One of my children was recently visiting me in Israel and I decided to peruse with him some old photo albums to review our family history. In the albums were images of family members, close and distant relatives, and friends from different communities in which we lived.
Much to my surprise, I could not identify many people in the pictures. Out of sight for a long time, they were also out of mind. I could not remember them; it was as if they no longer existed. The theme of memory is central to Coco, an animated feature about a young boy whose memory of the past provides a gateway to understanding his future.
Miguel is a 12-year-old Mexican boy and a budding musician. For some unknown reason, his family has placed a ban on all music, which conflicts with his desire to make a career out of music. Things come to a head when, through a serendipitous event, Miguel is magically transported to the Land of the Dead, a place where the dead continue to live if they are still remembered by the living. Here Miguel can meet his musical idol Ernesto de la Cruz and discover for himself the reason for his family’s ban on music.
In the Land of the Dead, Miguel meets Hector, a skeleton with musical talents, who will assist Miguel in his search for his family’s secrets. Hector takes the job as Miguel’s guide when Miguel promises to take his photo back to the Land of the Living to give to his daughter so that he can, in some mystical way, be reconnected to his daughter and prevent her from forgetting him. He implores Miguel to carry out this mission so that his daughter’s love for him will survive eternally: “When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.”
Along the way, Miguel learns that Imelda Rivera, his great grandmother, was abandoned by her husband who left her and her 3-year old child Coco to pursue a career in music. Music was the root cause of the family’s disintegration and Imelda opened a shoe-making business to enable her family to survive financially. These memories animate the past and create a living legacy for Miguel, who finally discovers secrets and misunderstandings that led to his family’s ban on music. Hector reminds him: “Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life, in the stories they tell about us.”
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, reflects on the purpose of memory: “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.” Jews on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, recite the Yizkor prayer, the memorial liturgy for those who are no longer with us in this life. Its recital evokes in our minds and hearts the memories of all those family members who were close to us and who now dwell in the uncharted beyond. By preserving their memory, we can emulate their positive behaviors and incorporate their attributes into our own lives. Saying Yizkor reminds us that the good deeds a person performed when he was a vibrant human being have a ripple effect on those who remain alive after his death. Yizkor, indeed, opens a door leading to eternity, a link between generations.
Coco is more than a typical animated feature. It is a meditation on death and on the connections between the living and the dead that survive and transcend the end of life. Miguel keeps the memory of his ancestors alive, and in so doing creates a happy future for himself, a future grounded in the rich history of the past.