A complicated relationship with ‘Coco’ (2017)

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Arguably Disney’s first ‘authentic’ foray into Latin American culture, Coco (2017) is a film about passion, family, and death, based around Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). 

A confession: I went into this with the intention of criticising Coco for its representation of ‘illegal’ immigration. But then I rewatched it, and it made me feel so many feelings. So before my criticism, I’ll give Coco some much-deserved praise. 

Coco tells the story of a young guitarist, Miguel, whose family has an ancestral ban on music. He gets trapped in the Land of the Dead during Día de Muertos, and is trying to get home. On Día, dead relatives can return for one night to visit their families so long as their photograph is up on an ofrenda (a family altar). Miguel is guided through the underworld by Héctor, who will help him in exchange for Miguel placing his photo on an ofrenda so he can see his daughter again.

Watching this in the cinema at 16, I was moved on a very personal level. My Mexican heritage was – and is – still very distant to me having been born in England. I didn’t understand Spanish and yet the ‘Spanglish’ dialect in the film was totally familiar and, at times, word-for-word how my mum would speak to me as a kid. They ate the meals I could only get at home – mole poblano, tamales – and had houses warmly decorated just like mine. I was sitting in Odeon, confronted by my cultural identity. Coco felt very Mexican, which made me feel very Mexican in a way I didn’t know I was allowed to feel.

Coco felt very Mexican, which made me feel very Mexican in a way I didn’t know I was allowed to feel

Re-watching at 22, and the same thing happened all over again! Imagery seems to be a big thing for me, so when the film revealed the Land of the Dead and the screen engulfed in a sea of vibrant colours, colonial architecture, Teotihuacan pyramids interspersed with winding bypasses, I was taken aback. Not only by how uniquely Mexican the melding of ancient architecture with the dense and colourful concrete jungle of Mexico City was, but by how it looked like my bedroom. I’d been failing to name the inspiration for my style, and this opened my eyes to it: Mexico.

Coco is celebrated for its incredibly honest portrayal of Mexican culture and traditions. It’s also a damn good film. So, what’s my problem with it?

Going back to the story, dead relatives can only travel on Día if their photograph is on an ofrenda. Spirits eat and use offerings from loved ones (food, drink, luxuries), and if they’re totally forgotten by the living, they fade into nothing.

Héctor can’t pass over. Try as he might, he’s always stopped and arrested. The strangest part? There’s no need for an enforcement system. The ability to pass over is magic. When Héctor manages to jump the gate, he physically cannot travel to the living world. There’s no need for enforcement, or to depict those that can’t cross over as criminals (which, given that Héctor is literally arrested, is hard to argue against). I genuinely don’t understand why it’s there, other than to make a comparison with Latin Americans crossing the Mexico-US border. 

It gets worse. While the Land of the Dead is bright, full of food and music and joy, there’s also a darker side. Héctor, being someone who doesn’t receive offerings, lives in the slums. He wears tattered clothes, and lives in a creaky shack like all the other forgotten. They drink tequila, and wait for the end. 

The audience is guided to sympathise with the forgotten, but not to question their suffering. Spirits with a wealth of offerings could distribute it, give others a home in the infinite afterlife. It doesn’t make sense that they don’t, unless we’re meant to believe that this is justice: if you weren’t good enough to be remembered, you deserve what you get!

For a film made at the height of Trump’s “Build a Wall” campaign, this is just deeply strange and uncomfortable

This isn’t resolved. In the end, Héctor gets his photo on an ofrenda. He gets nicer clothes, he can pass over, he won’t be forgotten. Border control let him through all smiles and laughter, as if they hadn’t detained him year after year. It’s a happy ending, because one guy made it out. Coco could have had the same fundamental story without this narrative. 

For a film made at the height of Trump’s “Build a Wall” campaign, this is just deeply strange and uncomfortable. Why is there border control? Why are there slums? There’s no message or reason behind the border allusions, ‘Mexican’ becomes synonymous with ‘Alien’. It’s even more disappointing that, failing that separation, the closest thing to a moral message is “If you obey the law, the system will help you out!”. Considering in 2018 over 27% of people with family-supported US visa claims were waiting 10+ years  for approval, the system clearly doesn’t help. 

I don’t have a deeper point, really. Coco is a fantastic piece of cinema and is well loved in Mexico. It’s just a shame that the ‘big bad’ was people interfering with the oppressive system, not the system itself.

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