the afterlife?
Disney has a long history of producing negative images of Latino culture. And when the company filed to trademark “Día de los Muertos,” as the film’s title, the public protested its taking ownership of a sacred celebration. Publicly rebuked, Disney rescinded the trademark request and transitioned toward a more respectful enterprise, reaching out to multiple cultural advisors while making the film.
Coco introduces a visually sumptuous representation of the indigenous celebration of Día de los Muertos, but there is much to question in the way the film exerts its authority over this event. Here are four Coco myths we can debunk for our children.
1) Día De Los Muertos is only celebrated one specific way. This film gives preeminence to the celebration’s traditions in Oaxaca, Mexico, a tourist favorite. But the event is an indigenous practice that pre-dates the formation of colonial Mexico, and the way it’s celebrated varies widely throughout the Americas. As a scholar of Latino art and politics, I’ve seen the event shift from more intimate remembrances of the dead to large-scale public celebrations. It’s been celebrated in response to civil wars in Central America and the impact of AIDS. Like any tradition, Día de los Muertos has changed over time and in relation to place, people, and history.
2) You have to be wealthy in life to live well in the afterlife. Watching this film with my eight-year-old son, I wondered what ways he would see the afterlife as a city of tremendous inequality, where even in death the poor suffer. While the rich enjoy palatial abundance, the poor struggle to be remembered in shantytowns.
Coco tells the story of a young boy, Miguel, who wants to be a musician, but comes from a family of shoemakers who forbid him from following his dream. Early in the film, when Miguel wants to compete as a musician in a talent competition, his abuelita breaks his guitar and declares, “It’s Día de los Muertos. No one is going anywhere! Tonight is about family! Ofrenda room! Vamonos!” Per abuelita’s orders, the family reappears in a large room, relatively bare, except for a large ofrenda up against the wall. Rising like a pyramid, each level displays framed photographs, candles, food, and mementos. The irony of “the ofrenda room” is that most working families rarely have such expansive real estate to dedicate an entire room to an ofrenda for one day a year. More often, family altars exist in shared living quarters, rather than so firmly segregated.
3) Day of the Dead Is Literally Just One Night. Sensing resistance from Miguel, abuelita says, “Don’t give me that look! Día de los Muertos is the one night a year our ancestors can come visit.” The Dia in the film is from sunrise to sunset, though the history of the celebration is far more complicated. Día de los Muertos is an evolution of centuries of indigenous celebrations of the dead that took place seasonally in many parts of the year. The association with the western calendar, and specifically November 1 and 2, emerged from Christian colonial oppression of pagan celebrations. In some ways, these traditions survived by coinciding with the Christian celebration of All Saint’s Day, facilitating some level of acceptance for sacred rites and traditions otherwise under constant threat.
4) You can’t honor your dead without proper pics.
From abuelita, viewers learn, “We put their photos on the ofrenda so their spirits can cross over. That is very important! If we don’t put them up, they cannot come!” Throughout the film, multiple characters languish in the afterlife because their photos are not placed on the ofrenda. There’s even a powerful border patrol that prevents “illegal” crossings to the afterlife with biometric facial recognition.
How can anyone who lived before photography, or does not have access to an archive, or even a camera, ask to be remembered?.
In the movie, “Final Death” is the moment when those amongst the living forget the deceased. To illustrate this, one scene shows a poor, defeated soul languishing in the slum of the “Land of the Dead,” vanish into golden dust because he has been forgotten. By contrast, in the land of the dead, celebrities like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera will live forever no matter what. The images both intersect and potentially contradict with the art of José Guadalupe Posada, whose prints and engravings of the wealthy and the famous are a constant reminder that regardless of how we lived in life, none of us escapes death.
I love the ways Día de los Muertos reminds us to celebrate and remember those we have lost. I love thinking about our continuing connection with those who have come before us, and the ways we can mourn with great love and happiness. As we continue to see this sacred event collapsed and simplified for larger audiences through mass culture, I hope that we also can teach future generations to appreciate its complicated and conflicting histories, the diversity of its traditions and rituals, and the fundamental ways this indigenous celebration has continued to survive, both in spite of, and in relation to, colonial expectations.
Cary Cordova is an Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco. She's also a Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project.