Monica Castillo is a writer, film critic, and the president of the National Association For Hispanic Journalists’ New York City chapter. She has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, Cherry Picks, and Remezcla. Her newsletter is “Save Your Ticket Stub.”
Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Monica Castillo about the movie that changed her life, Coco. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it — we’re gonna give you all the details you need to follow along.
[music: “Remember Me (Ernesto de la Cruz)” by Benjamin Bratt]
When I first learned about the Mexican holiday, El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, I was so envious that Mexicans had this tradition of remembrance — of remembering their ancestors and the family members who have long died and who still live on in their memories. And yet the Day of the Dead was something that I never really understood until I saw Coco, and saw the joy and celebration and the very lack of death in it.
[music: “Shrine and Dash” by Michael Giacchino]
Coco tells the story of a young Mexican boy named Miguel who loves music. And yet music is the one thing that his family has forbidden him from doing. From his great-great-grandmother to his great-grandmother to his grandmother to his mother, they’ve all told him “no, no, no Miguel, you cannot sing, you cannot play music. Music will not be heard in this house.” And it’s because his great-great-grandfather was a musician who left the family, and his name can’t even be spoken. No one talks about him, and so Miguel grows up with this feeling of loss.
[music: “Jálale (Instrumental)” by Mexican Institute of Sound]
Miguel secretly plays music and his family doesn’t know, so when he first learns about a contest that’s happening in his town around the Día de los Muertos celebrations, he decides he wants to enter it. And he tells his family and of course, they react negatively and forbid him from doing it. They even destroy his guitar, but he decides to perform anyway. So he steals one from the legendary musician, his hero, Ernesto De La Cruz, which hangs over Ernesto’s grave. What Miguel doesn’t know, though, is that by using this guitar, he’s going to be transported to a different realm, the Land of the Dead. And this is where his adventure begins.
[music: “Crossing the Marigold Bridge” by Michael Giacchino]
In order to get back to the land of the living, Miguel needs a blessing from his great-great-grandmother, Mama Imelda. And this blessing is hard to come by as she knows that the moment he goes back, he’s gonna want to play music again. The family has to learn how to accept Miguel, and in turn, Miguel has to learn how to forgive his family, even when it feels unfair.
[music: “Proud Corazón” by Anthony Gonzalez]
Holding onto grudges and family pain is something that I’m very familiar with and I think a lot of Latin Americans are as well. And that’s something that resonated with Monica Castillo. I think we all have family members that we don’t talk to — the aunt who doesn’t talk to the other aunt because she once said something 15 years ago — and we all carry those within our families. Monica really related to watching that in Coco: this idea that we must forgive — otherwise, we pass that along to future generations, and it affects the people we become.
Ms. Percy: Well, I’d love to take you back in time for a minute by asking you to close your eyes for about ten seconds, and I’ll just prompt you when it’s time to come back from this time travel, to think about the first time you saw Coco.
Monica Castillo: Oh, boy. This is real far back. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: I’d love for you to just close your eyes, think about where you were, who you were with, and how it made you feel. And I’ll just chime in when the ten seconds are up.
So what memories came up for you?
Ms. Castillo: It’s funny. When I was re-watching it, I also got a flashback to the first time I saw it. I saw it at a press screening, as many critics and reporters will do. A friend of mine brought me as her plus-one. And I remember my eyes welling up, actually, when the mariachi version of the Disney theme started.
Ms. Percy: Yes.
Ms. Castillo: That’s how — already — emotional I was. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Oh, yeah. That stands out to you from the beginning.
Ms. Castillo: From the very beginning.
Ms. Percy: You think, “This is not the typical” —
Ms. Castillo: One character hasn’t even spoken yet, and just the sign of Disney with mariachi music …
Ms. Percy: This is not your typical Disney movie.
Ms. Castillo: I’m like — I was taken. I was just so excited.
[music: Disney mariachi theme]
I also knew how rare this was. I’m a big Disney buff, as well. I grew up outside of Disney World. There’s no escaping Disney from central Florida. And I just knew that we didn’t have a lot of — maybe I couldn’t use the word “representation,” and I didn’t know how to exactly verbalize it, but I knew there was no one like my family in the Disney canon. And this one, it’s just, here we are in Mexico. It’s not an outsider’s perspective looking in; it is the perspective.
Ms. Percy: And it’s vibrant. It’s alive, and it’s joyous. I think that’s one of the first things that strikes me — as you mentioned, from the opening credits — is, this is not a stereotype.
Ms. Castillo: Right. I don’t feel, at any point, that we were the butt of the jokes, that this was also very welcoming, even though I’m not Mexican-American, and I’m not Mexican, but I could access and see commonalities. I could relate. The use of Spanglish in the movie feels very natural. It doesn’t — and I don’t know if you have this problem, but as someone who’s bilingual, so many movies will have the word in Spanish and then will translate it in English immediately afterwards. And I’m like, “So you just repeated yourself. That’s weird. That’s not how we use that.” [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Exactly. Nope. [laughs]
Ms. Castillo: So it was nice to see and watch a movie where they get that right. The characters are pronouncing things correctly. It doesn’t feel forced.
Ms. Percy: Well, and also that they’re casting actual Mexicans, [laughs] which…
Ms. Castillo: That helped a lot.
Ms. Percy: So outside of seeing this representation for the first time in a Disney movie, what else stood out for you? Were there — I don’t want to say “lessons,” necessarily, but something that really spoke to you as you were watching it that first time?
Ms. Castillo: Oh, yeah. The whole concept of “family comes first” — that’s not just a Mexican thing, and that’s certainly not just a Latin American thing. I think that goes across so many other cultures and is why a lot of people have been able to access and really hold onto this and cherish this movie. I moved away from my family in order to work and have a career and things like that, so the whole keeping those ties together, and even — I’m making an effort on my own to connect with cousins in Cuba and to keep those connections alive and well and trying to remember parts of my family history, because our grandparents may not always be there to tell us those stories. And we risk losing them if we forget them. So the whole “Remember me” and the whole intergenerational concept of that shared emotional trauma that gets passed down from generation to generation, and then this young Miguel steps up and says, “Wait. I want to remember my great-great-grandfather,” [laughs] even though, supposedly, this terrible thing had happened and he had left the family. And he’s like, “No, wait. All these other things have happened.” And then he goes on this adventure to, then, the afterlife, that then reveals that it wasn’t everything that he had been told. So also, not just holding onto the family that we have in the living, but also holding onto our ancestors and the sacrifices that they made to get us where we are today.
Ms. Percy: That really resonated with me, as well, the first time that I saw Coco, I went to see it with my friend Eddie, who’s Mexican-American. And he’s talked a lot about that, for him, the movie represents this idea that we need to be remembered in order to exist. And watching the movie, I started thinking about a lot of the things that you talked about just now, the grandparents that are in Colombia that I didn’t really know, because they weren’t in this country, and then the grandparents that I just didn’t make as much of an effort as I could’ve, because the relationship was by phone, and all of these ancestors that make us who we are, who, if you don’t remember, it’s like they don’t exist. It’s such an impactful message that, when I think about it, it makes me feel very sad.
But what I love about Coco is that it turns it around to also make you remember that it’s not too late. Right?
Ms. Castillo: Right. Right. So at the end, when Miguel runs back from the afterlife and is trying to get Mama Coco to remember her dad, so he doesn’t fade from memory — that’s such a calling card for us, as the audience, as well, to reach out to those people, reach out to those relatives you may not have in a long time.
I definitely reached out to my mom afterwards and then, over the holidays, after the movie came out, I took my mom and my grandmother to go see Coco. And that was really interesting, because I — for whatever reason, I was a wreck throughout the whole thing. And then my mom is not a big movie-crier, and neither is my grandmother. So they were like, “Oh, yeah, this is cute.” And they were really enjoying it. And then, at the very end — again, that Mama Coco scene, we were all crying. It was a shared, intergenerational cry. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: Well, you’ve talked a lot about how one of the things — and you’ve written about this — that really stood out to you about Coco was the strength of the women in the movie.
Ms. Castillo: Oh, absolutely.
Ms. Percy: So I love the idea of you taking these strong women in your life to see this movie. Tell me a little bit about that. What is it about the women in this movie that really struck you?
Ms. Castillo: I think I really identified with Mama Imelda, who is the great-great-grandmother who, after her musician-husband “left” her, she then picks up her life and moves on and creates a life for her daughter. And then her daughter has children and continues her line and continues her family, even without a man. I’m sure a number of people whose families have dealt with divorce or have single parents, they can see that strength in that character.
And that reminded me of so many of the women in my family, as well, that it cannot possibly be easy to uproot and leave your country and have to start all over again. And even if your husband is there, that’s still a lot. And then you also are dealing with children in the mix. Or even if — in my mom’s case, she came to this country when she was a teenager. That is its own kind of trauma. And then growing up and figuring out enough to live life, enjoy it, and have her own family and continue on living — that’s certainly a huge amount of strength.
Ms. Percy: You wrote about the fact that it’s “a tribute to the strength of our mamís and nuestras abuelitas, the fierceness with which they want to protect us and the forgiveness” — I love that you talk about this — “the forgiveness to always put their love for us above our mistakes.”
Ms. Castillo: I don’t know what it is, but I’ve been writing about forgiveness quite a bit. I also recently jumped in on this for One Day at a Time. The last season also really deals with forgiveness. And I’m like, “Do we, as a culture, have to have a talk about this?” — because I know there are blood feuds and longstanding grudges. We almost pride ourselves, like, “Ah, that’s the primo I haven’t talked to in 26 years.”
Ms. Percy: And the resentment is just gonna pass through generations …
Ms. Castillo: And the resentment — “We will not forget that you wronged us.” But maybe that’s not right. Maybe that’s not healthy. Maybe forgiveness is a way for us to move on, rather than to continue holding on. And in Coco, we really get to see forgiveness — it takes multiple generations to do that. But eventually, it comes around, and it’s so cathartic. How wonderful is that feeling?
Ms. Percy: It really is. It was a very familiar thing, so I think you’ve struck upon something. I think all Latinos need to look at this movie and start having some conversations. [laughs]
[music: “A Family Dysfunction” by Michael Giacchino]
Ms. Percy: Even though This Movie Changed Me is a podcast, we love the worlds and images that movies create. Which is why for every episode of this season we commissioned original illustrations from artist Julia Kuo. We think you’ll love them, too. Subscribe to our newsletter, and each week, you’ll see one of Julia’s beautiful new creations. Visit onbeing.org/tmcmletter and subscribe today.
[music: “Much Needed Advice” by Benjamin Bratt & Antonio Sol]
Ms. Percy: Something that struck me, watching Coco this week, that I don’t know if it’s gonna resonate with you — but it was this scene early on with Miguel, where Miguel’s watching Ernesto de la Cruz being interviewed. And you hear this little snippet in the scene of the interviewer ask, “Señor de la Cruz, what did it take for you to seize your moment?” And then Ernesto says, “I had to have faith in my dream. No one was going to hand it to me. It was up to me to reach for that dream, grab it tight, and make it come true.”
It really resonated for me, as someone who’s part of an immigrant family, a Colombian immigrant family who really — they don’t understand, at all, my dreams, [laughs] my desire to do what I do; they may have made fun of me for it. And I just was so curious, because you’ve chosen — as you said, your mom — your family seems like they wanted you to be a doctor; that was the path, and then you chose this entirely different dream.
Ms. Castillo: Oh, I one hundred percent related to that. [laughs] How do you explain to your family that you want to become a writer? Because there’s no one in your family that does that, who’s artistic in that way or makes a living. So the only understanding of that is, “Oh, you’re going to willingly go to college, do all these things; we’ve given you and sacrificed so much for you, and then you’re going to willingly throw that away.” That’s how that news was received.
Ms. Percy: That must’ve been so hard for you.
Ms. Castillo: Yeah, because I’m not used to disappointing my parents. I was very much the proud A student, the kid who not only was doing after school sports, but also was doing community college in the evenings in high school …
Ms. Percy: The oldest, so you have a lot of expectations.
Ms. Castillo: … the oldest, so I had a lot of expectations running on that, and then I went to a really fancy private university that I will still be paying student loans for, for a while. So there was a lot of pride associated with that, because a lot of people in my family didn’t get the chance to go to college. They came to this country, and they couldn’t afford it. Or they didn’t know that there were scholarships out there. So many things I had to learn on my own — even just dealing with FAFSA, neither of my parents had ever dealt with that before.
Ms. Percy: Same.
Ms. Castillo: I had to tell them, “OK, you need to do this, because I need this.” And jumping on the phone to talk on behalf of my mother, in order to figure out what I needed to do for student loans, and things like that, just to be able — for me to go to college. So when I switched course, it was a big deal. And I switched in the middle of college. So that was hard for them to really come around to. And interestingly enough, it was my dad who finally accepted that I was gonna be a writer, that this wasn’t a phase, that I wasn’t just bumming around in my 20s or something, and saw that I was serious about it. And eventually, my mom came around to it. And I think the moment that really helped was actually when I gave them a tour of The New York Times, because I worked there for about a year and a half. And during that time, I got to show them around, and she saw that other people were doing what I was doing and was like, “Oh, OK. I understand now. This is your job. This is your profession.”
Ms. Percy: This is not just a dream; it’s also a job that you can make possible.
Ms. Castillo: Right. [laughs] If you say that I’m going to go review movies for a living, a lot of people might look at you like, “How do you even — how does that work?” Because for my mom, the only person that she had that really came to mind for her, was Roger Ebert. And she’s like, “Who do you think you are? Roger Ebert?” [laughs]
Ms. Percy: [laughs] I was just thinking about mine: “¿Quién crees que eres?” [laughs]
Ms. Castillo: Oh, absolutely.
Ms. Percy: So since you’ve seen this movie so many times, and you’ve actually joked about the fact that you could write a book about it —
Ms. Castillo: Oh, I want to.
Ms. Percy: You want to write a book about it.
Ms. Castillo: I really want to, yes. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: I will support you in this. You just tell me how to send you money. I’m just curious how it continues to change and grow with you, as you keep watching it. We’ve talked a little bit about how every time, a different kind of theme or scene or character resonates. And I just wonder, now, where you’re at in your life, what resonates with you.
Ms. Castillo: I think, had I been younger — because this wasn’t so long ago. [laughs]
Ms. Percy: That’s true. This is not a very old movie.
Ms. Castillo: This is not an old movie at all, no. And I think the older I get, the more I’ll relate to the different women in the movie. Even Mama Elena, Miguel’s grandmother, she’s very protective, to the point where she can be threatening to some people. When she comes out, wielding the chancleta, we know she means business. So I think, had I been younger, watching this, I obviously would’ve so been on the side of Miguel and like, “Ugh, parents just don’t understand. Grandma doesn’t understand. Abuela doesn’t understand.” And then now I’m like, “But wait. There’s a reason. There’s a heartbreak behind all of their actions.”
Ms. Percy: There’s a struggle that they’ve all gone through.
Ms. Castillo: Oh, yeah.
[music: “A Family Dysfunction” by Michael Giacchino]
Ms. Percy: Well, is there anything else that you want to say about Coco that I didn’t ask you?
Ms. Castillo: Let me think. Oh, another scene that I also really, really enjoyed is that final one, where they bring everyone together — I know it’s a very cheesy last moment, but it …
Ms. Percy: Yes, but it’s so beautiful.
Ms. Castillo: … but it’s such a beautiful — [laughs] it’s so beautiful. It works so well. And you see the multiple generations all together, in one place, in celebration. And it’s like, that’s what it takes. That’s what it feels like.
Ms. Percy: And you see the forgiveness, because that’s where you see the forgiveness come through at the end.
Ms. Castillo: Yes. Yes, and then the other kids have picked up musical instruments, as well. So you’re like, this was meant to be; that this was always a part of us.
Ms. Percy: I love that. I love that.
[music: “Remember Me (Dúo)” by Miguel, featuring Natalia Lafourcade]
Ms. Percy: Monica Castillo is a writer and film critic. She’s also the President of The National Association For Hispanic Journalists’ New York City chapter. You can find her work in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Remezcla, and to make sure that you never miss her wonderful writing, sign up to her newsletter, Save Your Ticket Stub.
Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios produced Coco, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. Walt Disney Records released its soundtrack, and Michael Giacchino composed the music. And I just gotta say, “Un Poco Loco” is my absolute favorite.
Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking with Slate’s June Thomas about the movie that changed her life — the Ken Loach classic, Kes. You can currently find it streaming on Amazon Prime and iTunes, and I recommend you turn on the subtitles to fully take in these strong English accents.
The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise — find those wherever you like to listen, or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.
I’m Lily Percy, and let’s celebrate our dreams, our struggles, and our disappointments — no matter how big or how small — because they make us who we are.