On “Coco,” grandmothers and legacy

Miguel and Mama Coco in “Coco.” Disney/Pixar (2017)

Mama Coco’s hands look like my great-grandmother’s hands.

I was not ready for this. My memory of this moment — sitting in a sold-out matinee screening of Disney-Pixar’s Coco on opening day, seeing echoes of my Güelita’s image projected up on a theater screen over twenty feet tall — is still stunning, days later. The fact that the matriarch and namesake of the film is the lead character Miguel’s great-grandmother, too, feels all the more precious.

This film has lingered in my mind. A poster on the street, a stray hashtag on Twitter, a simple musical cue yanks me out of reality and back into that theater, leaving me breathless and overwhelmed and intoxicated — is this joy? Pride? Heartache — but, like, the good kind, where your heart is suddenly so full after realizing that you and your gente have actually been seen? It’s like we’ve been on the defense for so long that to be embraced is a shock to the system. I’m still shaking.

Güelita’s hands were wrinkled and spotted and the color of cinnamon, all snaky veins and sharp knuckles and paper-thin skin. So are Mama Coco’s, and now she’s immortalized in Pixar canon, selling out theaters and winning awards.

My heart is still full and warm from this movie. Yet before I go any further: In the name of progress, it is crucial to recognize that Coco is not a perfect film, and to recognize its shortcomings as both lessons learned and lessons still to learn. It sometimes sags under the narrative dead weight of tired tropes, typically throwaway notes of the “la chancla” and “eat your tamales” variety. The afterlife it builds is oddly and somewhat disturbingly stratified — there are actual slums in the afterworld, for example, and the dead have to go through a customs checkpoint to enter the land of the living (a clunky immigration allegory with potential, but that ultimately can’t decide what point it’s making). Coco’s not quite moving backwards, no. It doesn’t break many barriers with regard to storytelling, either.

But there is still an immense value in Coco’s treatment of Mexican (and by extension, Mexican-American) experiences. Spanish and English are interwoven throughout the film’s dialogue, a comfortable linguistic dance familiar to anyone who’s lived their lives on physical and cultural fronteras. The music, while mostly limited to mariachi with hints of son jarocho and bolero, is played entirely straight-faced and lovingly. And the visuals are something genuinely novel for a mainstream children’s movie: The attention to detail thoughtfully draws from Mexican folklore, seen in the film’s icons, its faces, its artwork, its colors — the colors!

There is no one Mexican narrative, and Coco could not hope to live up to millennia’s worth of art and spirituality within its near-2 hour run time alone. Instead, Coco gives us a single family-friendly narrative — and by doing so, the film implicitly offers us a space to project our own stories. It is clean and accessible and thus enables us to find beauty not just in the work, but in ourselves.

In this way, Coco a movie by us, for us: The children who have held their Güelita’s hands and known that we’re a part of something much, much greater than ourselves, but who might not have known how to express it. Or worse: Who didn’t think they could, or should, express it at all.

Work like this is rare, but it’s the sneaky kind of rare, the kind that you might not realize is missing from a greater canon until it swoops in and spins you around and realigns your way of thinking. The thing about representation — its simple, devastating power — is that it creates a straight line between you and possibility. To see traces of your face or your voice or your community in popular culture leads you to believe that this is what you are. This is what you could be.

In a world that so often conspires to erase our truth, this film does something special by imbuing Mexican narratives with honesty and fundamental respect. It empowers us.

Watching crowds turn out and embrace my Güelita and my culture — our Güelitas and our culture —is emotionally fulfilling in ways that are difficult to express, yet impossible to contain. It’s little surprise, then, that Coco is now Mexico’s highest grossing movie of all time, just one month into its release. That Latinxs across the United States are rallying around something clearly created for us with so much care — our reciprocation can already be seen in critical acclaim and box office turnout. And it’s little surprise that Coco left us in tears. Happy tears, of course.

When Miguel takes Mama Coco’s hand, the image is striking. It translates his legacy into a single lasting image. He is a product of his ancestors, of a history that Mama Coco preserved and continued out of sheer willpower, reverence and love. He is a product of his culture, of a vibrant, powerful heritage that deserves — no, demands — a seat at the table.

With each cinema it sells out, Coco is reaffirming this same message to all of the other Miguels out there, to all of the Mexicanos and Latinxs whose daydreams honor their own legacies: You are here, and you are seen. Tell your story.