Understanding Mexican Nationalism and Mestizaje Through the Film COCO

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following essay was originally published on the author’s blog: eranarruna.com. We asked permission to republish it here, and Eren was kind enough to say yes. 

By Eren Cervantes-Altamirano

CW: Spoilers and conversation on Coco’s film.

Coco is the latest, and perhaps one of the most celebrated, Pixar movies among Latinxs. In Coco, Miguel, a Mexican brown kid,  in some northern town (based in Guanajuato), strives to pursue his love of music despite the family matriarch’s life-long ban on music. The matriarch’s hate of music stems from the fact that her daughter’s father, a musician, walked out on her while  their daughter was a child (we later learn this was not intentional) to pursue his music career.

In an attempt to participate in a music talent show, and after his grandmother breaks his guitar and bans him from entering the contest, he steals a guitar from a mausoleum that belongs to Ernesto de la Cruz, a famous singer. Based on an old picture bearing a family mystery, Miguel believes de la Cruz is a family member, who can somehow help him in pursuing his dream from beyond the grave. Stealing from the dead on the Day of the Dead, however, triggers a curse that takes Miguel to the realm of the dead, where he completes a quest with the goal of returning to the realm of the living while learning the value of family and remembrance of the dead.

Its colorful scheme and melancholic use of family narratives, including family matriarchs and absent fathers (all too common to many Mexicans), immerse in the all-familiar Spanglish of the Mexican diaspora and Mexicans with hyphenated identities living abroad, evoke a level of familiarity to the viewers. The use of figures like Pedro InfanteJorge NegreteMaría FélixFrida Kahlo and El Santo, further connect Mexicans to the golden age of Mexican cinema and the 20th century’s peak of Mexican nationalism.

But there is a key element missing from the film. Where are the Indigenous peoples?

For those who are unfamiliar with Mexican history, Mexico gained its independence in the 1800s through a movement that primarily benefited criollos (children of Spanish colonizers born in Mexico). Eventually, mestizos (people who assume a “mixed race” identity, while highlighting their European descent) also acquired quite a bit social, political and economic power  in an attempt to build what would eventually become mainstream “Mexican identity.”  It did not matter that the war of independence was primarily fought, on the ground, by Indigenous and Black peoples. Moreover, post-independence, the nation-building process in Mexico required some deep erasure of Indigenous and Black communities to highlight some sense of “unity” in a place  where hundreds of years of colonialism, caste systems, gendered violence, capitalism, white supremacy and imperialism, had left a very deep mark.

It was then that mestizaje became the official State policy, along with its main racial, cultural, religious and political underpinnings. Today mestizos acknowledge themselves as the children of Spanish colonizers and Indigenous (mostly Aztec) peoples. What is interesting is that often, in this identity, the Spanish (or French, British, German, etc.) identity is evergreen, while the connection to the Indigenous exists though a precarious link to the relics of the past.

Indians are  those who are dead; who left their legacy, but did not make it post-colonization. Ironically, Mexico has one of the largest Indigenous populations across the continent. Indigenous peoples in Mexico face some of the same challenges that Indigenous peoples in Canada and the US do: they tend to be poorer, have less access to rights, and be way more vulnerable to State-sanctioned violence than most mestizos or white people in the country.

To talk about Indigeneity is not to talk about a particular race. Brown Indigenous peoples exist. Afro-Indigenous peoples are a thing. And Indigenous peoples with light skin-privilege confuse the hell out of white people and ignorant observers. However, part of the challenge that we face as Indigenous communities is that for the past 500 years, it has been the State that has taken the role of defining us. In Mexico, for instance, we have gone through a number of policies and definitions based on skin color, language,  region, level of education, etc. But until this day, Indigenous peoples do not get to define themselves in mainstream policy and legal documents and processes.

It is in this context that Coco becomes relevant. I read overwhelmingly positive reviews of the film (herehere and here).  People celebrated the fact that Mexicans and Chicanos were involved in the project; that the filmmakers “researched” Day of the Dead traditions carefully (although, in my view, that should be a requirement, rather than a “nice to have”); that the story was relatable; and that Mexican audiences seemed to eat it up. But above all, people celebrated representation. No previous movie, not even The Book of Life, apparently, had ever been overly concerned with accurately representing “Mexican culture,” or any Latinx culture for that matter.

But I, as an Indigenous person born and raised in Mexico, did not feel represented. In fact, I saw, right in front of my eyes, the ways in which cultural appropriation is normalized, curated and celebrated. I also saw how the Day of the Dead was stripped from its roots to accommodate the sensibilities of mestizos and white Latinxs. Not only have Mexicans largely accepted Pixar owning rights to Day of the Dead-related narratives (and capitalizing on them!), but they have further reminded Indigenous peoples that Latinx representation in the media only matters when it comes to mestizo and white Latinxs.

I watched the film with my mom, and we would occasionally look at each other not knowing exactly what to say or how to react. In other occasions, we simply rolled our eyes. Nowhere in the film are Indigenous peoples mentioned or shown, and I am sorry to tell you, but without Indians, you wouldn’t have the Day of the Dead.

The only Indigenous imagery used in the film is in realm of the dead. I am not sure if it was by accident, or as a way of regurgitating the narrative of the “extinct Indian,” but in the movie, the city in the realm of the dead is built on top of Indigenous pyramids (way to allude to how the Spanish built colonial cities!). Further, we see a few “Aztec dancers” at Ernesto de la Cruz’s party. Those particular images made me cringe. Contemporary “Aztec dancers” are often associated not with Indigenous peoples themselves, but with mestizos playing “Indian” to “reconnect” with their “Indian past.” Once more, glorifying cultural appropriation and stereotypes.

Aside from these, the film is filled with Northern-Mexican references like mariachi, puffy dresses from like the 1940s (*eye roll* no one dresses like that anymore), women dancing the Jarabe Tapatío, and numerous women skeletons wearing mantillas and combs, Spanish style! And when the film isn’t celebrating mestizo and white Mexican cultures, it is celebrating images that are, for some Indigenous peoples, quite problematic. Frida Kahlo makes appearances here and there in a Tehuana dress (my Southern community’s traditional dress), unquestioned. María Félix’s alike sings “La Llorona,” although the real-life Félix was a northerner who  would, on occasion, also be photographed in Tehuana attire without acknowledgements to my community. All of this, without recognizing that much of Northern Mexico has adopted quite a closeness to whiteness and political, social and religious conservatism that gets expressed in  regional dynamics of discrimination. The white, rich, hyper-Catholic, European North has always discriminated against the Indigenous, poor, heretic, South. It is no surprise, then, that much of Mexico’s wealth is concentrated in the North, while the South remains poor(er).

In addition to this, classism permeates the film, in somehow shocking ways. The realm of the dead, for example, is obvious in this regard. Any notion of egalitarianism once one dies, is erased in the  film when the dead are presented as rich, poor, famous or neglected.This does not only contravene much of the cosmologies of some Indigenous communities in Mexico, but it also goes against Mexican Catholic understandings of heaven and equality. What we are getting, in fact, is a capitalist and State-centered interpretation of death.  And because classism cannot systemically survive without the State and the presence of police, Coco presents imagery of the dead having to go through an immigration-like process and a border, in order to cross to the realm of the living. The pictures in the ofrenda become the dead’s passport, so to be forgotten, is not only to be poor and immobile, but to also eventually disappear from existence all together.

Classism and narratives of mestizaje also collide in the film’s depiction of the realm of the dead. Figures like Pedro Infante, Frida Kahlo, Dolores del RíoAgustín Lara and Diego Rivera appear in a variety of frames. The characters chosen are largely northerners, rich and mestizo, except for Emiliano Zapata, who makes a brief appearance. But above that, most of the real-life characters alluded to, greatly benefited from being male (Infante, Rivera, Lara),  rich (Infante, Kahlo, Lara, Rivera, del Río), white or white-passing (Infante, Kahlo, Félix and del Río), of direct European descent (Kahlo and del Río), and with strong ties  to the State (Kahlo and Rivera). Whereas in real life Kahlo, for instance, is praised as a queer feminist and a disability activist (and rightfully so), access to the work that she did was guaranteed through her class, her German ancestry and her marriage to one of the most recognized nation-builders in Mexico: Diego Rivera.

Rivera and Kahlo were  socialists and left-wing intellectuals who did great things for mestizos by emphasizing access to education, rights for (some) women, notions of equality and the importance of the arts; however, much of their project relied on the erasure and assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Rivera’s art, for instance, uses Indigenous bodies and imagery of colonization to tell the story of Mexico through the romanticization of violence, colonialism and the mestizaje project. In his narratives, Indians are the past and mestizos are the future. This is not surprising. At the time, the Mexican State emphasized the need for the Indians to stop worrying about their lands and collective rights, and get on board  with the national project that required  them to stop being “underdeveloped,” forget  their language, and become “productive members of society.”

The imagery of Kahlo is important because it is not only used in Coco, but widely utilized in other mediums and promoted by Mexicans themselves. Whereas Indigenous women are often treated as “savage” and “underdeveloped” in Mexico for wearing their traditional attires, Kahlo is celebrated domestically and abroad for her “style,” because her class and whiteness give her such a “right.” As Binnizá women, my mother and I rolled our eyes every time Kahlo made an appearance in the film, when Tehuana outfits were presented without acknowledgement to our Indigenous community, and when the family’s matriarch in the film sings La Llorona. It was not enough to erase Indians from the film…  they also had to appropriate anything remotely colorful to build a mosaic of Mexican nationalism without worrying about its underpinnings.

So why has Coco been so successful? Because as Mexicans, diaspora or otherwise, we are incredibly uncritical of the ways in which we exercise our national identity, which relies on State-sanctioned cultural appropriation. We are the kind of nationalists that call upon a lost Spanish great-great-great-great grandfather, while negating any closeness to Indigeneity or Blackness, other than in pretty clothing and some random Aztec myth. We still talk about “our Indigenous peoples,” as if we owned them,  while maintaining them in poverty, at risk of violence and at the margins of society. We remain classist… and since race and class intersect, we appeal to whiteness. Hence, we want to feel recognized by whiteness. It did not matter than Coco did a horrible job of actually explaining the Day of the Dead, we feel special because “representation matters.” Yet, we never wonder, whose representation?

***

Eren Cervantes-Altamirano is a Binnizá woman. She is currently Editor-in-Chief of Muslimah Media Watch, where she has been blogging for about six years. Her work has also been published in  Love InshAllahIshqr,  Aquila Stylethe TempestThe Feminist WireTIMERacialicious and Altmuslimah, among others. You can follow Eren on Twitter @ErenArruna.

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