Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t yet seen Coco and don’t want to read about some of the plot twists before you do, stop reading, go watch, and come back! At the time this post was written, Coco was available on Netflix and Amazon Video.
With Halloween and Dia de los Muertos upon us, it seemed like a good time to have a metaphysical look at Disney Pixar’s animated feature Coco, which is chock full of metaphysical life lessons and plain old entertainment value.
As with most Pixar films, there are multiple lenses through which we can watch. The surface-level story is entertaining enough. And when we peel back the layers, we can see how the tale provides deeper insights for our own lives.
Here are the three metaphysical insights woven through the storyline that struck me the most.
It’s easy to forget who we are because of the stories we make up about whatever we are or aren’t experiencing in life.
The Rivera family story starts out innocently enough. Mama Imelda wanted to move on after her husband left to pursue his music. She started the family shoe business as a way to take care of herself and her baby.
“Mama Imelda banished all music from her life” because, as Miguel narrates at the beginning of the film, “music had torn her family apart, but shoes held them all together.”
Over time the original hurt blew up into something much bigger. Ultimately, Mama Imelda’s story defined five generations of the family and how they interacted with the world around them.
In the Rivera family mythology, Miguel’s great-great grandfather’s music was a curse. They carried that curse into the family despite the fact that most had not experienced the “story” directly. For better or worse, the story defined them and how they engaged with the world around them. That can easily happen when we take on the stories of others as our own.
Successive generations took Mama Imelda’s story and ran with it. In fact, Miguel’s abuelita elevated the hate of music to an art form! The family lore became completely ingrained as fact without anyone realizing that the entire story was based on beliefs and assumptions that, as we ultimately learn, had no basis in the actual unfolding of events.
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The Rivera family defined themselves in two ways – what they do for a living (“a Rivera is a shoemaker through and through”) and what they hated, music. These two things very clearly define the lives of multiple generations of the family.
We often get so attached to our stories that we don’t question them. No one in the family ever seemed to question the Rivera family story about music or being cobblers until Miguel. It was in questioning the story and following the path of answers as they unfolded that the ultimate truth of Miguel’s family history was revealed in the film.
Miguel’s love of music drove his insistence in looking at things in a new way. And this was what helped his family to unravel and ultimately demolish their collective story. That opened the door for the whole family to shift and experience things differently.
Each member of the family believed they knew about Hector, who turns out to be Miguel’s great-great grandfather. Ultimately, all of the assumptions they made, their beliefs about music and what had “torn their family apart” ended up just being made-up stories that they had collectively clung to for years.
Miguel’s refusal to adopt either of the family’s stories allowed the fiction of the old story to be revealed.
In borrowing Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitar, Miguel is “cursed” and ends up in the Land of the Dead. There he’s told that “the way to undo a family curse is to get your family’s blessing.”
Unfortunately, Mama Imelda continued to cling to her story even after transitioning to the Land of the Dead. She was even willing to allow Miguel to permanently remain in the Land of the Dead after he ended up there if he wouldn’t abide by her command to never play music again. “You go home my way or no way,” she tells Miguel. Some might call that irrational! And that’s what holding on to our stories so fiercely can do.
When he later learns that Mama Imelda actually loved music, Miguel is understandably surprised. No one knew! She shut down that aspect of herself – something she had previously loved – after creating her story about her husband.
How often do we carry family, community, national or international stories that did not directly impact us into our lives? We attach meaning based on the “family story,” how it was explained to us, what was emphasized, how we believe events unfolded. By refusing to consider other possibilities, we carry the wounds of the past into the present.
How are you defining yourself? By who and what you’re for? By who and what you’re against? By what you do? Are you willing to see things differently?
“One cannot deny who one is meant to be.”
~Ernesto de la Cruz
Early in the film, our hero Miguel says “I know I’m not supposed to love music. But it’s not my fault!”
Miguel has this innate urge that is part of who he is. He tries, and is unable, to stifle it despite the efforts of his family to bring him into the fold of music haters. Even though it flew in the face of everything that he had been told his entire life, Miguel had a strong understanding of what he was passionate about.
Despite the ups and down, Miguel’s pursuit of his music dream ultimately opened up a whole new way of being for not only for Miguel but for his whole family as well.
We feel discomfort when we try to stifle that which is innate in us, that is part of the core of who we are. This discomfort is the genesis of Miguel’s story. He wants to play music more than anything else. And he hides it from his family because he knows they won’t understand. It is his pursuit of this passion that creates the opportunity for his family to move beyond their story.
One of the wonderful things about how the story unfolded was that Miguel didn’t need to figure out his whole path before deciding he wanted to pursue music. He just needed the spark of an idea to identify his next step. One idea led to another to another, and he simply followed the trail of breadcrumbs. He didn’t try to look far down the path to figure out the whats, whys, and potential negatives if he took a step. He followed inspiration (in Spirit) where it led, and this is what enabled his entire adventure.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is the Land of the (so-called) Dead because it is so full of Life! The movie’s creators cleverly depict that Life continues in a new and different way after what we call death. We may not look the same, and our beingness continues.
This depiction hints at the spiritual fact of our immortality and eternality. While folks in the Land of the Living can no longer directly experience the physicality of those who moved on to the Land of the Dead, they live on in the awareness of their loved ones and through the stories that are told about them. That is one of the key themes of Dia de los Muertos, as explained in the film.
We often make up stories that death must be bad because we don’t know what happens after it. We may have cultural or religious traditions that tell us, but most people don’t have direct, first-hand knowledge except for those folks who have had near death experiences. From what I’ve read, the experience for those individuals is generally an overwhelmingly positive one.
Even with what they call the “final death” in the film – no one knows where they go – they don’t make up a story about it. We don’t know what’s beyond the Land of the Dead, and we don’t have to assume that it’s bad.
So what’s your story? And why are you sticking to it?
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