Recently, I had the opportunity to watch Pixar’s new animated film Coco. Seeing the reflection of a deep, profound and beautiful heritage was meaningful and yet, mine have never been rose colored glasses. How Native Americans and Latinos are imagined and represented continues to be an issue in society. There were some uncomfortable moments for me, particularly in how Mictlan (Land of the Dead) was portrayed as a border town, where even for the dead producing identification and recognition continues to define the ability not only to cross, but to exist at all.
Although I have always endeavored to emphasize a critical remembering of the stories that have been and continue to be told about any marginalized communities, particularly those impacted by colonialism, this work is also always informed by a creative reimagining, where we must work to not only to recover and retell the stories of who we are, but to create new ones. In this way, in watching this film, I was drawn to the narrative focus — the power of memory as well as family trauma and intergenerational healing.
In this viewing, I also could not help but recall my own childhood. While comic book superheroes fueled my childhood imagination in the 1970s, allowing me to soar and to right wrongs, none of the cartoons of that era ever seemed to reflect who I was, as me — a human child being raised on a farm in northern New Mexico, a Hispano, whose identity had been forged by a complex ancestry connecting me to ancient and sovereign indigenous communities as well as to Mexican culture, even if the these particularly components of my identity had been silenced and obscured through the centuries.
Although I could watch these cartoons on the television that my parents had and did, in reality, I spent much of my youth with my grandmother. She, had an amazingly large console TV, but I never once witnessed her turn it on. The console was a perfect platform, however for family photographs, which were carefully placed on other ledges and walls throughout the house. Mama Andrellita was also one of the most gifted storytellers I have ever known. We would sit on the porch as she storied places, people and moments in time, effectively teaching me how memory and story were the connective tissue between people separated by time and space. Embedded in those stories was also the wisdom that she knew I would need as I navigated through the world.
Since that time, and for nearly two decades I have had the privilege of serving as a public historian, both grounding my research and interpretation and developing a practice that connects the past and the present and that largely emphasizes stories that have been obscured, silenced and erased entirely. I have often recognized that being a public scholar requires of me the knowledge that the past is like the people, places and events that it records, all subject to power. In this way, who tells the story matters. We are living in a moment where the clash of race and memory has become increasingly more visible, particularly in how history is manifest and made monumental in public spaces. In this, my work has always been an effort to brush history against the grain, knowledge against power, and above all to find ways to create openings for dialogue and understanding.
Because I have also always endeavored to advance equity in history, ensuring that all can see themselves reflected in the past, I have continued to draw upon this philosophy and practice in my current work as an independent consultant. This work has most recently involved emphasizing the transcendent power of culture toward healing community. In New Mexico we have only begun to measure the cultural wounds that come from historic trauma, the spiritual, emotional and psychological wounding has many points of origin and manifestations that have been passed down over generations for hundreds of years. But watching Coco reminded me that these traumas are sometimes deeply embedded in families and healing therefore often necessarily begins at home.
In the film, we learn early on that music has been banned for five generations in the Rivera household, the decision of the family matriarch when her husband leaves her daughter, Coco, to pursue a career in music. While four generations of the Rivera family seemed to have accepted the ban, the film’s main protagonist, 12-year old Miguel Rivera dreams of becoming a musician and when his passion is discovered and his grandmother smashes his guitar, believing that she is protecting him, he painfully defies her, and runs away. I cried in that moment, because I have seen so many families in my community broken in that way, divisions over tradition, honor, or creating their path.
Here is where the magic occurs, as the film is temporally set by el Dia de los Muertos, an ancient and beautiful (if not overly commodified in the U.S.) Mexican tradition of remembering the dead by placing their photographs on an altar surrounded by what once nourished them when they were living. Miguel accidently finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead, where we learn that even in death, spirits need healing from the traumas that impacted them in life. We learn that while the Rivera family had a part of the story, what had been passed down from generation to generation was an incomplete telling. Healing requires a recounting of the full story, where the past can be revealed, to the dead and living alike.
We have only begun to measure the depths of the cultural wounds left from the past. While it is critical to trace the jagged edges, it is also important to recognize that our collective identity is both born out of the past and nourished by it as well. There is a delicacy, but also strength in what we do to collectively change what we are. Recovery, healing and transcendence begin with a critical remembering, but also frame a creative reimagining of the present and future. In this way, I know that recovery, healing and transcendence lies in the capacity, as it always has, of awakening a practice of memory that does not complicate history, but invites us to make it.
In my work using culture to heal from intergenerational trauma, I have come to recognize that there are many strategies, including storytelling and photographs that can be used to raise consciousness and strengthen community. In Coco, Miguel realizes that in the Land of the Dead, the dead can disappear entirely when not remembered by the living. When Miguel learns the identity of his great-great grandfather, and learns also that Coco is the only living person who can remember him, his challenge is to return his ancestor’s photograph to the altar in the Land of the Living and with a song, Coco remembers her father and in the remembering restores a torn photograph of her family and in doing so restores those living generations just before she herself closes her eyes forever.
In reality, navigating this restorative process is not that easy in real life. However, mine is an optimism and this effort to use photographs to heal communities and families is a project that I have been swept up into as Facebook groups have recently formed in my home villages of Taos County, where over 3000 people on each site have joined, daily adding postings of ancestors, photographs and stories alike, connecting families separated by time and space. It is one of the most profound groundswells of a community memory project that I have ever witnessed, a critical, loving and regenerative remembering.