Pixar's new film about family, courage, and inner strength is a gorgeous celebration of Mexican tradition. And given the polarizing and disheartening political climate, it actually comes at the perfect time. A colorful new take on Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), Coco is a reflection of Mexican culture that is so rich in story and visuals, it provides a one-way ticket to the country (and, of course, the land of the dead). In fact, Coco star Gael Garcia Bernal says films, in general, have vastly improved in recent years by rejecting negative Mexican stereotypes altogether.
"In this time that we live in, there’s no room for those pejorative representations," says the 38-year-old, when we speak at the film's Los Angeles press junket. "There’s no room for that anymore. Nobody believes in that anymore. Through history, yes, there’s been many manifestations that have been very hurtful. The point is that now, we’re not pointing fingers. We’re not mentioning certain [films]." Whether because of the internet, strides in representation, or both, Bernal believes there's simply no room for negative film cliches about Latinos anymore. Because (hopefully) people know better.
Given the division happening in the U.S. right now, especially with regard to the Mexican border, it may come as a surprise that Bernal believes these negative stereotypes about Mexicans have significantly (if not completely) ceased to exist on screen in American film. "Well, we’re kind of done with that, in a way. No?" the actor confidently asks.
And while recent articles like The LA Times' "4 Latino Stereotypes in TV and Film That Need To Go" point out that a few more subtle ones like "the maid" and "the Spanish-only speaker" continue to linger, it does seem that overall Hollywood has made progress.
When it comes to Coco, Bernal says the film is more than a simple portrayal of Mexican culture. "[It's] a realization of a very Mexican movie, this is something I really value a lot," he says. "Being from another country, and doing a film about a place, a tradition about a place, and making it from that place — it’s a triumph. A triumph of the magic of cinema." (Later, during the film's press conference, Bernal beamed with pride, telling a group of reporters that "Mexico can give [Coco] to the world and the world can adopt [it].")
Coco centers a young boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), who accidentally ventures from Mexico to the Land of the Dead on Dia de los Muertos. Eager to fight against his family's ban on music, the aspiring musician learns about the generations before him (and himself) in his unexpected and moving journey.
For its part, Coco is made up of an all-Latino cast (which the creators say "was never even a choice" to have otherwise), and was heavily inspired by experience and research in cities like Morelia, Mexico, where the world premiere of the film also took place.
Taking these steps is imperative in making films like Coco as representative as possible, but while Bernal recognizes how much better American films are at representing Mexican culture accurately, he offers another step in the right direction: more Spanish speaking.
"In this film for example, there’s a lot of words in Spanish that comes up," he says. "Would be nice to see more Spanish speaking. That would be something [if the US version was in Spanish]."
And it would seem that Bernal knows the world outside of the movie theater isn't quite as caught up as the films he sees making progress. The Guadalajara, Mexico native has been vocal about the importance of this movie (out Nov. 22) being a beacon of hope for Latino kids in the era of Trump. "Kids are growing up with a lot of fear because the established narrative says that they come from families that come from rapists, murderers, and drug traffickers," he told Variety, making a clear reference to Trump's condemnable comments from early in his presidential run. "We are such a complex and profound culture, and these kids need to be empowered to stand up and say that what is being said about them is a complete lie."
Still, Bernal is hopeful from what he sees on screen: progress, fairness, and fewer hurtful representations. Contrary to the president's initiatives, the actor proudly states that "there is no barrier" between cultures when it comes to film, and that will only get better from here. "Now is a time when we’re demonstrating that we’re much more of an interdependent culture than we think," he says.
For Bernal, films like Coco feel like a triumph, and hopefully he'll have many more to be proud of in the future.