So I was watching Coco, and it got me thinking about remembering our ancestors and who can tell their stories…
Coco follows a young boy named Miguel who, despite his family’s generations long music ban, dreams of becoming an accomplished musician. Desperate to prove himself and angry with his family, Miguel finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead. Set during Dia De Los Muertos, Miguel finds his ancestors and must receive their blessing to return safely to the land of the living but he won’t accept their blessing without the blessing to play music as well.
Maybe most importantly, this story features a famous musician- Ernesto de la Cruz- who Miguel believes is his long lost relative. De la Cruz is remembered and celebrated in the town for his musical prowess and suave nature. Miguel seeks him and desires his approval and his blessing to return to the land of the living and pursue music. Things are not as they seem (of course) as Miguel encounters a loner who is stuck in the Land of the Dead, Hector, who helps him in his journey…
The nuances of the world drew me in because the afterlife was so directly tied to the act of remembering. In the tradition of Dia De Los Muertos, Miguel’s family has an ofrenda (altar) to remember those who they have lost. Each year on Dia De Los Muertos, those who live in the Land of the Dead are given passage to the land of the living if they are remembered on an ofrenda.
Similar to the Hebrew tradition of the afterlife being carried on by those who remember you, I see the same thing happening in Coco and in Mexican traditions.
Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand.” (Exodus 13:3)
Remembering and retelling was how traditions were communicated through the tribes of Israel- traditions that later found their way into what we now know as the Bible. The Hebrew word for remember is zak-hor, and it carries a meaning deeper than just to remember. Zak-hor means to relive and participate in the stories alongside their ancestors. We may not think about it, but the English word carries this connotation to, to re-member something, as in to give it a body… again. To not just participate but literally re-member ourselves in the story- giving it new flesh and blood.
Coco makes the same argument. There is a reason we remember our ancestors- remember our past. When we forget the stories of our ancestors, our family- we are doomed to repeat them. Miguel’s trip into the Land of the Dead begins because he is running from his family and running towards what he believes is his destiny – to be a musician. By the time he is in the Land of the Dead he is confronted by his ancestors in surprising and powerful ways that challenge and shake his understanding of family and music to the core. This ultimately leads to new discovery which gives way to new life- by way of afterlife.
Much can be said about Coco– who wrote it and who should rightfully tell the story. This shouldn’t be glossed over, and provides more context that makes the discussion about telling stories even more compelling.
Is Coco Disney’s attempt to appropriate and saddle a culture and a holiday (Dia De Los Muertos) for gain? Did Disney rip Coco off from the 2014 film The Book of Life? The Book of Life was directed by Mexican animator Jorge R. Gutierrez. Coco features a diversity of cast but not of its creative team. When I think about telling the story of my ancestors I wonder- who has the right to tell that story and give it dignity? Does Coco’s story lack respect for the culture because it was told by people who do not belong to it? Or is the proof in the finished product, one which many from that culture appreciate?
When we read stories from our history how often are they tainted by the views of the author? What traditions stay and which fade away often depends on who the writer is and why they are telling the story.
What I loved about Coco was the redemption that happened after the wholeness and dignity was restored to the family. De la Cruz, previously loved by the community, was forgotten because the story he told was not the true story. Hector, who was nearly forgotten and unloved, becomes a proud part of the family ofrenda and will hear his story told time and time again. In the face of who wrote the film and some of the drama surrounding it, I couldn’t help but wonder- is Disney de la Cruz? Comfortable to take the stories of others and use them for its gain?
The world needs more diversity in film and art and progress has been made since 2017. More importantly, the world needs traditions like Dia De Los Muertos to remember our ancestors- to tell the stories of our past. The more we remember those stories, the more they live on. That is what the afterlife is about after all.