Prepared by Julieta Sanchez & Jose Morones for Capstone Seminar at St. Mary’s University, Department of Theology

First Half of Presentation On Day of The Dead

Coco (The Movie)

The movie Coco is an eschatological work in itself. Parting from one particular event, the celebration of Day of the Dead in Mexico, it touches upon many of the themes we have seen and discussed throughout the course in other readings. Some themes seem to be more conspicuous than others: a bodily afterlife and the portrayal of “heaven” as popularly imagined, for example. The idea of a final judgment, hell, retributive justice, among others, are themes that barely show up in the movie, if at all; if they come up, however, they are merely hinted at but not overtly addressed.

In Coco, death is definitely NOT the great equalizer. The afterlife depends much more (if not entirely) on the perception people have of you rather than on the accumulation of good deeds (Think of Hector on the one hand who, by no fault of his, is bullied and rejected by others including his family; on the other hand, De La Cruz, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, El Santo, and Frida Kahlo, all famous people, are the heroes of the afterlife merely because they were well-known in this one). Fame, luck of being remembered, and other factors aside from good deeds, is what gives you access to a higher level of life in the complicated, set up system of Coco’s other world (Hector and his forgotten friends reside in a kind of East LA ghetto side of heaven while those of renown in this life inhabit a sort of Beverly-Hills-heaven, though on earth they did not necessarily shine by their virtues).

God. Does God play any role in Coco’s eschatology? I may be mistaken, but I don’t think God appears anywhere in the movie, at least not overtly. God seems to be absent: as judge, as merciful father, as creator, as savior, etc. No pictures of saints appear in the Day of the Dead altar either. Prayers on behalf of their afterlife well-being are non-existent. This is my perception at least. Day of the Dead is certainly linked to Christian religious beliefs in real-life Mexico, but the movie apparently takes those beliefs and de-christianizes them, as it were, more likely to portray them in a more religiously neutral manner, a move that may actually reflect the direction that Day of the Dead is currently taken as a result of changes in the cultural, social, and religious identity of the Mexican younger generations as expressed in ideologies and music, for instance (Think of contemporary music, the cult to La Santa Muerte, Saint Malverde, Halloween, etc). All in all, this perspective may actually represent one of the dangers of memory that Johann Baptist Metz suggests in his theology (see reading guide on Metz below).

The following is kind of a guide to help you watch COCO by paying closer attention to those scenes from which some discussion questions have emerged. The timeline shown is approximate, so the scene may actually start a little before or after the given time. Some of the discussion questions for class are presented below.

Discussion Questions

  1. Based on Coco, the readings, and your own experience, Are the beliefs and practices of the Day of the Dead in Mexico a result of the Indians beliefs before the conquest, a result of an European Christian mentality, or the result of a fusion between the two? Do they accurately represent Day of the Dead in Mexico? What are the advantages or disadvantages for this kind of eschatology (the merging of two religious cultures)?
  2. According to Coco’s portrayal, where are the dead living? Are they in hell or heaven or purgatory or some other place? Is the portrayal of Coco’s afterlife the way you would like to spend eternity? Does anywhere the movie correlates Heaven to “being with God” or in God’s presence? Are the themes of God’s mercy, God’s judgment, the beatific vision or any other eschatological concepts even considered in the movie? How can the idea of Johann B. Metz regarding “dangerous memory” play a role here?
  3. The spirit creatures (Alebrijes) are supposed to be guides for souls in their journeys: Are there any beings in Christian eschatology who may resemble the Alebrijes, that is, whose job is to guide souls in(to) heaven? (34:31).
  4. Does Ernesto de La Cruz suffers a “second death” in the movie? How about Hector’s friend when his body disappears? Are we speaking of the same kind of death here? (1:27:15 & 46). Is this the kind of “second death” St Augustine speaks of in The City of God? If so how?
  5. Does the emphasis on maintaining family ties and unity affords family members any kind of assistance by means of intercession? Is this intercession directed to God or to other influential beings, either human or divine in nature? (23:39)

We do not expect you to watch the whole movie, but in case you get the time, these are other scenes you may want to watch more closely

  1. 1:00 – 6:22 Intro
  2. 9:30—11;07 Today is Dia de los muertos; today is about family (Ofrenda room) . (1) Ancestors come to visit (2) Pictures placed at the altar for their spirits to cross over; without the picture the dead can’t come.
  3. 14:15—18:20 A path of petals to guide the dead in their journey home. The dead guide the living too. Both unity and division within the family.
  4. 24:25 27:30 The bridge joining the two worlds; Alebrijes. . . .
  5. 41:30—47:00 This is an important scene and refers to one of the questions, # 4.
  6. 1:04:30—1:09:05
  7. 1:16:00— 1:21:30 Hector is not forgiven but he is at least helped by his wife after knowing the truth. Hector is treated badly by Imelda, the rest of his family, and everyone else because they all ignore the truth. They fight to get Hector’s photo from De La Cruz.
  8. 1:24:00–1:27:30 De La Cruz is killed by the bell again –the spirit creature (Alebrije) beats him up. Is this a portrayal of his second death???? (But Hector is suffering a second death too, and his family seems to experience it sadly). And Hector’s friend previously disappeared, too.
  9. 1:29:00—1:36:00 –The End.

Metz, Johann Baptist. Excursus: Dogma as a dangerous memory (PDF)

In this short excerpt, Metz deals with the topic of memory as it interplays with faith beliefs, in particular, but also with other cultural practices in general.

Memory plays an important role in maintaining, perpetuating, and making sense of our present beliefs as they relate to the past and their original meaning. In reference to Christian beliefs, for example, memory help us keep in touch with the historical events, traditions, and people from whom such beliefs emerged and developed. Metz states that “Christian faith can be understood as an attitude according to which man remembers promises that have been made and hopes that are experienced as a result of those promises and commits himself to those memories” (200).

With the passing of time, however, those memories and the practices they evoke may become disconnected of their original source while still continue to exist though merely as a caricature of what it really was in the beginning. Apparently, when memory goes this direction it may become dangerous, ineffective, and even counterproductive to achieving its initial intended goal.

Day of the Dead in Mexico as celebrated today seems to gather the beliefs of two cultures vis-à-vis the afterlife. In this celebration, the indigenous beliefs fused with those of European descent to give this practice a Christian meaning.

  1. Does the movie COCO express a fused continuity of these two belief systems as a Christianized event? If so how?
    COCO is very close to Day of the Dead in real life Mexico, except in one matter: the absence of God with all it implies, that is, salvation in Jesus, hope in the resurrection, prayer, etc.–a Christian religious view. Overall (with some exceptions), it presents a very optimistic view of the afterlife where celebration and good life is the rule rather than the exception.
  2. Could we be dealing here with the effects of dangerous memory as described by Metz? Is this happening just in COCO? Or Day of the Dead current practices are actually moving this direction and transforming (not eliminating) the Mexican people social and religious consciousness? If the latter is true, what could we do as Catholics to make an eschatological shift that transforms dangerous memory into edifying memory?

The Personification of Death in Popular Music (HTML)

See also, Carmichael and Sayer, The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico (PDF)

In the Testament of Abraham, Ephrem’s hymn 36, and the Gospel of Nicodemus we have encountered Death personified. Interestingly, in all readings Death seems to take a kind of humorous role. In the Testament of Abraham, it embellishes itself and tries to persuade Abraham to voluntarily go with her, but she can neither convince him nor take him forcefully. In the Gospel of Nicodemus, Death rather than Satan appears to be in charge and even shows signs of being smarter than him; indeed, Death even reviles Satan for his dumb decision of having Jesus killed.

This humorous characteristic of Death is very prominent in popular, Mexican songs and common parlance. Death is respected, ridiculed, befriended, and somehow idolized and revered as a saint. Death sleeps with, dances with, and drinks tequila with Mexicans (cf. Songs #s 1-3). Death is known as La Catrina, La Calaca, La Pelona, La Huesuda, La Cuatacha, La Chimuela, La Dientona, La Patrona, La Malquerida, La Bienamada, La Copetona, La Jalaparejo,etc., all of them names carrying a humorous connotation. In the last couple of years or so, Mexico has won the Guinness World Records by hosting the biggest Catrina (20 meter-high) and the biggest Day of the Death altar in Zapotlanejo, Jalisco, a suburb of Guadalajara City.

La Muerte (Death) es fiestera, parrandera, temida, respetada, y hasta querida (cf. Songs #s 1-3). Death is a party goer and a pal drinker; Death is feared, respected, and even loved. Why or in what sense is Death loved? A Mexican saying give us the answer: La Muerte es Pareja. Death doesn’t discriminate; Death is the great equalizer. For many, this characteristic of Death affords a sense of consolation and relief (cf. Song # 4). The last song (# 5) will be referenced in relation to ghosts in the second part of our presentation.

In short, the personification of Death certainly forms part of popular eschatology in Mexican culture. The songs, jokes, and other mass media representations of Death simply express a folk eschatology regarding this perplex, undesired and, paradoxically, loved character: Death.

  1. In your own experience and circle of acquaintances, how is Death personified: humorously, respectfully, fearfully, etc.? What readings we have seen in this course that better align to your experience? To the experience of those portrayed in the assigned Mexican songs?
  2. Does characterizing Death in a humorous way offers or deprives people of any psychological, cultural, and spiritual benefits? Are you comfortable treating Death this way or it makes you uneasy?

Further reading

Joas Adiprasetya, “Johann Baptist Metz’s Memoria Passionis and the Possibility of Political Forgiveness.” Political Theology 18, 2017, pp. 233-48. (PDF)

Virgil Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997.