Honors program celebrates Hispanic representation through Disney’s ‘Coco’

by Aero Cavalier / Staff Reporter

by Aidan McGinty / Staff Reporter

Students gather together for a showing of the film, “Coco,” an event put on by the honors program. Photo by Karina Aguilar.

On Dia de los Muertos (or the Day of the Dead in English,) the Roosevelt University Honors Program hosted a screening of Disney’s 2017 hit film Coco. Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, this movie fits this year’s Honors Program’s theme, “Living and Dying.” The screening was attended by several students, and after the film there was a discussion facilitated by Dr. Larry Howe, professor of English and film studies. 

Dia de los Muertos is Mexican holiday in which the spirits of lost loved ones can be remembered for three days to return and celebrate with their families. The holiday is celebrated from Oct. 31 to Nov. 1. Many of the honors students who attended the celebration said they were not very familiar with Dia de los Muertos, and “Coco” helped teach them about what it meant.

“For me it was enlightening,” said freshman Grace Hohn. “I don’t know if it’s how [Mexican people] want the holiday to be portrayed, but if it is, I feel like I have more knowledge about the culture.”

There was a sense of concern amongst students throughout the discussion as to what degree “Coco” was a good representation of Dia de los Muertos and of greater Mexican culture in general. “There’s a degree to which any kind of representation in trying to be authentic runs the risk of overly generalizing where it starts to look like [it’s] performed,” said professor Larry Howe.

Sarah Maria Rutter, the assistant director of Roosevelt’s Honors program, posed her own question regarding representation within “Coco.” 

“Is this a movie about Mexican culture, or is it someone’s interpretation of an event that happens within that culture?” Rutter asked.

A still shot from “Coco” of the main character, Miguel. Photo courtesy of Haute D’ Vie.

Disney and Pixar have historically made genuine attempts at showcasing other cultures, though they have occasionally been met with some backlash. For example, Disney’s 1998 film “Mulan,” directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, has become perceived by many as an offensive and over-generalized representation of gender roles in China. However, some of the students at the discussion expressed their appreciation of the steps that Disney and Pixar studios made towards accurate representation in “Coco.”

“Since it’s Disney and Pixar, no matter what they produce, there are going to be people who are watching it,” said freshman psychology major Taylor Novotny. “So I feel like the fact that they are producing more minority-based content is a step in the right direction.” 

One of the directors of the film, Adrian Molina, is of Mexican descent. Additionally, many of the animators behind “Coco” were of Hispanic heritage, and the entire cast was comprised of Hispanic actors. In a study conducted by the University of Southern California earlier this year, it was found that Latinx actors only made up three percent of lead and co-lead roles in the top 100 grossing films each year from 2007 to 2018. The same percentage was found for producers and casting directors, with the latter only faring slightly better, making up four percent.

“Coco’s” attempt at representation was well received by the public and ended up grossing over $800 million. The film was also nominated for and won many awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film and nomination for Best Original Song. The film also led the 45th annual Annie Awards for the most amount of nominations. It still holds a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.4 out of 10 rating on IMDb.

“Coco” attempts to portray mature concepts like death and the afterlife that are not usually discussed in children’s films. Because it is a traditionally difficult subject matter to explain, Pixar straddled the line between respect for the holiday and making an entertaining movie for kids.  In the end, the directors decided it wasn’t a bad thing to feel the feelings associated with death.

In an interview about “Coco,” director Lee Unkrich related concerns about the subject matter to his earlier film “Toy Story 3.”

“Some folks told me ‘Toy Story 3’ was too intense on kids, but I think what was happening is that their kids are feeling strong emotions and parents naturally want to protect them from having those feelings.”

Photo courtesy of YouTube.

In addition to the screening of “Coco,” an altar was set up by Residence Life in celebration of Dia de los Muertos on the 14th floor of the Wabash building. In Mexican culture, altars such as this one are a traditional way to observe the holiday and serve as a welcoming gesture for the spirits of lost loved ones to come and celebrate with their living relatives. Starting over 3,000 years ago in Aztec culture, the tradition has merged with Christian rituals as well, according to an azcentral.com article titled “Day of the Dead history.” 

After a white cloth is spread on the altar, food, water, salt, pictures of the deceased loved ones, and often religious memorabilia such as crucifixes are placed upon it. Often, incense is burned on it as well. The house or room the altar is placed inside must be thoroughly cleaned. According to an article from inside-mexico.com titled “The Day of the Dead Ofrenda,” this is to appease the “guests” that the altar is for. 

“When I was growing up, it seemed like nobody ever spoke about the Day of the Dead,” says Jules Gallizo, a Mexican-American student at Roosevelt. “It’s very empowering, knowing that our culture is being appreciated.”

All students are welcomed and encouraged to add their own family photos and ofrendas to the altar, along with a small written note about their lost loved one.

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