Some Errant Thoughts on ‘Coco’: The Politics of Representation and Central American Erasure
At the 90th Academy Awards on March 4th , as expected, the Disney/Pixar film Coco won the Oscar for Best Animated film of the year. Following speeches by the directors and producers of the film, the voice of Miguel, Anthony Gonzáles, got up to the microphone and yelled out “¡Viva México!” As many of you know, Anthony is Guatemalan-American. While I’m sure that the shout out to Mexico was very much appreciated by millions of Mexican folks, the action personally left me with an unsettled feeling in my stomach, as I’m sure it did for many other Central Americans who were watching the show that evening, or saw a clip of the speech pop up in their social media feeds the following day.
Before proceeding, I would like to make clear that by writing this essay, I am in no way trying to throw shade on Anthony Gonzáles. Quite the opposite, I would like to take this opportunity to say how proud we are of all this achievements and that he deserves every last accolade that has been bestowed on him. We respect his hustle, and how much he and his family have had to sacrifice to get him where he’s at. He’s an amazing talent and we wish him all the best with whatever he chooses in his life. All that being said, I am very much interested in examining how Anthony is perceived and received as a Guatemalan-American within the broader landscape Mexican-dominated popular culture because it provides an opportunity to deconstruct and analyze the limitations of representation politics as they relate to the Central American community.
LET’S PLAY THE REPRESENTATION GAME!!!
Just this past year alone, the hashtag #RepresentationMattters has galvanized into a genuine movement demanding greater inclusion and diversity of marginalized communities within the entertainment and publication industries. And without a doubt, Disney/Pixar’s animated film Coco is certainly at the forefront of this cultural paradigm shift. Especially for a Mexican community that for the last century has either been ignored by the Hollywood film industry, or seen itself reduced to a series of recyclable racist tropes in popular media, Coco was a much welcomed respite; an at once idyllic and fantastical representation of Mexico full of familia, cultura, and ganas; a positive pastel-colored reflection of the Mexican community at a time when they have been so maligned by Donald Trump; the perfect distillation of what it means to be Mexican as only the white mastercraft hipster imagineers (actual Disney term!) at Pixar Animation can do it. So now that the film has won the highest prize in the land, we can now herald in a new age of Latinx representation, right? Well, not exactly.
I would like folks in the audience to take a moment to consider the following: when it comes to the game of Representation Politics, it’s not a democratic engagement where everyone gets their turn to play. No, it’s more like the most dominant and loudest voice is the one that ends up being heard. Despite the fact that we as Latin Americans are very diverse and heterogeneous conglomeration of peoples, by sheer virtue of population size and geographical permanence, it is almost always the Mexican voice that comes through the loudest and clearest. Just look at the chart below if you need evidence of the obvious:
Look at that! As of 2016, there were 36.2 million Mexicans living in the United States. Central Americans? Only 5.3 million. That’s a ratio of almost 6 to 1. I hate to burst the bubble of perceived Latinx equality, but Central Americans are nowhere near having the same level of access, opportunity, resources, and political and cultural power as Mexicans do. That’s a fact. And no amount of upholding and glorifying the LATINX umbrella term will make equality a reality.
Look, it’s okay for Mexicans to be proud of who they are and their rich history and culture, but because Mexicans are the largest Latinx demographic by a ridiculous margin, all other Latinxs end up getting obscured, or erased entirely. Almost all of Spanish-speaking television reflects a Mexican imaginary. Even most Latinx social media platforms still largely cater to a Mexican demographic. Tacos, conchas, and chingonxs, y’all. This is the reason why in the last couple of years, so many Central American platforms have popped up. It is out of sheer necessity.
So it should come as no surprise that when it comes to investment in large-scale productions across all types of media (film, television, internet, and publications) that is purportedly intended for the Latinx population, media creators are only willing to invest millions of dollars to market to the demographic with the largest amount of purchase power, i.e. Mexicans.. There is no way said media creators would ever consider investing in creating an expensive animated film about Central America, let alone indigenous or afro-descendant populations within the isthmus. (But then again, would we really want that to happen?)
That Dreaded H-Word
During those moments when we as Central Americans voice our concerns about erasure within the larger Latinx framework, or attempt to express the uniquely compromised position we fill in the geopolitical machinations of the North American powers, especially where it concerns Mexican complicity in these matters, I’m always struck at how Mexican folks will engage with us under the presumption that we both wield equal amounts of cultural and political power. And in some cases, Mexican folks will react to our legitimate grievances and critiques as if we were actually capable of causing them harm. I tweeted once that “One of the clearest symptoms of being embedded in a cultural hegemony is an obliviousness to one’s own dominance… How else do you explain 35 million Mexicans in the U.S. feeling like 6 million Central Americans somehow have the same access to resources and power?”
When we discuss this concept called the #MexicanHegemony, we’re not talking about some nebulous fantasy sprung from the imagination of a Central American who has an overabundance of haterade running through their veins. It comes from a place of lived experiences, from the trauma of being trapped in a living Venn diagram, slowly getting crushed between two enormous nationalist ideologies. It is a material reality of not only having to assimilate to the primary hegemony of American whiteness, but also to a secondary hegemony of Mexicanness, and then having to spend the rest of our days learning to navigate between the two. Now, I would like to make clear that the Mexican Hegemony does not have the same power as the capitalist white supremacist American hegemony. But when we’re dealing with a population as small as the Central American community, the Mexican and American hegemonies might as well be the same size. And while it can be argued that the American hegemony’s imperialist ambitions have caused untold trauma and death in Central America, within the last twenty-years, the Mexican nation state has become America’s compadre in committing incalculable atrocities to Central American migrants.
For many Central Americans, how they have survived, coped with, and navigated through the Mexican Hegemony is as varied and unique as their individual life experiences. For some, it was a matter of learning to live with it and accept a quasi-paternalistic relationship with the Mexican community, forever subjected to passive aggressive and thinly veiled disdainful comments. For others, it meant flat out denying their Central American ancestry and pretending to be Mexican to avoid being bullied or mocked. Still, for others like my father who came to the U.S. in the mid-1970s, it meant having to learn Chicano caló so he could communicate better with the neighborhood cholos and pass by them without being harassed. And finally for some, it meant choosing the route of self-defense, to gather together the unwanted and ostracized to protect themselves from the relentless violence of Mexican gangs, which incidentally, is how the La Mara Salvatrucha came into being.
I could go on and on, but the point here is that most of us as Central Americans have had to assimilate in some form or another to Mexican culture. And while I personally would sardonically argue that decades worth of Chicano-based curricula across all levels of education is tantamount to institutional acculturation to Mexican culture, I am also inclined to admit that not every single interaction between Central Americans and the Mexican population is necessarily demarcated by an overt hierarchical power relation. Quite the opposite, I believe that Central Americans have made every effort to live in community with Mexican folk and vice-versa, many of whom we are happy to call our friends, neighbors, colleagues, partners, and even family members. And it’s not like there are roving bands of Mexicans force feeding cultura to poor Central Americans. But then that’s the tricky thing about a cultural hegemony, it doesn’t need to be forecul to exert power and reinforce a hierarchy–it just needs to be the default. Even it its most benign form, the sheer ubiquity of Mexican culture in the Southwest of the United States makes it not only the default, but fatalistically inescapable.
In purely practical terms, it means that to have been a migrant from the Central American isthmus who entered the geography of the Southwest necessitated possessing at the very least a rudimentary knowledge of Mexican language, culture, and pop culture to not only make a living, but to move around, socialize and interact within any given community. Because no matter how densely packed any Central American enclave may have been, it was still surrounded by Mexican folks. However, to be the children of Central Americans who were born Southwest, means that Mexican culture was almost a congenital development within us, having already absorbed it from a very early age. Growing up eating flat Guerrero tortillas, or being called güey at school, or hearing the whole neighborhood erupt when Mexico scored a goal, these were all the hallmarks that we were living on a land that wasn’t ours. But the sad part was that we didn’t even know we were foreigners until that fateful day when asked where our parents were from.
So you´re central american, eh?
And so we return to thesis of this essay, what does all this have to do with young Anthony Gonzáles?
A couple weeks ago, Anthony appeared on Telemundo’s Don Francisco Te Invita to promote the future release of Coco on home video. During the course of the interview, Don Francisco asked Anthony about his cultural background:
Don Francisco: “Oye, ¿y tú eres de origen guatemalteco, no? ¿tus padres?
Anthony: “Sí, yo soy de Los Angeles, pero mis padres son de Guatemala.. Y tengo muchos familiares de México también. ¡Y amo a México!”
It is at this point that Don Francisco asks Anthony to sing a Mexican tune, to which the young Guatemalan-American obliges and belts out ¡Viva México! by Pedro Galindo Garza. Now, to most Mexicans watching this scene unfold, a Guatemalan boy dressed as a charro singing his heart out to Mexico must not only seem like the cutest thing in the world, but must feel quite flattering. But to many Central Americans, this scene opens up a Pandora’s Box of complicated emotions.
On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see a young Guatemalan-American have this level of success and represent Central Americans in a positive way. But on the other hand, it must be asked whether he is even representing the Central American community at all? In that short exchange between Don Francisco and Anthony, I personally found it strange that upon being asked about his cultural background, Anthony chose to localize his own origins in the city of Los Angeles, but his parents back in Guatemala–almost as if he didn’t want to be attached to that part of his heritage. And then, seemingly renouncing his Guatemalan origins, Anthony proclaimed his love for Mexico by stoking the ardent fires of Mexican nationalism with a patriotic song. Now, as strange, unnatural, and disconcerting as this whole scenario may seem to a many proud Central Americans, there is a legitimate reason for it.
While a substantial number of written publications have been specific to note that Anthony is indeed Guatemalan-American, in the video interviews I researched for the purposes of this essay, Anthony himself is never forthcoming about his Guatemalan heritage. Now granted, in most interviews with various English-speaking media outlets, Anthony’s Guatemalan ancestry is Not an important detail because, presumably, the English-speaking world (the primary American hegemony) by default just assumes that he is of Mexican origin. However, it’s in the Spanish-speaking interviews where the Guatemalan origins of Anthony’s parents become a point of conversation, and in some ways, a contradiction of competing nationalisms, whose only resolution is to publicly express an unabashed love for Mexico. How so?
Well, according to the story that Anthony and his family has put forth in many interviews, Anthony and his siblings have always had an affinity for mariachi music. In fact, Anthony grew up watching his siblings perform at La Placita Olvera (which has historically been the Mexican heart of Los Angeles), and he decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to performing mariachi professionally. Now I want you, dear reader, to take a moment to ponder what it must have been like for these Guatemalan-American kids to enter and perform professionally in a musical genre that quintessentially and culturally defines Mexican nationalism. Because to be both an openly and vocally proud Central American AND a professional mariachi performer in any entertainment product that will be mass marketed to a Mexican-dominated Latinx audience, is not only anomalous, but a contradiction.
Now, let me be clear, to be a Central American and love mariachi music, even to the point of wanting to perform it professionally in and of itself is not a contradiction. And simply because Anthony loves mariachi does not by default make him a Mexico-phile. Central Americans have been loving mariachi, corridos, and boleros since the days of Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Javier Solis, José Alfredo Jimenez and so on. For generations, Central Americans have grown up listening to all kinds of Mexican music, and we love it to bits. In fact, there are hundreds of mariachi conjuntos all over Central America, who perform and appreciate Mexican music, but nonetheless remain proud to be Central American.
That being said, when presenters on Telemundo and Univisión, television networks whose largest audiences are that precious Mexican demographic, ask Anthony about his Guatemalan origins, they do so because it’s an opportunity to publicly resolve the contradiction of Anthony, a Guatemalan-American boy, portraying a Mexican character (and the most important part), in a $200 million Disney production that absolutely, positively, needs to connect, resonate, represent, and be validated by the Mexican community living in the U.S.
Now, I’m sure many would argue that the Mexican community in the U.S. wouldn’t care one way or another if the voice of Coco had been performed by a non-Mexican Latinx, and that may indeed be the case since, since at the end of the day, Coco is still just an cute animated film, the flavor of the month. But perhaps to Anthony and his family, the film functions as a national public audition for a desired future career in music for Anthony. However, I would ask you to seriously consider the following scenario: what if during the press junkets for Coco, Anthony had announced the following in every interview: “I am a proud Guatemalan and I love mariachi music. ¡Viva latinoamérica!” At this point, I guarantee you would have had a considerable number of Mexican folk on social media complaining how Anthony was not representing Mexico adequately. Mexican nationalism, as a hegemonizing sociocultural mechanism would never allow Anthony to be a proud Guatemalan while serving in the capacity as an appointed representative of Mexican culture.
So unless one wants to be the lonely but proud Central American mariachi who is othered and politely ostracized to the fringes by a puzzled Mexican audience, a smart Central American will keep quiet or minimize their origins and overcompensate by proclaiming one’s love for Mexico from every street corner.
To wit, in another Spanish-speaking interview, this time with Despierta América, the host brings up Anthony’s Guatemalan parents, at which point his mother comes on and delivers the following message to the audience:
“Venimos a Los Angeles hace muchos años. Nuestros hijos nacieron en Los Angeles. Amamos la cultura mexicana.. [she then speaks of advice she gave Anthony]
Hijo, abre tu corazón. Los Angeles es unidad. Estado Unidos es estados unidos. Tu corazón tiene que ser universal. La música es lo mas lindo. Conectas con el público. Da lo que puedas de tí. Lucha por tu gente como César Chávez, Dolores Huerta–tantos líderes que hemos tenido en Los Angeles… Abre tu corazón sin mirar banderas.”
And although to a lot of folks, that may sound like a lovely statement of multicultural Latinidad, in the end, it’s about elevating Mexican culture and history. It’s also about a mother making a calculated effort to legitimize her son as professional mariachi performer and not get rejected for something he loves doing. Would Mexicans ever spend their money to buy concert tickets, CDs, and other paraphernalia for a Guatemalan mariachi?
No self-respecting Central American will scream out “I Love Mexico,” or pay homage/tribute to Mexicans, unless they absolutely need to, whether it is for career advancement, or to not get harassed and beaten up, or simply, to survive.
Mexican Social Media Reaction To Anthony´S "¡Viva Mexico!"
With all the effort that young Anthony Gonzáles and his family have put forth in trying to build a public image that both flatters the Mexican ego while marginally acknowledging the family’s Guatemalan origins, everything seemed to culminate successfully with el grito de “¡Viva Mexico!” at the Oscars. Reactions from Mexican audiences on social media have been overwhelmingly positive, and expectedly, problematic–mostly due to having little if any knowledge or understanding of the complexities and nuances of being a Central American in the Southwest.
Reactions on social media have come in four distinct flavors:
That Guatemalan kid is just wonderful. This is a win for all Latinxs!
That Guatemalan kid is really singing his heart out for Mexico. That’s so cute! Good for him!
That kid loves mariachi and Mexico so much he might as well be Mexican.
That Mexican kid is awesome!
As benign and inclusive as the first statement may seem, ultimately it is most definitely a win for Mexico, but NOT for Latinxs everywhere, no matter what the Coco marketing says. The fact that Anthony is a Guatemalan-American was overshadowed and minimized every single time he exclaimed his love for Mexico and sang dressed up as a charro. And it was totally erased the moment he yelled out ¡Viva Mexico! to an audience of millions. At that moment, he was a vessel for Mexican nationalism, which is the self-appointed representative for all Latinidad before the world of white people. And that phenomenon is not a unique occurrence. In the white imaginary, Mexico continue to be the conveniently local stand-in for the rest of Latin America. And thankfully for Mexico, the mustached Mexican bandolero has ceased to be archetypal antagonist to American
The second statement, again may sound benign, but reeks of paternalism. The fact of the matter is that most Mexican folks don’t know much about Central America, or its peoples. As a cultural hegemony, there is no incentive for Mexicans to really learn anything about the rest of Latin America, especially, Central America and the Caribbean, unless they are somehow exposed to it through mass media. So what they know about Central Americans is largely still a melange of stereotypes, reductive tropes, and whatever sensationalist story Primer Impacto pulls out of its orifices. So outside of the continuous stream of sordid, sad, and altogether negative stories about Central America, the only time we’re actually visible to them is if we address them directly, or even better, is if we ingratiate ourselves to them.
It’s the third and fourth statements that are more worrisome. At this point, whatever semblance of Anthony being a Central American becomes irrelevant because some Mexican folks either collapse him into Mexicanness or flat out just make shit up. Like Anthony being from East Los Angeles, because we all know that to have a legit Mexican/Chicano origin story, the star of Coco needs to have come from the rough barrio streets of East L.A. And his name is probably Antonio, but he changed it to Anthony because like Ricardo Valenzuela (aka Ritchie Valens), he still needs to appeal to the Disney gabachos, right? No, of course not! Because Anthony and his Guatemalan family are not from East L.A. and he is named ‘Anthony’ because we Central Americans love giving our kids anglicized names.
The other statement I find downright disturbing is this notion that inside us poor Central Americans is a Mexican dying to get out, hence, the use of that infamous quote from Chavela Vargas: “¡Los mexicanos nacemos donde nos da la rechingada gana!” While I’m sure that quote serves to puff up Mexican chests with pure unadulterated chingonxness, to me it denotes Mexican nationalism’s quasi-imperialist relationship with Latin America; that is to say, that Mexicans can be born wherever the fuck they want because to be a Mexican is a transcendentalist existence, one that cares for no borders and seeks to correct the malformation of not having been born Mexican. It’s not that different from how American nationalism functions, folks. Of course, it’s an ironic quote given that Chavela Vargas was born in Costa Rica. And while Chavela’s full-on embrace of Mexicanness is understandable given the harsh treatment she received in her homeland as a queer woman, the way her quote is being utilized in this present-day context is to eradicate the wrongness of being Central American.
Some will continue to argue that Coco is just about Mexico and no other nationality, and therefore, who cares about what us Central Americans think or want? And yet, I must contend that 1) the film is still marketed as a triumph for ALL Latinxs, and 2) the principal voice of the film, is nonetheless a Guatemalan-American actor. Nothing changes that. To ignore that Anthony is of Guatemalan descent, is not only an act of erasure, but a disservice to all the Guatemalans AND Central Americans who loved and supported the film Coco. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the only way Coco is a win for Latinx representation is if all Latinxs democratically voted for Mexicans to be our duly appointed representatives to the world of white people.
Some concluding thoughts for fellow central americans
Now let me be clear, Anthony Gonzales is young man who is still developing his own sense of identity, and is entitled to self-identify however he wishes. No one has the right to impose any identity on him nor presume it for him. Yes, for many of us Central Americans, it is a disappointment that he’s not proudly claiming his Guatemalan roots, but then, that’s the reality with so many of our youth. And as unfortunate as it may be that Anthony isn’t repping hard the Central American isthmus, if at all, it’s also unfair to hold it against him. The same goes for his mother. If she’s out there telling the world how much she and her family love Mexico, its because she’s a mother who loves her boy, and wants every avenue of opportunity available to him. It’s no different than our parents kissing up to white people if it will mean an opportunity for us.
At the end of the day, Anthony is a youth who doesn’t deserve to be the subject of a nationalist tug-of-war between adults trying to claim a piece of the representation pie. He is a youth who deserves to do what he loves without the scrutiny of competing nationalisms commodifying him as if he were a Miguel doll. Anthony deserves to have a community who feels proud of his accomplishments, and who will support him on whatever endeavor he chooses for himself. If he ever puts out a mariachi album, I will be more than happy to purchase it.
As for our Central American community, who feels bereft of proper representation, I say this: no one will do it for us, so we must build it for ourselves. We have so many stories that need to be told, on our terms, in our own voices. But luckily, we are overflowing with talent. And though the resources, opportunities, and access for us are limited, like our parents and grandparents before us, somos pueblos trabajadores, and we will create new avenues for ourselves.
Okay, bichxs, that’s as cheerful and optimistic an ending as I can manage. Thank you for taking the time to listen to my ranting.