The great Mexican actress, Maria Felix, once said that beauty is found in the soles of the feet. This declaration said as much about her idea of independence as it did about physical attributes – that beauty comes from personal strength, that women must claim the agency of their own beauty, and the world must acknowledge not only a woman’s agency, but also its cadence. If there is a surprising characteristic (to American audiences) of women’s roles in the classic cinema of Mexico’s “Siglo de Oro” it is this: beauty and independence, grace and intelligence, go hand in hand. A women’s role is in her brain.
Within this context it’s not surprising American film critics have not yet illuminated the “feminismo”in Coco, Pixar’s new animated feature: its portrayal of women as independent thinkers, as capable entrepreneurs and nurturers, and of subverting the macho stereotype of Latin romance. In Coco, girl meets boy, girl starts a business, girl provides for the family.
The 19th animated feature produced by Pixar, Coco is directed by Lee Unkrich, co-directed by Adrian Molina and produced by Darla Anderson. The film is set in Mexico during Dia de Muertos, Mexico’s family celebration of remembrance for those we have lost, and tells the story of Miguel, a young boy whose dream of becoming a musician takes him on a journey into the Land of the Dead. Here he meets his ancestors, including Mamá Imelda, the matriarch who fashioned his family’s future from a plot twist I won’t reveal except to say this: their conjoined path is worthy of the beautiful labyrinth of solitude in which they discover each other. Indeed, if Miguel represents the vitality of hope in Coco’s story, Imelda illuminates our capacity to remember that hope heals as well as inspires. And the film’s mechanism which reveals the durable elasticity of hope’s desire is tried and true – a serenade.
The custom of engaging romance by serenade is not a trope in Mexico. It’s beloved, ubiquitous and effective. And while Mexican film idols such as Pedro Infante, Javier Solis and Jorge Negrete established this musical emblem in the zeitgeist of Mexican culture, artists such as Lucha Reyes, Tonya la Negra and Lola Beltran more than matched their allure and vocal power. This legacy is not merely evident in Coco, it is celebrated with serenade scenes so inspired and so quintessentially Mexican in feeling and ingenuity one imagines Octavio Paz writing an essay about it.
Two scenes critical to the film’s understanding of memory and meaning advance Coco’s story by serenade. And the song we hear contains two essential elements in Mexican music – nostalgia and yearning: the song is not a romantic ballad – it is ”La Llorona.” And the singer is not a man serenading his future love. The singer is a woman – Mamá Imelda – and she is serenading Miguel and her family with the memory of love lost and family re-claimed.
Those familiar with Mexican music may know “La Llorona” from the version made famous by Chavela Vargas. “La Llorona” (the crying woman) refers to a Mexican folk legend which has been re-told and re-imagined from many different points of view. The “basic” story tells about a woman who was jilted by her lover and kills their two children in revenge. To punish her for this act, the gods will not allow her to pass over to “mictlán,” the land of the dead. So she wanders the earth in perpetual sorrow, seeking the children she killed.
Other versions tell the story of a real woman nicknamed “La Malinche” who became the lover of Hernán Cortes and killed the children she had by him as a sacrifice to the gods so they could be transformed into spirit guides. And Chicana feminists have embraced another interpretation to counter the idea that women, without men, are dangerous. In these revisions La Llorona is not wailing — she is calling out to all women to embrace their agency, to use their own voice to defend themselves, and speak out for independence. In any event, the song is one of the first symbols in Mexican culture for a very deep and intense sense of feminine identity. In Coco, Imelda’s reverie at once reclaims the memory of young love, the pain of betrayal and the joy of forgiveness.
Coco is already claiming many firsts – the first Hollywood movie with a 100% Mexican/Latinx cast; the first film to invent new animation software depicting the human skeleton, and the first to open in Mexico to what can only be described as historic applause. As of this writing, it is the largest grossing film released there in Mexican history. Which begs the question – if Mexicans see themselves in this world of magical realism, where women are independent and men love them for it, why can’t Americans see these things and ask, finally, why not?
For real life examples, we might turn again to “La Doña” – Maria Felix, a woman whose beauty was outmatched only by her intelligence and sense of humor, or Adelita, the legendary warrior of the Mexican Revolution, or Maria Grever, the Mexican composer whose oeuvre forms a central part of the American songbook. Or, finally and to begin with, La Malinche, the Nahua woman given away as a slave by her mother, adopted by Spanish settlers as a child and who became the partner of Hernán Cortez in life, if not in love. Depending on the source, she is the mother of modern Mexico or a traitor. By all accounts she was a woman caught between cultures, forced to make complex decisions, who ultimately served as a mother of a new race. Or we might turn to Natalia Lafourcade’s modern homage to Mexican composer Augustín Lara. Her acclaimed album, “Mujer Divina,” is a joy-filled 180 on the notion of who gives and who receives the Romanticism of romance.
These women are not outliers. They represent the backbone of Mexican society – the strong woman who speaks with liveliness, who intuitively understands the meaning which underpins society. She is pragmatic about the value of beauty and the stations of her cross. The matriarchs of Coco walk in their footsteps, leading their families with a combination of entrepreneurial ingenuity, an artist’s passion and a mother’s love. Miguel’s dreams are anchored by their reality and made free by their capacity for memory. Theirs then, is a magical feminism: one which understands that generosity without memory is impoverished and a memory shared makes the intangible, tangible.