Miguel and Hector

Disney Pixar’s Coco Normalizes a Militarized Border

Pixar’s Coco is a film about family and the ways that they must overcome trauma and borders to be together. I was very excited for this film and when I saw it on opening night, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Full disclosure: I cried during almost the entire film. As soon as I saw the cempasuchil petal bridge, I lost it. I spent the next few days pushing friends and family to hurry and see it. Part of the reason I loved the film so much is because it felt so representative of Mexican culture. Everything from chanclazos from family members, to big family reunions and the way music serves as narration to our lives. However, there is a glaring issue in the film that I’m having a hard time with that involves the use of a border that connects the the realm of the dead to the living. Spoilers ahead.

The story of Coco follows a twelve year old boy named Miguel in the fictional town of Santa Cecilia. Miguel is a musician in secret despite his family’s wishes. The story is that his great great grandmother, Mamá Imelda banned music from the home after her partner abandoned her and their child, the titular character Mamá Coco to be a musician. After Miguel steals the guitar of Ernesto de la Cruz, who he believes to be his deceased great great grandfather, he is transported to the afterlife where he comes across the souls of his family members that have died. His family is determined to return him to the land of the living and must do so by Miguel receiving a relative’s blessing and touching a cempasuchil petal.

Miguel refuses to receive the blessing from Mamá Imelda because she makes him promise that he will never play music. Instead he seeks help from a local named Hector. We are first introduced to this character as he is trying to sneak into the land of the living by disguising himself as Frida Kahlo. This is also how we are introduced to the ways that the deceased must navigate returning to the land of the living every year on the day of the dead. The film uses a physical border not unlike the US-Mexico border to separate the dead from the living. The only people that are allowed to cross every year are those who have their photos placed on the altars of their living family members. If there is no photo of them on an altar, then they are not permitted to cross. The border patrol agents in the film use facial recognition technology to determine who is cleared to cross over which is very similar to the way customs operates for those coming into the United States.

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights defines border militarization as “the systematic intensification of the border’s security apparatus, transforming the area from a transnational frontier to a zone of permanent vigilance, enforcement, and violence.” Rather than critique the systems in place that keep families apart even when a loved one is on the verge of death, the Pixar film further enforces a militarized US-Mexico border by normalizing an immigration process that requires visas which are almost impossible to obtain. The idea that if someone immigrates and they play by the rules and things will work out in the end is absolutely false. Millions of immigrants are stuck each year in limbo waiting to receive their green card. And those who attempt to cross and thwarted by border patrol agents experience violence.

The objective of border patrol and the way that it operates post 9/11 is not to keep US citizens safe, but rather to increase the militarization of the US-Mexico Border.

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights writes about Border Militarization Policy:

The first sentence of the CBP mission statement reads, “The priority mission of the Border Patrol is preventing terrorists and terrorists weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States.” This contradicts with the reality of human rights needs at the border, as agents are trained to treat the people they encounter as military combatants. The militarized nature of border enforcement agencies is evident in the profile of many of their agents as well. Customs and Border Patrol practices a hiring preference for veterans, and according to their website, over a third of CBP officers have served in the military.

Even in an imagined scenario of the underworld, Mexicans must contend with militarized borders that include visas, policing and facial recognition technology. Pixar is normalizing surveillance of immigrants. If Pixar intended the use of the border to be subversive, that message does not come across at all. The fact that Hector crosses into realm of the living through the “legal means” or in other words, the rules that the universe of Coco has created, signifies an endorsement of a visa process that dehumanizes immigrants. All the labor it takes to get Hector to the realm of the living before the day of the dead ends, falls on Miguel and his family. Border patrol agents are portrayed as simply doing their jobs when the reality is much different.

Via the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

American Immigration Council’s report describes that, “For years it has been reported that U.S. Border Patrol agents routinely ignore the constitutional and other legal rights of both immigrants and U.S. citizens. More precisely, agents of the Border Patrol are known for regularly overstepping the boundaries of their authority by using excessive force, engaging in unlawful searches and seizures, making racially motivated arrests, detaining people under inhumane conditions, and removing people from the United States through the use of coercion and misinformation.”

The final takeaway from the the film is not that borders are inhumane, rather that there is always a way to reunite families through legal systems already in place. Hector essentially crossed legal way and this normalizes a violent reality that is imposed on immigrants. One of the reasons, I was so upset by the way the border was included is because it didn’t have to be written that way. These films that exist in imagined worlds don’t have to include policing or borders. We can imagine something better.

Originally published on betweendawns.wordpress.com