Oscar nominee ‘Coco’ is a love letter to immigrants

The Oscars are coming up this Sunday and if there’s one movie I’m rooting for, it’s the contender for best animated feature film, Coco

This film is important for so many reasons; for many Latinx youth, it’s the first time we’re seeing our stories and heritage accurately reflected on the silver screen. And on top of celebrating and honoring Mexican culture and traditions, Coco is a movie made for Latinx children and their families during the Trump era. Released a few months after Trump rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and during a time when we feel underappreciated and under attack, Coco is a love letter to immigrants. 

The film tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a young boy who dreams of playing his guitar but comes from a family and a household that has banished music. His great-great grandfather abandoned his wife, Mama Imelda, and daughter, Mama Coco, to pursue his musical dreams, and Miguelito’s family refuses to let the young boy follow in his abuelo’s footsteps. When Miguel tries to defy his family’s wishes and runs away to enter a talent show, he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead, where he meets his great-great-grandparents and other relatives. And while the film may center around Day of the Dead, if you look for the hidden script, it’s just as much about immigration and the immigrant experience.

For starters, Miguel’s visit to the Land of the Dead is a migratory journey in and of itself. The young boy even has to pass through immigration and customs enforcement to enter the afterlife. On the way, he is exposed to border patrol agents who use violence to detain and shackle the “undocumented” dead who are “illegally” attempting to cross over into the land of the living. Border patrol agents even use facial recognition software and other technologies as a digital border wall, not unlike the border militarization measures Trump has suggested. And while many have critiqued the border wall story line, it’s a necessary part of the story. Not only is Miguelito an immigrant, but this story is dedicated to an immigrant audience that is intimately familiar with the violent logic of the border militarization regime. It’s impossible to tell our stories without including the mechanisms and measures in place that separate between the land of those who are allowed to live and the land of those who are condemned to die.

On Day of the Dead, those who have passed are allowed to temporarily visit and reunite with their loved ones on Earth. When the dead return to the land of the living, they comment on how their children and grandchildren have grown, how their village has changed, and how life has moved on without them. For those of us who are separated from our families because of our immigration status and unjust immigration politics, these observations hit close to home. When I went back to Argentina last year (for the first time in twenty years), I know I felt like a ghost haunting the life I might have had and the family I could have known. Flipping through photo albums that featured my cousins’ birthday parties, graduations, and weddings, I realized their lives did go on without me. Like the dead in Coco who can see their family members once a year but can’t touch them or feel them but only watch from a distance–invisible and unseen–we, too, are so often left to care for our families from afar. We keep up with their lives over social media, we buy calling cards and talk over the phone, ultimately separated by a gulf as large as the one that separates the land of the dead from the land of the living. Coco tells us we’re not alone. 

After reaching the afterlife, Miguelito soon learns that the dead can live in the Land of the Dead only as long as someone back on Earth remembers them. The film’s theme song, “Remember Me,” is a ballad written by Miguel’s great-great grandfather, Héctor Rivera, for the daughter he left to chase his dreams. Héctor sings to Coco, “Remember me, Though I have to say goodbye. Remember me, Don’t let it make you cry. For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart, I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart.” So many immigrants have to make impossible decisions in order to survive or provide for our families. So many of us miss out on our families lives, on important moments and celebratory occasions. We have to say goodbye, as devastating and life-shattering as it may be, and hope that our loved ones will remember us. But Coco is not only a story about family separation. It ends as a celebration of family reunification. Miguelito meets his ancestors. His great-great grandparents reconcile. Coco and her father are finally reunited. The filmmakers give immigrants hope that this is our story, too.

I’m rooting for Coco this Sunday because Coco rooted for me.

Header image via 


Durham, NC

Barbara is a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina interested in im/migration and migrant activism and organizing.

Barbara is a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina interested in im/migration and migrant activism and organizing.

Read more about Barbara

Join the Conversation