The colorful Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) traditions from Mexico honor their dead in ways Americans would do well to embrace. In this New York Times opinion column, Ilan Stavans wrote about ‘Coco’ and Mexico’s Infatuation With the Afterlife. A few highlights of his thoughts on the topic:
For Mexicans, death is earthly. We build altars in our homes with framed photos of the departed next to candles, fruit, bread and candy. This intimacy with death brings with it a certain acceptance. Death is even celebrated.
In sharp contrast, Americans approach death with fear. They avoid speaking about it. They try to hide it. Or they turn it into a theater of horror, which is projected through cultural events like Halloween, where the dead are made into monsters.
Pixar’s new animated movie “Coco” is a sumptuous portrait of Mexico’s infatuation with the afterlife. Hollywood has gotten Mexican life wrong so many times — think “Under the Volcano” and “Traffic” — that Mexicans have stopped caring. But “Coco” feels fresh and authentic, perhaps the most sophisticated representation of Mexican popular culture ever produced for the big screen. It makes no excuses about Mexicans’ intimacy with death. On the contrary, it turns death into an amusement-park ride.
Many people are uncomfortable with the prevalence of skeletons and skulls in Mexican culture. I had thought the imagery referred to the immortal soul, once the flesh of this lifetime falls away. Stavans explains it like this:
The ultimate symbol of Mexico’s intimacy with death are the “calaveras” — depictions of skulls (and sometimes skeletons) — and “Coco” pays tribute to this rich artistic tradition. Calaveras’ roots date back to pre-Columbian civilizations, who included skulls and skeletons in temples, sculptures, architecture, and even on currency.
In modern times, the man credited for popularizing them is José Guadalupe Posada, a famous late-19th-century engraver. During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Posada poked fun at dictators and the bourgeoisie in general, most often by depicting calaveras dressed up as tyrants and wealthy people, while portraying the downtrodden in a dignified fashion.
This film is on my watch list! Americans can benefit from becoming friendlier with death, and engaging in conversations around end-of-life topics. Read the full opinion piece here.