‘Coco’ Sings the Ache for the Loyal and the Ambitious

***Spoilers for the movie the Pixar film, COCO. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, come back and check this out after you have.***

Sometimes seeing a reflection of yourself makes you feel like unearthing a picture of an ancestor. I imagine that this is why my sisters and I would watch Selena obsessively, why her wave — that specific finger-to-palm dance — still sticks so clearly in my mind. In Coco, Miguel Rivera obsessively watches footage of Ernesto de La Cruz, a famous long-dead singer, for similar reasons. He says he feels a connection to him that he can’t explain. Because his family has banned music for generations, he has to escape into a little attic, his guitar in tow, and sits with his shrine to the dead star. He mimics de La Cruz’s hand movements to get the sound just right. When de La Cruz says “You have to seize your moment,” Miguel, with his eyes pressed up against the screen, feeling something ancient, says, “you have to make it come true!”

Coco Meaning Family

This movie, with it’s colorful skeleton fingers, held up a mirror for us. It showed us our petty mothers, our moaning music, our piles of tamales. It also reminded us that we all have to die. As a child of immigrants in the United States and a poet, and someone who also one day has to die, I have a complicated relationship with the American Dream and “seizing” my moment. I think am constantly negotiating between living for myself and living for my family. I felt a kinship in this with Miguel, whose family fears he will choose his love for music over his love for them. In similar ways I have also grappled with this choice when I moved to New York to pursue an MFA in poetry at NYU. My mother and father must have also grappled with this before they left Guatemala and Colombia. What does seizing your moment mean when you have to leave people behind?

Coco, with all of it’s meditations on life, death, family, and culture, pushes back on American ideals of success. Miguel, in an attempt to “seize” his moment, runs away from his family and steals a guitar from the grave of Ernesto de La Cruz’s tomb. The film ultimately reveals the literal violence of “seizing” the moment when we find out that De La Cruz, Miguel’s hero, rose to fame by murdering his best friend, Hector, Miguel’s great-great grandfather, and stealing his music. It is not enough to take the moment and claim that it’s ours. We have to hold the moment the way Miguel does his little sister at the end of Coco, pointing to the moments that came before them on the mantle, surrounded by candles and flowers, smiling.

Defining Home and What It Means To Leave It

When characters in the movie repeatedly say “don’t forget about your family,” I couldn’t help but think of my own family, but also the poetry community I came up in, in Boston. It doesn’t just mean blood. It isn’t telling us that following your dreams equates leaving your family behind. To me, this meant creating art for your community as well as creating space and access for art within it.

House Slam was built on the idea of a poetry home. In this home, we knew there was no such thing as a safe space, but rather, a space that continuously strives to be better. House Slam believes in holding each other accountable, in only growing if others can grow beside us, in cultivating an environment that loves to win because it uplifts the community. This is something that goes against white, capitalist notions of “making it.” This is making art because it keeps us alive. Knowing all of these truths about House Slam made it even harder to leave Boston. And yet, I did.

In Coco’s penultimate scene, Miguel sings “Remember me” to his great-grandmother. If she remembers the song, then she remembers her father, Hector. If she remembers her father, then he won’t disappear forever and die the Last Death. Pixar, obviously, knows what the eff it’s doing with nostalgia. It turns Miguel’s obsession, once sung by an evil conniving super-star who he believed to be his grandfather. Into something we are all nostalgic for. Obviously, my sisters and I were in tears for this entire song. Most of the theater was. Maybe it was Miguelito’s voice, trying it’s best not to break or maybe we were thinking of our own Abuela, who said to us, very casually that same morning while sipping her coffee: “I have to die one day, you know.”

We All Know The Chorus

Miguel sings, “Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be,” and we are thinking of all the ways we must leave: to a new city, a country, a relationship, or from this life. The other night, at some gentrifying bar in Brooklyn, a few hundred miles away from my family, trying to justify why the hell I was in the place, someone asked me, “Don’t you think that if you ever saw your name in lights it would actually just give you an existential crisis?” My first thought was that if my name were ever in lights, I would call my mom and be all, “Mom, my name is in lights.” My second thought was that if it were ever in lights, there’s a good chance my name would be spelled wrong. Another night after a poetry show a young Latina came up to me and said she started to cry just because I said “Abuelita” on stage.

All this to say is that, actually, I’m always having an existential crisis. I am deeply afraid of being forgotten and that there’s some malicious Ernesto de La Cruz part of me that would stop at nothing to succeed. But then, I’m like, I dunno. The world is crumbling, one day we’re all gonna be dust. I just want my mom to be proud of me. I just want to see my name in lights because that means someone else, who maybe looks like me, can imagine their own name blinking back at them.

It will always be a challenge to all at once pursue your passions and provide homage to wherever it is you hail from. I’m of the belief of being selfish in an effective way: curling up in an attic for hours as Miguel does, cradling my obsessions. But maybe I’m never actually alone. Maybe there is something guiding me as I practice what I love.

“Remember Me”

I think of how JLO must havepracticed her Selena wave in the mirror. How she wanted to get it right because this was the role of a lifetime, but also because, hopefully, more than anything, she wanted to honor her. It is up to the artist to bring these stories into history and to create mirrors. I’m living in New York for myself to respect all that was sacrificed before me.

I write as much as I can. I read more than I write. I make a note to call my Abuelita. I listen to the Live from Astrodome version of “Como laFlor” before I go on stage. I practice because this is the privilege of living in the land of the living. I get to grow older. I get to be disappointed in my heroes. I get to fall in love with a song. This is how I honor everyone I love and have I loved. This is how I remember.

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