“Coco” bridges two communities you might recognize

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I watched Disney’s “Coco” for the first time this summer at 1 a.m. on a Thursday night, accompanied by a bottle of Reisling and every emotion I never knew I could feel for a movie about dancing, singing skeletons.

If you have not seen this movie, this week is a great time to fix that, as the movie takes place during the traditional Día de los Muertos celebration, when in Latin American culture families remember their loved ones who have passed away by creating an ofrenda, or a shrine, upon which they place pictures and tokens of remembrance.

There are multiple layers of tradition that lace this day of celebration, and the movie uses them beautifully to tell the story of great-grandma Coco’s rascally, hopeful, musically-inclined grandson who wants nothing less than to be as great as the famous singer from his hometown, Ernesto de la Cruz. But little Miguel finds little support from his family who have disavowed music after great-great-grandma Imelda’s husband abandoned the family to chase musical dreams of his own.

Can you see where this is going?

Most of the film follows little Miguel chasing through the Land of the Dead to find de la Cruz and get his blessing to be a musician.

The cinematography in this film is unbelievable. You have not seen color until you have seen this movie.

And, honestly, you probably have not really cried until you have seen this movie.

Granted, I am part Italian, so I pretty much cry about everything, but I have seen this movie four times since July – twice in English and twice in Spanish – and I have wept every single viewing.

There are a few things that make this movie especially notable.

Leave aside a twist at the end that I, at least, never saw coming, and the beautiful unfolding of forgiveness, redemption and love within family. Also, for the sake of argument, also keep the playful script and breathtaking animation off the scales.

This movie uses music powerfully. The first time we are introduced to the lyrics of the theme song, “Remember Me,” it is as they are being garishly sung by de la Cruz to a chorus of dozens of beautiful women under the lights of high society as he performs for the world. It is the capstone of Ernesto’s career.

As the song continues to appear throughout the movie, sung by fans of de la Cruz, it begins to sound cheap (though the version done with musical glasses was pretty brilliant). By the climax of the film, the song has lost all its glamour, much like an overplayed song on the radio. No one wants to hear it.

And then, when you least expect it, the song is reborn. Its true origins are made known, its real intent revealed. We learn that it was not a song made to please the masses, but rather to promise one very specific person that love would not be lost between them.

If you are wondering, this particular scene in the movie is where I started crying in ernest.

By the time the song is sung the last time, it is so simple and sweet and pure that it sounds completely different.

Amazing how stripping the glitter away from something can make it more meaningful. Why gild a lily?

I think, in many ways, life can be like that, too. We search for ways to dress up our relationships, our work life, our social media presence, but how much fuller might our days actually feel if they were orchestrated with simplicity? How often do we strive to impress – even if just to prove to ourselves that we have value – only to find that our striving makes us feel strangely empty, like a note that falls flat?

“Coco” does something else incredibly well. It depicts people I swear I have met in person.

Everyone knows a little Miguel – he is your standard sweet-hearted little boy, up to his eyeballs in innocent mischief, not unlike a nephew of my own.

But, at least in San Diego, I think most of us know many of the characters in this movie.

I grew up in the South Bay next to a Mexican family with a strong matriarch. They, too, took care of their invalid grandma, with a love and tenderness that mirrors that of the Rivera family in “Coco.” I spent time with the two youngest daughters who were my age and we would play together in the garage or tiptoe through the patio to see what their mom was making in the kitchen. Their mother, older sisters and visiting uncles were all so different from mine. Even as a young girl, I realized that there were two distinct cultures living right next door to each other. And I loved being a small part of my neighbor’s world, even if that was limited to raspados in the patio and horchata with our lunches.

But as I have grown up in the community and have been befriended by people at school, at the diner and the gym where I used to work, I have witnessed just how tightly our communities are interwoven. American border culture is a beautiful thing.

From the delightful ensemble of Miguel’s relatives in “Coco,” to Hector, his roustabout guide in the Land of the Dead, to the near-perfect impersonation of Frida Kahlo, the characters in this film are so real, they feel like family already.

And Disney script writers do a phenomenal job delivering a story in true Spanglish. In fact, the film is written in such accurate colloquial Hispanic-American slang that the Spanish language version of the film is actually quite different, with many of the jokes and endearments slightly altered for Spanish speakers not native to the region.

It is a much welcomed, much needed nod to the large and influential Chicano culture in America.

More personally, it feels like a small piece of a community that I was privileged to grow up around has been brought to life in a visual feast, inviting me to step inside a world that, for so long, I have only been a neighbor – never a member of the family. For the first time, I feel like I have a truer look inside the lives, hearts and feelings of people I have known and loved for so long.

As the orange flower petals in the movie serve as a bridge to the Land of the Dead, “Coco” serves as a bridge between communities, opening the door to better understanding the people who live right beside us.

The message, like the final performance of the theme song, is simple: love, respect and honor the people in your life.

And while little Miguel begins applying this lesson to his family first, it is one that delivers best results when we spread it around the neighborhood.


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