How Pixar's Coco went from controversial to respectful of Mexican culture

Back when COCO was first conceived, Pixar's film based on the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead was to be called Dia de los Muertos. The House of Mouse even went so far as to apply for a trademark on the title when, suddenly, there was an outcry in the Latino community, led by Lalo Alcaraz, author of the syndicated comic strip Cucarachas. Not long after Alcaraz made his discontent known for Disney's proposed title and bid for the Dia de los Muertos title, L.A. Theatre Center's Evelina Fernandez and several others joined the chorus of jeers. Upon hearing the communities complaints, Disney dropped the bid and set to work on creating another title for the upcoming animated film.

In an effort to quell the controversy, Pixar appointed a range of experts to consult on COCO - which had become the project's new title after the original was abandoned. Pixar's new consulting team was led by Alcaraz and playwright Octavio Solis, and included Luis Valdez (founder of Teatro Campesino), Fernandez, and altaristas (master altar makers) Ofelia and Rosanna Esparza who honed their skills at Boyle Heights' Self Help Graphics & Art - which has hosted L.A.'s largest Dia celebration for the past 44 years.

When the focus group's work began, co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina as well as studio execs were shown a series of materials detailing the animation's story, characters, and cultural sensitivity. In talking about the experience, Rosana Esparza confessed the following, "I was like, 'What are we getting into and do I want my name on it?" After the process was over, Esparza was pleased to report that "it was a great experience." She then followed up her comment by expressing gratitude for Disney's handling of the content by saying "People make movies about us all the time and don't even bother to ask."

In talking about his experience with the consulting party, Unkrich says that screening an unfinished version of the film was "unprecedented for us as a studio" but essential "to get their unfiltered, honest reactions … There were notes that kept us headed to true north."

What I find particularly cool about the focus group being involved, is that it sounds as if not only were their voices heard, but individuals from the group also lent to the film's overall authenticity. For example, Fernandez discovered that some of her music suggestions were incorporated, while Ofelia, an expert in Dia traditions, praised the treatment of the inclusion of three deaths. When all was said and done, Fernandez was delighted to report that "For once our story is being told respectfully and shows our culture in a beautiful way."

Pixar's COCO is set to arrive in theaters on November 22nd.



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