Disney Pixar’s Coco came out in November of 2017 and was recently added to Netflix. From the day it was added, May 29th, to the day I am writing this, June 7th, I have watched it 3 times. With every watch, I see more of myself in the characters, the setting, and most importantly the main song: ‘Remember Me’.
I am Mexican American, it’s a vital part of my identity and a piece that this movie touches. However, this isn’t a piece about Mexican culture, it’s an article about a song. When I was little, some of my family members put up ofrendas (altars) from mid-October until November 2nd, as did a lot of the Mexican-owned businesses in my hometown of San Antonio. Seeing ofrendas during this period of the year was a tradition, and each of them were pieces of those who had set them up.
Contrary to what a lot of people who aren’t from Mexican/Mexican American culture think, Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) isn’t about painting your face or scaring people like it’s Mexican Halloween. In reality, it’s a series of days where our loved ones are remembered. We grieve for them and we celebrate their lives and pass on their stories and lives to those around us. For the religious, the holiday is sacred and they believe their loved ones enter their home to dine and party with them. Even though the latter part is something I don’t believe in now, I still observe the holiday as a time for me to remember my loved ones who have died, primarily my grandparents.
On those days and the ones leading up to them, I cry a lot, I smile a lot, and I share stories of the courageous lives my grandparents lived. Coco captured this very special moment of remembrance in a way that wasn’t disrespectful like other representations, but instead taught about the traditions and highlighted the important pieces of the celebration. I didn’t expect this, in fact, after Disney attempted to copyright the phrase “Dia de los Muertos” at the start of this movie’s production I had written it off. But then I watched it.
The through-line of the movie is using the backdrop of Dia de Muertos to highlight the importance of family and ultimately our tradition of remembering those before of us. But at the end, when one of the characters is being forgotten by his only living relative who remembers him we see that the hardship of forgetting is just as important to the story, or at least for me it is.
Hector, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is the forgotten man. A musician whose family despised him because they didn’t know the truth about why he disappeared. He is kept alive in the land of the dead by his daughter – the character the movie is named for – Coco. But when Coco is shown, she’s battling a neurodegenerative ailment, even when it isn’t stated. Some said it was just old age, but for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease, we saw our loved ones.
Hector is saved in the end when Miguel, played by Anthony Gonzalez, plays his great-great-father’s lullaby to Mama Coco – ‘Remember Me.’
Though I have to say goodbye
Don’t let it make you cry
For ever if I’m far away
I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you
Each night we are apart
Though I have to travel far
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you
The only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
It’s in the middle of the song that Mama Coco begins singing along, and then the camera shows her family. Her daughter’s (Abuelita) face is swelling with happiness and tears. Coco then asks “what’s wrong mija?” and Abuelita responds: “Nothing Mama, nothing at all.” The story continues as Coco reveals that she’s kept her father’s picture and song lyrics all of these years, showing that her memories didn’t fade from lack of love and longing but because they were being taken from her. It isn’t the connection to Hector that makes me cry – even as I’m typing this – but her Abuelita’s reaction.
In 2014, my grandfather died after a rapid deterioration while battling Alzheimer’s disease. In the span of months, he wasn’t the WWII vet who survived being trapped in a burning warehouse in Japan. He wasn’t the man who obtained his GED after being forced out of school when he was 7-years old to work on a farm. He wasn’t my Papi. That last year, he didn’t remember his daughters’ faces at their current age – this effect was extremely hard on my mother, he called me by mom’s name, and then there were moments when something would connect and he would come back to us. It was always fleeting and it was the closest thing I’ve felt to magic. For a split second, the man that raised me would be back, my papi knew I was there for him, he remembered that he loved me and then he would be gone. When he remembered me, when he spoke, there was a moment where your body just starts crying, but like Abuelita, you just push back your tears and enjoy the moment because you don’t know when it will come again.
When I hear ‘Remember Me,’ specifically the lullaby version, I cry. whether it’s silently or into a pillow, the tears come and I remember my grandfather: “Remember Me/ Though I have to say goodbye/ Remember Me/ Don’t let it make you cry/ Forever if I’m far away/
I hold you in my heart.” When someone you love is suffering from Alzheimer’s, it’s like they’re always far away. When he was in hospice, I was curled up by my grandfather’s bed but he was miles away from me. It because of its significance to me that on my first viewing in the theatre, I began crying in my seat as soon as the credits rolled. My partner held me and I just cried.
Every time Dia de Muertos comes around I remember him and then I think, what happens when I don’t remember. Enough members in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, enough to let me know that, that will more than likely be a step in my journey. So, when I hear this song, it’s about the moments my grandfather couldn’t remember me, the moments he could, and my great fear that one day I won’t remember him or anyone I love. It’s the fear that my mother will end up the same way but also a song that reminds me to appreciate her now.
‘Remember Me’ is a song that encapsulates one of the darkest points in my life. Beyond Coco representing my culture and my celebrations, it resonates with me because ‘Remember Me’ isn’t just another catchy Pixar song that gets played to death on the radio. It’s special and important to so many for different reasons. It’s a song that crushes me with a weight of love and sorrow and fear. It’s the reason I have rewatched this movie 3 times in the span of a week. ‘Remember Me’ is so much more than I ever thought it would be and its connection to the celebration of the dead and its connection to my own life fills my heart with joy and sadness and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.