General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 25 May 2018/9 Alligator
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what Coco means traditionally in Mexico?
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Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

Theatrical release poster for the film Coco

Ideas for learning about the Days of the Dead from the film COCO

The PIXAR film Coco, based on the Mexican Days of the Dead festival, is, we think, SUPERB, and will prove a watershed in raising awareness among kids and the wider British public about Mexico and its cultural traditions. Do go and see it! It’s authentic, very well researched, contains world-class animation, is visually beautiful, and contains a wonderful message about the importance of keeping alive family memories of dead relatives... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’, Museum of Mankind, London, 1991-1993
Pic 1: ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’, Museum of Mankind, London, 1991-1993 (Click on image to enlarge)

Just 15 years ago hardly anyone in the UK had even heard of Mexico’s Day(s) of the Dead festival: it’s Mexico’s biggest annual festival by far, lasts 3 days, has its roots in ancient Mexican cultures, has nothing to do with Halloween, contains humour, warmth, music, food and drink, and is the ultimate, hugely uplifting antidote to gloomy, depressing British attitudes towards death. It’s all about remembering lost family members. Ancient Mexicans had tremendous respect for their ancestors, who were worshipped and constantly invoked by rulers and remembered by everyone through offerings and shrines. Few people know that the biggest exhibition on the Day of the Dead ever held outside Mexico (‘Skeleton at the Feast’) was held over two years at the Museum of Mankind in London.

Pic 2: Preparations for the Day of the Dead, Xico, Jalapa; note the path of marigolds...
Pic 2: Preparations for the Day of the Dead, Xico, Jalapa; note the path of marigolds... (Click on image to enlarge)

Things today are changing fast, and largely thanks to ‘The Book of Life’, James Bond’s Spectre (which opens with a massive Day of the Dead procession in Mexico City) and now Coco, no-one should remain ignorant of this unique and heartwarming Mexican festival. Some of the key elements in Coco that hint at or unlock aspects of the Day of the Dead tradition:-
• Glorious, colourful rendition of how Mexican family altars - and cemeteries all over the country - are decorated for the festival (from October 31st to November 2nd)
• The important role of the marigold (cempaxúchitl), laid out to form a path from grave to family altar at home
• The importance of ofrendas (offerings) - always the dead person’s favourite food and drink, and of course of family photos!
• The ‘crossover’ between the worlds of the living and of spirits

Pic 3: ‘Papel picado’ commemorating the pioneering Skeleton at the Feast exhibition on the Day of the Dead at the Museum of Mankind, London
Pic 3: ‘Papel picado’ commemorating the pioneering Skeleton at the Feast exhibition on the Day of the Dead at the Museum of Mankind, London (Click on image to enlarge)

• The prominence of papel picado (paper bunting) in all Mexican festivals and celebrations
• The unique hairless dog, the xoloizcuintli, native to Mexico, believed to be a guide to the underworld (and hence buried with the dead person in Aztec times)
• The uniquely Mexican alebrije - brightly coloured papier maché figure of a fantastic, mythical creature. The alebrije is NOT ancient in Mexico: it was created by the country’s leading paper maché artist Felipe Linares when ill in hospital in the 1930s. His son (also Felipe) stayed with us during his residency at the Skeleton at the Feast exhibition in London in the 1990s

Pic 4: The jaguar was a powerful ‘nahual’ in ancient Mexico; Museum of Anthropology, Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico
Pic 4: The jaguar was a powerful ‘nahual’ in ancient Mexico; Museum of Anthropology, Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

• The VERY ancient idea of a ‘spirit guide’, companion or animal spirit believed in by the Aztecs, the Maya and other pre-Hispanic peoples. The common name for this in Mexico is the nahual (a Nahuatl word). In the film we learn that Miguel’s spirit guide is Dante, the hairless dog, who transforms in the end into an alebrije. Of course Harry Potter has one (Patronus, the stag). So do the characters in Philip Pullman’s series Northern Lights (the ‘daemon’)...

We provide below some links to further information on most of the above, some within the Mexicolore website, others on the web generally.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture from Wikipedia
• Pix 2 & 3: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 4: photo by Karel Baresh/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 21st 2018

Our introduction to the Day of the Dead

The Aztecs and the Day of the Dead

Learn more about the Aztecs and the xoloitzcuintle dog

Los Nahuales - a story about animal spirit guides in Mexico

‘Nahual or daemon?’

‘7 Things You Didn’t Know About Coco’ (Disney)
Learn more about ‘alebrijes’ (Wikipedia)
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