How the Family in ‘Coco’ Reminded Me of Mine

coco's family

“This place runs on memories,” Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) informs an awed Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) as they wander the land of the dead in Pixar’s newest film, Coco. Preserved through the memories of their family, people are kept alive, as jubilant in the afterlife as they were in life — sometimes even more so.

In Coco, death is just a new beginning. Less so a film about grief and loss, Coco is a story about celebrating life through the people that the dead once touched and affected. It’s aligns perfectly with the values of Dia de los Muertos, otherwise known as the Day of the Dead.

“[In] Dia de los Muertos, the whole point is to never say goodbye to anyone and to always remember them,” director Lee Unkrich told me in an interview a few month’s prior to the release of Coco. “And it’s your responsibility to keep their memories alive.”

COCO

Tonight is About Family

Despite the Mexican holiday’s macabre iconography, the Day of the Dead is a joyous celebration that permeates every corner of that nation’s communities: parties are thrown, music is played, the cobbled streets are lit by candlelight and the effervescent glow of scattered marigold petals, and rich flavors waft from the kitchens of every house. It seems like an anomaly to most American audiences, who commonly associate death with somber funeral processions and cold, empty graveyards.

But the rituals of the Day of the Dead are echoed across cultures throughout the world. In China, every house boasts a spirit tablet of ancestors at an altar before which family members light incense and leave food offerings. In Madagascar, millions periodically dance with the bones of the dead and rewrap them in fresh cloth in a ritual called famadihana. In Gaelic Celtic cultures, northwestern Europeans mark the beginning of the harvest by leaving food and drink offerings outside for the spirits who crossed over during this liminal time period; this Celtic pagan ritual would eventually be absorbed into the Catholic All Saint’s Day Eve, known today as, you guessed it, Halloween.

“Over the course of working on [Coco], we had done research not only on Mexican customs but also on similar customs and traditions around the world,” Unkrich said. “We were surprised by how many different cultures had traditions that are similar to Dia de los Muertos.”

These rituals all share one thing in common: they revolve around communicating across the boundary of life and death. Ancestors are but an incense candle or a muttered prayer away from the living, able to convey guidance to the living family members or listen in on the latest town news. It’s not based in any one religion — you can find it in Buddhist, Hindu, animist households — but is a surprisingly widespread practice across the world.

Widespread across the world, except perhaps in America. Death is never much cause for celebration in the U.S., much less rituals that celebrate those deaths years later.

“It’s interesting that we don’t [celebrate these customs] in America, like I wish we did,” Unkrich said. I hope that after people see this film they’ll start adopting some of these traditions.”

But there may be a few more pockets of communities throughout America that celebrate these customs than you would think.

Pixar's Coco Photo

Keeping a Culture Alive

The altar at my home used to be populated by a few grainy photos of austere middle-aged men and women, some clad in magisterial clothes. My grandmother on my father’s side smiles serenely from her picture, long, floor-length hair in a tight bun. Now there are a few half-burnt wax candles and an empty incense bowl, but the altar has mostly remained barren for the past few years, with my other relatives’ houses becoming the go-to place for the celebration of gio (there’s a special character in the proper spelling of this word, but it won’t show up here, so if you wish to see how it’s really spelled, head here).

Quite literally a “death anniversary,” gio is a ceremony in which my extended family members all gather to celebrate the life of a recent deceased relative by eating food — often the favorite dishes of the deceased relative who we’re celebrating — and reminiscing. It sounds morbid, I know (I still have trouble explaining to a lot of my friends that I can’t hang out with them because I have a “death anniversary”), but it’s truthfully one of the most comforting regular rituals of my life. Every few months, I get to see my 25-plus cousins and catch up with the gossip about our lives while eating piping hot cha ca, or debate the merits of the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary with my uncle. It’s almost an afterthought when my mom asks me if I have done lay yet — which is the process of lighting an incense stick and praying to the altar which holds my relative’s picture and the dishes of their favorite food. 

Not yet, I tell her.

I light the incense stick and watch the end catch fire until it burns down to a sizzle. I’m not religious in the least, but I’ve always liked this part. Closing my eyes, breathing in the woody smell of incense and clapping my hands together, sometimes I count to 10. Or I ask them how they’re doing. “Is heaven nice?” I used to ask my grandmother’s picture when I was a kid. I place the incense in a bowl filled with dried rice and the ashy remains of incense sticks before it.

When I watched Coco, it struck me how similar the traditions of the Day of the Dead were to gio. The ofrenda in Coco which became such a pivotal plot point, the food that fills up the altar holding up hundreds of grainy pictures of relatives. The nonchalance with which Miguel treats the whole ritual — it only got in the way of his impassioned pursuit of music.

I was shaken. Here was a culture with which I was so unfamiliar with, and yet it felt like a huge portion of my childhood was playing out on screen. The guilt I felt over brushing off gio so many times as a kid resurfaced, and just seeing the plethora of rich, spicy foods being placed at the ofrenda stirred in me memories of beef stew and rice balls wafting from my aunt’s kitchen. I asked Unkrich and Coco co-director Adrian Molina if they had gotten similar responses from people of other cultures like mine. 

“I think the fact that so many people do have these traditions and do have these celebrations speaks to the kind of universal desire to have that connection and maintain that connection to the people that you love,” Molina said. “And when people see this movie, it’s surprising how across cultures everyone has a real emotional reaction because you want that, and you want that for your family.”

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