Miguel talks to his grandmother in front of the ofrenda in the recent Pixar release Coco.

Courtesy of Pixar

Miguel talks to his grandmother in front of the ofrenda in the recent Pixar release Coco.

January 23, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Films About Mexico Should Stop Focusing on Día de los Muertos and Drugs

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When I first saw an ad for Coco, I felt hopeful. There aren’t very many movies about Mexican people, especially not children and family movies. However, once I watched the trailer, I was massively disappointed. It seems that time and time again, movies that revolve around Mexicans are about either Día de los Muertos or drugs. I get it. Día de los Muertos is cool and “exotic,” but it definitely isn’t the most meaningful, representative thing about Mexico. I also understand that drugs are possibly Mexico’s biggest problem, but why make that define a whole country? The film industry keeps trying to define Mexico based on either a meaningful, beautiful tradition or its unappealing, pressing drug issues. Believe it or not, us Mexican people do more than celebrate our dead and fight over drugs. It’s time more filmmakers delved into Mexican history and culture to paint a more accurate and less embarrassing Mexico.

Coco was a good movie. It won a Golden Globe and is now nominated for some Academy Awards. Even thought it was done so beautifully, the movie still followed the Día de los Muertos trend. Mexico can’t be molded and chopped to fit into a pretty, flashy box to be sold to audiences. Another mainstream movie, Traffic, revolves around drug crimes, yet it remains as one of the must-see Mexican movies. I was born and raised in Mexico and a large portion of my family still lives there, so I often visit. The drug war has impacted my family only in minor ways, and I have never been anywhere in Mexico in which Día de los Muertos is a big deal; to me it seems like a decaying tradition. All we do is buy pan de muerto (a traditional pastry for the occasion ) and put up an ofrenda (offering for our deceased relatives), or just light a candle next to a picture. My family does those things, so I suppose we “celebrate” it, but how does that compare to what filmmakers show everyone? To me, Día de los Muertos was taught more like a routine than the grand celebration it is often portrayed as.

If the decay of the Día de los Muertos traditions continue, what will be left for the film industry to romanticize? The answer lies in plain sight: Mexican people.

Yes, movies about Día de los Muertos (and drug cartels) are about Mexican people, but they’re fake Mexican people. Yes, movies are almost always unrealistic, but seeing something you can relate to on screen is worthwhile. For instance, in Coco, when Miguel is pushed to eat more tamales, I laughed because it was relatable and true. However, the rest of the movie felt like a shiny, far-off fantasy, and it was far less enjoyable. There are certain things that tie Mexican people together, but they can’t be learned by repeatedly displaying the same two tired themes year after year. For instance, homophobia is a big issue in Mexico because machismo is a huge part of Mexican culture, and  as a start more films could scrutinize this. Every Mexican state also has beautiful and unique traditions, such as the voladores de Papantla (Papantla flyers) in Veracruz, and I have not seen nearly enough of those in any mainstream film. The 2012 Mexican documentary, Hecho en Mexico, takes the audience on a musical journey throughout Mexico, which beautifully demonstrates the richness that the country has to offer. A film like this that isn’t a documentary that people might view as “boring” is what is needed now more than ever.

All it takes to start steering the film and entertainment industry in a new direction when it comes to Mexico is to watch and listen. Watch, listen and work with Mexican people who want their cultures shown in film. It’s time to get rid of the tiny box of exotic Mexican things when creating films and art, and instead look to the country’s heart — its people — and create something new and Oscar-worthy.

Viri Garcia is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at vgarcia@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.