Coco tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a talented young guitar player who dreams of becoming a musician. The only problem is that his extended family has banished music. Ever since Miguel’s great great grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter to pursue his dreams of becoming a famous singer, music has not been allowed in the Rivera household. The tension between Miguel’s desire to pursue his passion for music and his family’s wishes cannot be resolved until the characters learn a lesson that carries biblical undertones: our personal fulfillment is not the point of our callings.
Coco takes place during the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, when families remember loved ones who have died by placing their photos and favorite foods on ofrendas, or candle-strewn altars. Rejecting his family’s wishes during his village’s celebration, Miguel tries to enter a talent contest by stealing the guitar from the memorial for his musician hero, Ernesto de la Cruz. With a strum of the strings, however, he is transported to the Land of the Dead. There he encounters other family members who have died and are equally upset about his musical ambitions. And so he sets off to find his great great grandfather, hoping that his blessing as a musician will send him back to the living.
Contemporary culture tells us that we are to pursue our individual happiness above all else, and for much of Coco this is what Miguel does, at great cost to others. Because he has taken the photo of his great great grandmother from his family’s ofrenda, she is unable to cross over to the Land of the Living to visit during Dia de los Muertos. Miguel also abandons Hector, his guide in the Land of the Dead, when he seems to stand in the way of Miguel’s dreams. While family members search for Miguel on both sides of the divide, he stubbornly pursues his own desires. Like Miguel, when it is all about us it is easy to lose sight of others—often they become tools in service of our schemes, rather than neighbors to be loved.
Miguel eventually learns the hard way that idols cannot be trusted.
Indeed, we soon understand that Miguel’s obsession with music has become an idol. Back home, he spent hours in a secret hiding place dedicated to de la Cruz, even building a miniature ofrenda to honor his hero. Miguel eventually learns the hard way that idols cannot be trusted; they always turn on you, and when you are following them you are actually on a path to destruction.
God has plans for us, but so often we act as if it is the other way around. We have plans that we feverishly pursue, with maybe a word from God here or a prayer there. We make our callings about us, about our personal fulfillment, about our happiness. As Sharon Hodde Miller points out in her book, Free of Me, “The problem of self-focus is not simply what it does to our souls, but what it does to the world. When we are so distracted with ourselves and our own lives, we never get to the work of actually living out our faith.”
The truth is our callings are not about us, they are means for God’s glory. Accepting this truth is actually freeing. When it is not about us, our success is not measured by our accolades or audiences, but by our faithfulness to the One who called. In Coco, Miguel had a God-given ability. While his family was wrong to discourage his talent, his pursuit of personal fulfillment without concern for his family put Miguel in danger. Miguel’s deliverance came when he used his gifts with his family, when it was no longer about him as an individual. Only when his goal became bigger than himself was he was able to make his way back to the land of the living. It’s a reminder that our callings are best lived in community for God’s glory. Only when it is not about us can true flourishing and fulfillment be found.