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Coco: Capitalist Appropriation of Mexican Tradition

In the midst of heightened xenophobia and anti-Latino sentiment in Donald Trump’s USA, Disney’s newest animated hit, Coco, appropriates an old Mexican tradition.

Juan Castellanos

November 22, 2017
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Image from Vix. Walt Disney Pictures/Coco.

Coco effectively reflects some of the most beautiful Mexican traditions: the importance of family, our folk music, the parties in the cemeteries and the cempasuchil flowers (Mexican marigold). It portrays our ancestors’ voyage through Mictlán, the mythical city of the dead. There’s even a Xolo dog who guides the dead to the next life.

The fact that Coco is a beautiful film should not stop us from recognizing capitalist appropriation of Mexican traditions. Just like capitalism made a commodity and a cliché out of Frida Kahlo’s life, Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has now become a profitable commodity. Using the beauty of our culture, Disney will make billions of dollars to line the pockets of Yankee capitalists. The profits they make from Mexican culture flow freely into the US while at the same time, Trump, like his predecessors, deports Mexicans and other immigrants.

Disney, the massive profit-driven entertainment multinational does not produce “art for art’s sake.” On the contrary, it is a mega-corporation that makes billions off of children’s movies, 11 theme parks, television programs, films and merchandise. In 2016, it had a revenue of $55.6 billion and total assets of $99 billion . Disney purchased Pixar in 2006 at $7.4 billion, bringing together two of the most important children’s film production companies.

In 2013, Disney attempted to copyright the “Day of the Dead, ” but faced a powerful backlash. Dia de los Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday, with its roots pre-Columbian indigenous cultures; it dates back to Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead”. On this multi-day holiday in early November, people honor deceased family members by building altars, decorating gravesites and providing offerings. Families cook the diseased favorite meals, as well as Pan de Muertos (Bread of the dead) and spend time in graveyards, playing music and celebrating the dead.

Disney’s attempts to copyright Dia de los Muertos faced a massive backlash. A change.org petition received over 21,000 signatures. How could a US-based corporation, such as Disney, trademark a centuries-old holiday and profit from it? If they had succeeded, what could stop them from trademarking the Popol Vuh or the Chilam Balam for their next movie?

Disney was forced to back down from their trademark attempt and now, 4 years later, Coco is finally coming out in theaters. It was released in Mexico in late October and was released on November 22 in the United States.

Capitalism profanes all that is holy; like a cancer, it spreads, vulgarizing all that is beautiful and unique about our culture. As Karl Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Today the return of our ancestors, our tradition of celebrating Mictlán, and Dia de los Muertos has become a mass commodity, aimed straight at the heart of Mexicans on both sides of the border.

As I watch Coco it’s hard not to think of the undocumented Mexicans who are unable to visit family on the other side of the border; those Mexicans in the US who break their backs for the profits of the capitalists while at the same time being discriminated against and living in fear of ICE; those Mexicans who can’t come home to spend Dia de los Muertos with their loved ones, or decorate the grave of their mother or father — those for whom the lights, the music and the celebration is a memory.

Disney made $43 million after less than a month in Mexican theaters. It is the highest grossing film in Mexican history.

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