Alanna Ubach on the Power of Latina Matriarchs and Playing the Strong Mama Imelda in Pixar’s ‘Coco’

For anyone who was raised in a Latin household, we know who rules the home: la mamá

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Dulce Osuna

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Dulce Osuna

For anyone who was raised in a Latin household, we know who rules the home: la mamá. Yes, our culture is still fighting machismo, but we all also know that the very heart and soul of our families lie in our mamás and abuelas. The matriarch is the gatekeeper of our stories and our family history. She can discipline you with a simple raise of her eyebrow, make the best tamales of your life, and no one, not even your abuelo or papi, ever dares to contradict her. In Pixar’s Coco, the family matriarch, the key to finding Miguel’s link to his passion of music, is Mama Imelda, who has a few secrets of her own. Giving life to Mama Imelda is Alanna Ubach, who most would recognize from her roles as Elle Wood’s bestie, Serena in Legally Blonde, or most recently, as Jo, the bakery owning, tough talking, single mom in Lifetime’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce.

We got to sit down with Ubach, who recently became a mom herself, during a recent press day in Los Angeles to talk playing Mama Imelda, Latino culture and the importance of family.

How important was it for you to be part of Coco? And even more so, to play Mama Imelda?

To me, it’s a modern cultural masterpiece. When I was first asked to do this, I really didn’t have an idea of what it was about entirely, until finally I was … by the fourth session I was able to sort of piece together what the storyline was about. And to me, it was so important for Pixar to do a movie like this, because what it does is, it’s an homage. It is respect to one quality that all Latin families across the universe do have in common, and that is giving respect and prioritizing the importance of family.

I loved your character. She reminded me of every woman in my family. Who did you draw your inspiration from to create her?

That’s a wonderful question. When I was three and four, I remember my tía Flora was such a profound influence in my life, because to me she really did represent that matriarch of the family. She was my mother’s great-aunt and she would have her full face of make up on at eight o’clock in the morning. And she was very strong, and stubborn and very passionate, whether it was, “Come here and give me a kiss,” to, “Pass the potatoes.” Everything was a vibe. Everything was passionate, and she always demanded the attention in the room. She was the focal point of every Christmas dinner and Thanksgiving dinner, and baby shower that I ever grew up in. She demanded a lot of attention, and she was smart, and beautiful and stoic, and I’ll never forget Flora. And so this character is dedicated to her.

I thought it was a little bit interesting that, in Latino culture, we’re changing, we’re evolving, but it’s very based in machismo and the patriarchy. But, here is Mama Imelda, a very strong, opinionated woman. And I find this in a lot of Latino families, whether it’s the abuela, or it’s the mom, is the one that is basically the head of the family.

La matriarca! Absolutely. They are the ones with all the answers, they have birthed our children. They have birthed our aunts and our uncles and our cousins, and our moms and dads. And there seems to be this stoicism and this wisdom that can never be taken away. These are the women with the stories to tell. These are the women that sing the songs that we will sing to our children when they are born. And these are the women that really bring the magical fairy dust to the entire family. And remind us that family is something that can never be broken. No borders, no politics, no presidents can ever break the bonds of family.

We Latinos have a beautiful connection on how life and death go together, it’s just kind of natural for us. Can you talk about the meaning of representing that to children in a way that they understand both the tradition, and that it is part of life?

Oh, absolutely. It is a part of tradition and life because, when children see this beautiful view of the afterlife in this movie, they won’t be afraid of it. And what it does, is it reminds us that we have to respect and remember our late family members, because once we start forgetting the late family members we are denying our DNA. We are denying the very marrow of our existence. And why we do the things we do. There was a reason why this little boy had such an innate talent. It’s because it was in his marrow, and he didn’t even realize it.

Latino representation on film is kind of on the decline, and the stats get even worse for women of color. Can you talk a little bit about how you hope this film changes that?

Well, like I said, family is the DNA of this piece, and to be honest we’ve started to lose connection with that in the modern American climate. But early American political regimes were all about a newly American family, and now we’re almost breaking and dismantling that which is so important. I think what it also does is, is it gives such an exquisite, joyous and beautiful view of the afterlife that is rarely depicted in American films. And perhaps children that are unaware of what the afterlife means in this cultura, will now probably have a new outlook on death. And perhaps a beautiful view of death, just as beautiful as birth is.

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