How much do you know about your great-great-grandparents? Do you know what they looked like, where they lived and worked, what they liked to eat or how they dressed? What about their personalities, their values? Do you even know their names?
In Coco, the 2017 animated movie from Disney and Pixar, we meet Miguel, a 12-year-old boy who comes from a family of shoemakers, and yet, there is something deep inside him that longs to be a musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. There’s just one problem: his family has a generations-old ban on music.
As the family story had been told, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather took his guitar and left his wife and three-year-old daughter Coco to pursue a career in music. They never saw him again. Miguel doesn’t even know this man’s name when he finds a black-and-white family photo that’s been torn, hiding the true identity of his ancestor.
But there’s a clue. In the photo, Miguel recognizes the guitar as the same one held by Ernesto de la Cruz whose legacy had been immortalized with songs, movies and statues. On Día de los Muertos in Mexico, or Day of the Dead, Miguel sneaks into Ernesto’s mausoleum and gets his hands on that old guitar. One strum and he’s transported to the fantastical Land of the Dead, where he meets his ancestors and a charming trickster named Héctor.
On one of their adventures to get a guitar for Miguel, they go to Cheech, who is laying in a makeshift hammock and fading away. Héctor plays one last song before Cheech turns into a wisp of gold dust and disappears. Miguel wants to know what happened.
“He’s been forgotten,” Héctor says. “When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the final death.”
Miguel asks, “Where did he go?”
“No one knows,” Héctor says.
“But I’ve met him,” Miguel says. “I could remember him when I go back!”
“No, it doesn’t work like that, chamaco,” Héctor says. “Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life in the stories they tell about us. But there’s no one left alive to pass down Cheech’s stories.”
Who is going to remember you? Who is going to pass down your stories? When Miguel recounts family lore to a customer, the customer cuts him off—“I asked for a shoe shine, not your life story!” Every day you tell your story in bits and pieces, but have you been telling the right audience?
In Coco, we see that Mexican culture has a holiday dedicated to the celebration of life and remembering those who have passed away. The origins of the Day of the Dead can be traced back to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, they were appalled by the seemingly pagan practices of the indigenous people and tried to convert them to Catholicism.
Originally celebrated in the summer, the two-month-long festival was moved to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day on November 1 and 2, but Día de los Muertos refused to die. Today, it’s still celebrated in Mexico and becoming increasingly popular in the United States as a way to keep culture and traditions alive.
Part of what we see in Coco is Mexican families creating ofrendas, or altars, to honor the dead with symbolic items like marigolds, sugar skulls and papel picado, intricately designed perforated paper banners, representing wind and the fragility of life. Some include candles and foods like a stack of corn tortillas or pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, that’s baked with bone-shaped designs on the crust. Pictures are prominently displayed on the top tiers of the altars.
At the end of the movie, Héctor helps Miguel unlock the real story behind his family’s history and traditions, and a new face appears on his family’s ofrenda—the face of his great-great-grandfather.
You hold the key to your life stories. Don’t let your memories disappear. Start sharing them today.
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /courtesy of Everett Collection