How the Family in ‘Coco’ Reminded Me of Mine

Coco

In With the Old and the New

I used to conflate the tradition of gio with Buddhism, which my father’s side identifies with. In Vietnamese culture, the immediate family of the deceased will have a years-long mourning period during which, on the first death anniversary, we would celebrate gio at our local Buddhist temple. This was a much more somber affair — the monks and the strictly vegetarian food probably had something to do with it — but as a kid, I took it as a fact of life. My cousins and I would sometime run around playing tag on the temple grounds, a way to stretch out our cramped legs after an hour of kneeling in the prayer room. When I was younger, my dad used to take us to the Buddhist temple more regularly, but it’s been more than 10 months since I last stepped foot in it. The fountain in front of the temple is gone, and I can feel my memories of playing tag on the grounds slowly fading.

Today I associate gio with the “old culture” which I’m already doing a horrible job of preserving. I’ve lost my knowledge of the Vietnamese language, I can barely name, much less cook, the complex Vietnamese dishes that populate our dinner tables at each gio.

My devoutly Catholic grandmother from my mom’s side told me a few years ago, “For gio you cook the favorite meal of whoever’s gone and it’s like a memory. They can’t eat it because they’re dead, so it’s the living who eat it.”

Unlike Miguel in Coco, I’ve often felt like an outsider looking in on my own culture. I’m the first generation of children born in the U.S. after my family fled Vietnam after the war, but already I can barely speak with my grandmother outside of English. It’s been a point of shame for me — Vietnamese was my first language after all.

The clash of new and old generations in Coco resonated so sharply with me because of this. Miguel could not abide by his family’s stuffy, traditional ways and set out to achieve his dreams on his own. But in the process, he realized that family and memory may have been the most important thing all along. I asked Unkrich and Molina if there was ever a chance that this tension between new and old generations could have been amplified by making Coco about a Mexican-American — perhaps tapping into a dichotomy I’ve felt living as an Asian-American all my life.

To my surprise, Unkrich told me that an early idea for Coco revolved around a half-Mexican, half-American kid who journeys down to Mexico to reconnect with a culture he had never known. “I think my initial instinct was that since a lot of our audience wasn’t going to be familiar with the Dia de los Muertos was that it made sense to have our character also not be familiar with it,” Unkrich said. “So as that character learned about the traditions, the audience would as well.”

But the filmmakers scrapped the idea after realizing that the story had become one about loss and “learning to say goodbye to someone you love.”

“Whereas Dia de los Muertos,” Unkrich continued, “the whole point is to never say goodbye to anyone and to always remember them, and it’s your responsibility to keep their memories alive. It was at that point that we kind of ripped the whole story down and…started to tell the story from the inside from a Mexican family.”

“That being said, one of the beautiful things about Dia de los Muertos and being Mexican or being Mexican-American is that there’s a lot of different experiences,” Molina added. “So you totally could tell a story about Dia de los Muertos in a Mexican-American setting and get a whole different set of issues growing up.”

I can’t express disappointment that there was no story specifically about me as a Vietnamese-American — growing up in a third culture outside of my Vietnamese family and my new American roots — when Coco resonates so well by simply telling a story about family. It’s an astonishingly universal story despite being embedded so strongly in Mexican culture. Whether we’re grappling with the memories of a culture we want to preserve or over memories of a recently deceased love one, Coco tells that story. And I’ll remember that.

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