The animated film Coco follows a boy who is accidentally transported to the land of the dead, where he seeks the help of his deceased musician great-great-grandfather to return him to his family among the living during Day of the Dead.
Coco is the first-ever huge budget film to feature an all-Latino cast, with a cost of 200 million. Coco premiered nearby in late October of last year during the Morelia International Film Festival becoming the highest-grossing film of all-time in the Mexico. It was released in the United States at Thanksgiving grossing nearly 600 million worldwide thus far.
The movie is hugely popular and you may have already seen it. But did you see all the Day of the Dead symbolism that is on display also right here in San Miguel de Allende? Here’s a rundown of the symbolism that will make the movie even more a Technicolor treat than it already is on the surface level.
The title itself, Coco, is a term for boogeyman, though in the movie it refers to the lead boy’s titular character of the great-grandmother and is used with great affection. Personally I like when opening credits bring the viewer up to speed on the plot and rarely is the backstory better told than in Coco through the paper flags. (Again featured at the end.)
The bright paper flags remind the living of the paper thin line between life and death. The flags also serve as a curtain to keep out other, less savory, spirits that may be out and about during Day of the Dead. For years factories on Barranca hand cut these paper flags. The factories are gone and most flags are now plastic, imported from China.
In the movie, they call altars at home or the cemetery offerndas, based on the concept of a step pyramid where you place photos of ancestors, food and flowers to welcome the dead back for the evening. Even as the characters enter the afterlife you’ll briefly see step pyramids.
Before the coming of the Catholic conquistadors the Chichimecas, local hunter gather tribes, believed the spirits of the dead remained among the living to be acknowledged through song, dance, and food. The cult of ancestor worship was deeply rooted in Mesoamerica. Consequently, the morphing of All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day and Day of the Dead into preexisting practices was an easier one and the basis of the movie’s plot and timing.
Music plays a pivotal role in the movie. In fact the whole plot is based upon a generations old belief in the family that music is bad. Realistically, that’s impossible as every child in town learns to play an instrument, sing and/or dance as these are the skills you’ll need in every future fiesta. Here in San Miguel great emphasis is placed on being entertaining. Up North we prefer to be entertained.
However, in the film’s defense, the hatred of music as a theme fits nicely into a movie musical.
In the movie all the action in a cemetery occurs at night. Here at our Guadalupe cemetery we close shop at 6PM on the dot. If you want to be up all night in the cemetery filled with life after death you’ll need to go farther afield.
These flowers figure prominently throughout the movie. The indigenous believed the flower, that bloomed during Day of the Dead, had an aroma that guided the Dead home. Plus each flower featured 365 petals, one for every day in the year of a good life.
The Spanish arrived and told folks that the gold color represented gold from Mary’s dowry, hence the name Marigold.
Catrinas (well dressed skeletons) frequently appear this time year in processions and festivals and are the main characters of the movie. Originally Catrinas were used in political cartoons in the early 1900s by Jose Guadalupe Posada spoofing the wealthy Spanish as we all look the same once dead and in skeletal form. Today Catrinas are an icon for both Day of the Dead and Mexico.
Skeletons and skulls have a long history in indigenous worship with the Queen of the Underworld, who presided over festivals honoring the dead that later folded into All Souls and All Saints days as part of Day of the Dead.
To help the soul’s journey a hairless dog would be sacrificed so the faithful dog could aid the soul of his once living master’s trek in the afterlife. Often sugar dogs are placed on altars today representing their assistance since killing your former pet is frowned upon.
In the movie, Miguel’s street dog, Dante (as in Dante’s Inferno) is the Mexican hairless dog guiding the lad through the afterlife. Frequently thought of as just being a dog, he is, in fact, Miguel’s spirited spirit guide.
The movie pays a lot of attention to Alebrijes. Alebriges are the colorful and carved wooden folk art available at every craft fair. Originating in Oaxaca, the copal or cedar wood figures are normally cats, dogs, deer, raccoons, leopards, etc., that have been elaborated into fantastic figures. They started in an artist’s nightmare where he awoke screaming the word “Alebriges” and started carving a folk art niche.
Creatively carved by the artists’ hand, no two pieces will ever be exactly alike. They have become hugely popular folk art collectibles in the US, Canada and Europe. Here in Mexico both Diego and Frida collected them.
Locally we’ve also have Alecuijes, an animal personification of actual people so no two are also never alike. Alecuije is the integration of your gifts, talents and virtues that mirror your soul. Local artist, Paty de Murga, first became aware of Alecuijes while visiting Canada de la Virgen before it became an open to the public historic site. While there she met an indigenous woman who introduced her to the magical world of Alecuijes that Paty makes and are featured in museums around the world.
Prehispanic Mexicans considered that animals had a close relationship with Divine so on your birth day you arrived with a spirit animal and they are featured trough out the film.
Much like she is here in town, Frida is featured throughout the film and appears in a comedic cameo focused on her self-image obsessed art.
Being part of a family, and staying with your family, are threads tying the movie together. As anyone who knows a middle aged “child” still living with his or her mother realizes, family bonds are taken very seriously here in town. The notion of a senior being independent or living “independently” as Northern folks take great pride in, is viewed as sad here and in the movie. Coco, though suffering from dementia, is safe and well cared for within her family unit.
No Heaven Here
The movie goes to great lengths to never say God or Heaven. In fact, folks that aren’t remembered by the living burst into white light to enter “final death” where “no one knows” what happens to them. I was rather shocked by the inclusion of this concept into a kids’ movie. Granted, I didn’t grasp why having an image of an ancestor no living person knew was important but to the dead in this movie it was literally the difference between an afterlife and final death.
Here in town most folks believe the day of your death is your real birthday into eternal life. How a culture views death greatly impacts what the living do. Hence, why if you’ve no descendants to bring you back for Day of the Dead, or pay your tomb taxes, your grave gets reused as your skeleton is no more important to you than your old shoes are now that you are home in Heaven with God.
Drawbacks to the Film
Aside from the odd inclusion of final death, and running a bit long for most children, or the childish, like me, the only drawback I saw to a visually stimulating film were the voice actors. Aside from a cameo by Cheech (or was in Chong?) none of the voices were memorable or particularly unique. Outstanding cartoon movies need unusual voices and speech patterns (like a Phyllis Diller or Tallulah Bankhead) to make the character memorable.
I was also surprised how much the afterlife borrowed from the film Beetlejuice featuring a bureaucratic level of intrusion. Who wants to be, or deal with, a government drone in the afterlife?
Plus I was overwhelmed by all the Hollywood symbolism in death causing me to think of the first stage of the afterlife to be most aptly called Hollywood Heaven. I was surprised not to see a skeletal Ginger and Fred dance across the screen or a Mexican Hollywood star like Lupe Velez, Dolores Del Rio or Ramon Navarro. Perhaps even our own local Hollywood movie star/priest Jose Mojica.
It also made me ponder that if the point of death is to be visually remembered on Day of the Dead, we’d all want to be Madonna (the singer, or Jesus’ Mom). Or any celebrity with a visual impact that lingers on indefinitely. But that goes against the family notion of the film (Marilyn Monroe didn’t even have children or a family but left a visual impact). It’s about here I remember it’s a cartoon and I’m overthinking all of it.
So stop thinking, put your brain under your seat, and enjoy a lovely holiday movie to all that adore Mexico! To have Disney, and Pixar, promote Mexican culture and a holiday all about death and the afterlife is an immense honor and a huge boost to our tourism.
by Joseph Toone
Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series. All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays. Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA. Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkin