It is rare to see a genuine portrayal of Mexican communities. Being Mexican myself, it is frustrating to see such negative and two-dimensional stereotypes unfold in mainstream American media. Latino men are typically violent antagonists and Latina women are largely sexualized. Not to mention most forms of media fail to show the diversity of Latinx communities – opting to use only Latinx actors with dark features and thick accents.
Changing the Narrative
Jaime Camil, an actor in the 2017 film Coco, puts it perfectly, “As a Mexican person, whenever I see content created in Hollywood that’s supposed to represent Mexico, I’m always wary. So much of the vision is filtered through clichés and stereotypes. For once, Mexico was not presented as a drug-ridden land or a place for wild partying, but a culturally rich country with plenty of things to be proud of.”
As of recently there have been a few attempts to truly capture the beauty of Mexican culture. Coco is a lovely representation of the heartwarming tradition of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which celebrates and remembers family members who have passed on. The film focuses on, Miguel, a young boy who dreams of becoming a big musician, despite his families generational ban on music. Miguel soon discovers the land of the dead and goes on a journey to learn about his family history. There are several characteristics that make the film universally relatable, while others are more specific to Latinx and other ethnic cultures.
Making an Effort
Disney put notable effort into making the film as authentic as possible. Co-Director and Co-Writer, Adrian Molina, said the following in a LA Times Interview, “It was very important to the team that it be a true representation of a Mexican family. I wanted the characters to reflect the diversity of the people I knew growing up and the people we met in Mexico.”
The driving goal of the film was to “ensure that Mexicans and Mexican Americans felt that their cultural traditions were respected.”
The big theme stemming from Coco is that death is not something that should be feared and the driving force of the film is a focus on the family. Whether that be knowing your family history, or healing broken relationships within the family unit. It shows conflict within families – how older generations’ expectations don’t always translate to their children.
For example, Miguel yearns to play music and is met with harsh backlash from his family members. His beliefs and desires don’t line up with the traditional values of his family. These themes are universal and different versions of these themes have been commonly used in Disney films. Disney protagonists always seem to question the status quo and yearn for something larger and profoundly different from the circumstances life has already provided for them. In The Little Mermaid, Ariel wants to be apart of the human world, even though it’s forbidden by her father. Moana dreams of voyaging beyond her home island, even though it’s forbidden by her father. Mulan disguises herself as a man to fight in the army, even though it’s forbidden by China.
However, there are more niche aspects about Coco that seem to reflect more cultural specific traits.
Mexican families tend to be very large. It’s common to have several aunts and uncles, dozens of cousins, and have close lodgings with both immediate and extended family. A staple idea that is conveyed in the film is living with and taking care of your elders in their old age. At the start of the film Mama Coco, Miguel’s great-grandmother, is nearly 100 years old. Miguel’s family runs a shoe business and lives with the majority of his family, including both his Abuelita and Mama Coco. Mama Coco is confined to a wheelchair and is known to forget things from time to time. Abuelita is very affectionate and protective of Mama Coco.
This is definitely more culture specific. It’s common in Latinx and ethnic cultures to live in a more collectivist environment. It’s important to put others needs before yourself. If the group is happy, everyone is happy. However, America is a very individualistic environment – it’s every man for himself. Americans place great importance on their needs before others. Unlike the family relations depicted in Coco, I’ve noticed that it’s definitely more common in caucasion, American households to utilize assisted living homes and/or live in nurses. I found it very refreshing to see a situation where the family takes care of their older family members, very similar to how my Mexican family operates.
Another big cultural trait is respecting elders and adhering to older family members’ rules. Miguel gets strong backlash from his Abuelita and later from Mama Imelda, for pursuing music when they have forbidden it. There is a strong link to grandparents and grandchildren, which is very common in Mexican culture. Miguel has more of a conflict with his Abuelitas than he does with his own parents.
Plus, there are more direct references to Mexican culture thrown in occasionally that might not translate to other communities. For example, Abuelita wields La Chancla – a common disciplinary tool feared by Mexican children everywhere.
Proof of Effort
Coco holds a very special place in my heart. Not only due to it’s fantastic animation and storytelling techniques, but to it’s authentic representation of Latinx, specifically Mexican culture. It is truly a film dedicated to Mexican culture. Especially in the current political climate, Coco shows universal themes that are capable of bringing cross-cultural communities together, dissuades any negative stereotypes about Latinx people and most importantly, it’s proof that if Hollywood filmmakers put effort in authenticity when depicting other cultures – it can truly make a beautiful masterpiece.