Pixar’s ‘Coco’ Can’t Erase Disney’s Racist Past, But It Hits All The Right Notes

My earliest memories of Disney, the global entertainment giant, don’t include meeting Mickey Mouse in front of the enchanted castle at Disneyland. We were a family of seven on a fixed income getting free lunch; so, in other words, poor. And Disneyland, through its price gouging and $10 churros, is practically designed to keep out the poors.

No, my first brush with Disney was my 65-year-old babysitter, Ms. Billie. She had a deep, slightly-unintelligible south Texas accent that sometimes sounded more like drunken Cockney, a drawl that could become so high-pitched that it sounded like a Honda CRX peeling out in the wee hours of the night. Its ear-piercing qualities would often awaken me during my post-lunch naps.

Ms. Billie was in possession of two VHS tapes on constant loop for all the children she tended to — the racist Song of the South, and the slightly less racist but still hella racist Three Caballeros. Song of the South isn’t available for streaming or download — heck, these days you can’t get the damn thing anywhere — because of how racist it actually is: it’s about a newly-freed slave singing plantation songs to cigar smoking cartoon crows and live-action white children. Blending animation with live-action made it a technical marvel when it was released in 1946, but it also included a story about trapping a rabbit using a Tar Baby. A Tar Baby! WTF.

Then there’s The Three Caballeros. The 1945 film follows the exploits of a sombrero clad Donald Duck drinking his way through Mexico, Central and South America with a Brazilian parrot and Mexican fighting rooster named Panchito Pistoles. Panchito’s accent is exaggerated and he’s fond of Mexican firearms — which aren’t even the movie’s most-offensive elements; there’s also Donald Duck getting shitfaced on tequila and dancing to “La Cucaracha.” This film hit me particularly hard because it was my first experience with Mexican representation in English speaking media. Also, one day, Ms. Billie pointed to the red-feathered Panchito on the cover of the VHS box and said: “That one looks like yeer daddy An-Toe-Knee-Yo.”

So, let’s be real: Disney’s track record with racial sensitivity has not been good.

With their new Pixar movie Coco, the house of the mouse once again sets their sights on Latin America. And though they’ve corralled an all-star cast of Latinx voice actors dead set on shining a positive light on the people of Mexico — as well as the rich art, spirituality, music and culture behind Dia de los Muertos — their timing probably couldn’t be worse. The political climate in the United States is tense, and with systemic attacks on Latinos via ICE raids and questions about the border wall, many people, including myself, wondered whether Pixar could pull off their latest ofrenda. Because thick fake accents and animated characters two-stepping around a flaming sombrero doesn’t go over well with the demographic now feeling the angry thrust of America’s racist dick.

Coco tells the story of Miguel, a young boy who wants to be a musician like his boyhood idol Ernesto De La Cruz. The problem is that he comes from a long line of Zapateros (shoemakers), who have banned music because they are in fact bitch made haters. For Mexican kids, the story hits home because we’re taught from an early age that careers in arts and music aren’t practical, so it will certainly appeal to every Soundcloud rapper holed up in Florida twisting their neon colored dreads yelling “fuck you mom I’m gonna be a star gang gang skrt skrt.”

While young Miguel isn’t selling Soundcloud reposts or committing domestic violence, he does manage to break into De La Cruz’s grave and swipe his legendary guitar. It transports him to the land of the dead where he meets his dead family members. For me, this is where the acid really kicked in — I damn near got sensory overload when the colors of the film went into hyper drive. As far as capturing the important of culture in Mexican culture, I’ll say: Pixar hit a goddamned home run. And the influence of legendary folk artist Pedro Linares shines bright when Miguel visits the land of the dead and encounters Linares famous Alebrijes, the mystical, technicolor creatures made of papier-mâché and decorated in the neon and fluorescent tones of Mexico’s Oaxaca region.

Like Steph Curry shooting the 3-ball, jaw-dropping visuals are Pixar’s forte — where Coco strikes a chord though is in how it captures the unique cultural nuances of growing up in a Mexican-American household. The most obvious example is Dia De Los Muertos, the holiday in which we honor the memories of deceased loved ones through gravesite and alter offerings. The holiday remembrance creates a bridge between the spirit world and the living and is indicative of the deep spirituality and mysticism embedded in traditional Mexican culture. In the movie, young Miguel is seemingly disinterested in observing the holiday, and thus disinterested in his own family’s history; he only cares about music.

The narrative hit very close to home. I, too, was a bratty ass teen that felt a disconnect between family tradition and my selfish, youthful desire. Growing older, you realize you don’t know shit about anything, that these traditions and customs are actually very important. Best believe my deceased abuelo Tito’s altar got blessed with a bottle of mescal, a Tin Tan DVD, a deck of cards to gamble with and a pack of condoms to womanize to his heart’s content.

Another instance of cultural and generational conflict is Miguel’s desire to go against the will of his family and be a musician. In the Latinx home, there are constant paternal forces pushing the children towards college and the workforce, with an emphasis on making as much guap as possible so that they might take care of the parents in their older age. Truthfully, it’s a crock of shit; most of it, at least. You should take care of your parents, but the notion that there’s only one path to success and that the arts are waste of time is bullshit. Miguel is the Mexican rebel in all of us, who choses to buck tradition despite being beaten in the head by his grandmother and the chancla of practicality.

Despite Disney being an imperialist force of evil dead set on enslaving humanity in order make their perfect rendition of “It’s a Small World,” Coco does a brilliant job of highlighting Mexico’s beautiful folklore, its magic and music without feeling exploitative or offensive. There are plenty surprise cameos and moments that will reduce you to a fetal position, crying your eyes out, and not because you’re so sad about how Disney did your people.  


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