Can Disney-Pixar’s Coco change how we perceive Latino culture in film?
Words: Camille Hogg
On 16th June 2015 in front of baying crowds, business magnate Donald Trump gave a speech that divided a nation.
“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall,” he boasted, announcing just one of the policies that would define the presidential campaign that he eventually went on to win.
While the barricade on the US-Mexico border has not yet materialised, something more insidious did. And with the declaration, Trump brought to the fore years of racial stereotyping and bubbling tensions.
Perhaps part of this ill feeling is down to years of inadequate, and often offensive, television and cinematic portrayal.
After all, at best, our perception of the rich and very diverse Latino culture has been reduced to a colourful poncho, a wide-brimmed hat and an oversized moustache. And at worst? Latin America, and Mexico in particular, at least in the media, is a place rife with murderers and rapists and gangsters, and they’re all coming to get us.
It’s a stereotype that Coco, Disney-Pixar’s latest animation, is keen to tackle. The story follows 12-year-old Miguel as he attempts to pursue his dream of becoming a musician like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz. But after his great-great grandfather left home never to return for the same reason, his family put a stop to his aspirations.
Desperate to play at the Día de los Muertos concert – the day when the deceased are said to walk among the living – he sneaks into his hero’s tomb to steal his guitar but instead, he winds up in the Land of the Dead, and he has until sunrise to find his ancestor for answers and return to humanity.
Beautifully ornate in design and filled with references to Mexican culture from music and traditions to food and Frida Kahlo, the animated movie goes beyond the traditional Disney-Pixar feel-good agenda to incite a conversation at a time when, perhaps, one is needed.
Given the longstanding tensions, the people of Mexico were not thrilled by the idea of Disney-Pixar appropriating and stereotyping their heritage when the project was announced in 2013, with thousands taking to the internet to vent their frustration and sign petitions.
But with families from the country flocking to the box office, it seems that the movie industry has finally done right by the Latin American country, giving them a portrayal that even they can stand by. And, as fellow Mexican and Coco voice actor Gael García Bernal, who plays skeletal con man Hector, says, the time might just be right to reverse prejudice and stereotype.
“I want to dedicate this film to all the children who have ancestors from Mexico and Latin America,” he said at the film’s premiere. “In this moment, these kids are growing up with a lot of fear because the established narrative says that they come from families that come from rapists [and] murderers.
“We are such a complex and profound culture, and these kids need to be empowered to stand up and say that what is being said about them is a complete lie.”
Also starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt and Renée Victor
Director: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Running time: 130 mins
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