When the Disney/Pixar movie Coco won Best Animated Feature at the 90th Academy Awards, co-director Lee Unkrich wrapped up his part of the acceptance speech with the following statement:
“With Coco, we tried to take a step forward toward a world where all children can grow up seeing characters in movies that look and talk and live like they do. Marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters.”
I’ve always believed that representation matters. I cheered when Rey picked up the lightsaber in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I love Jane the Virgin and its focus on Latinx themes. But my enthusiasm has always been a feeling of collective support and inclusion. I didn’t know it could really be a truly personal feeling until I saw Coco. That was the first time that I saw myself in art, and not something like me. I saw ME.
I’ve had to learn to code switch my whole life, before I knew there was a term for it, and even thought I’m not fluent in Spanish. My code is cultural. I’m relatively fair-skinned: half white and half Latina. At home, I learned to count to 100 in Spanish before I went into kindergarten. My nana, my maternal grandmother, was everyone’s boss. All of my cousins, the grandkids, were “mija” and “mijo” to every adult. Every Christmas movie that showed people eating turkey, not tamales, confused me until I was about ten years old. In fact, I convinced myself one year that Kevin McCallister had traveled back in time to Thanksgiving when he watches a family eat a turkey dinner in Home Alone. That was the only way I could make sense of what they were doing. I mean, that movie stretches the bounds of physical reality anyway (hi, an iron in the face is a serious injury) so time travel didn’t seem like that much of a stretch. And I have always loved mariachi music. My tata (what my family calls my grandfather) played guitar in a mariachi band. He used to make mixed tapes for my mom, my sister, and me. But when my friends at school would ask my what my favorite song was, I would never answer “Cielito Lindo” or “Zacundito Loco.” After learning that Kevin McCallister did not, in fact, time travel, I realized that some of the things my family did and liked were not the same as my friends’ families.
(Side note: if anyone can find me a mariachi version of “Zacundito Loco,” YOU WILL BE MY NEW BEST FRIEND. I can only find cumbia version now and it’s just not the same.)
My code has also been pop cultural, too, with a huge emphasis on Disney. My family wore out Disney soundtracks in the tape deck of our pick-up truck. We went to Disneyland at least once a year for over a decade. Half of my tattoos are Disney-themed. Obscure quotes from Disney movies are regular catchphrases for us to this day, like Flounder in The Little Mermaid saying “this is this and that is that,” and Pinocchio when he says “ok, Lampie.”
I’ve roped my husband into the Disney life, too. We broke the news that that I was pregnant with pictures of me making sad puppy faces and standing in front of Disneyland rides, pointing at safety disclaimers that said “expectant mothers should not ride.” You can mock me, but I have loved being in the audience for Disney over the years.
It may surprise you to learn that I only watched Coco about a month ago. It was the day before my birthday. My mom, my sister, and I made plans to watch it at my house. We had tried to get to the theater to see it together but between work, my new baby, and various caregiving schedules, it didn’t work out. We braced ourselves for an emotional experience: 1.) hello, it’s Pixar and 2.) one of the central ideas of the story is “remember me” and we’re all still trying to figure out how to function without my nana, who passed away a year and a half ago. So I was ready for the waterworks to hit at some point at the 60-70 minute mark of the movie. I didn’t expect them to start with the introductory logo. I was facing away from the TV holding my son, figuring I had another minute before the movie started, when I heard a peal of violins and a bouncing guitar. I looked over and saw the screen panning over the Disney castle paired with “When You Wish Upon a Star,” arranged as a mariachi song. And I lost it.
My codes had come together: two things that have meant so much to me for my entire life were existing in the same place and time, in an inescapable place and time. You can’t ignore the opening logo. It’s iconic. It’s in front of every movie. It’s the seal of Disney approval. And now it sounded like it was for me. The guitars, the violins, and the trumpets were playing a song everyone knows in a style that is an indelible part of my identity. I didn’t feel like just one more body in the vast Disney audience at that moment. In those thirty seconds, I felt like this thing, this Disney thing I have loved for so long finally said back to me “we see you, too.” It was a beautiful opening for a movie that was full of animated characters that looked and sounded like my family. Yes, Mr. Unkrich, representation does matter. It especially matters for children but it can still have wonderful and unexpected meaning for adults, too.