The Book of Life: Testimony of a Shared Heritage?

For centuries the United States (and what were once the British colonies/US territories) has been intertwined with the people who live in the area today known as Mexico. In fact, part of the USA, the state of Texas and much of the Southwest was part of Spanish territory. Although in the north of the USA one does not readily feel this legacy as strongly, it is quite obvious in the region that used to be part of Spanish territory/Mexico, and that currently share a border with Mexico.
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As a child growing up in New York City, Spanish was always there, but there were no (or very few) Mexicans. The majority of Spanish speakers were Puerto Ricans or Nuyoricans, and perhaps some Cubans. Gradually this began to change and today in New York City (and its tri-state area, including New Jersey and Connecticut), Spanish speakers hail from all over Latin America and Spain. There is even a sizeable Mexican immigrant population–even though some of them hardly speak Spanish, but indigenous languages.  It is fascinating to see today that Mexican culture has spread from the Southwest to the East Coast via more recent immigration. The midwest already had a Mexican-American population which came by early railroad to work in agricultural and meat packing industries some four generations ago.

Words like “fiesta,” “cinco de mayo,” “loco”, “no problema” are now part of the American English lexicon. Americans not only eat at Mexican restaurants and fast food joints, but also have been preparing chile, tacos and other Mexican-derived foods for decades. Go into any grocery store in the country and you’ll find tortillas, guacamole, tortilla chips, jalapeños and salsa. In spite of the love-hate relationship with Mexico–the rejection of it expressed through rabid xenofobia and prejudice against Mexican immigrants, and the acceptance through the consistent use of cheap immigrant labor and more positively, the cultural mixing–it cannot be denied that there are certain areas of the USA that have always been hispanic. These are: Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. For sure,  Mexico and many things mexican, are now in our blood.

The Alamo. San Antonio, TX

The Alamo. San Antonio, TX

The fun and colorful children’s film The Book of Life (in Spanish: El libro de la vida) is a reflection of this history and cultural intermingling. It unites a cast of talented, mostly latino voice actors to tell a love story–the triangle between Manolo, Joaquín and Maria. Guillermo del Toro, of Mexican descent produced the animated feature and Plácido Domingo (opera) and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek) and Kate del Castillo (Mexican soap operas and Bajo la misma luna) are well known international celebrities that lend their talents.

The Mexican holiday, Dia de los muertos, The Day of the Dead, is prominent in the film. This holiday has Aztec origins but was tolerated by the Catholic Church in Mexico. The Day of the Dead is a remembering of those that have passed on. But unlike the somber funeral of mourning, that is characteristic of death in U.S. culture, it is celebratory and festive. The Day of the Dead is often celebrated as two days in some parts of Mexico. One day is in rememberance of the infants and children who have died and the other day is for the adults. The concept behind it is that by remembering what these people were like, one will feel their presence on The Day of the Dead.  They will return in spirit. Mexican people who celebrate it, go to cemetaries with flowers, music and food and have a big party to welcome back their dead ancestors. They also make altars at home too, with candles, skulls, mask, and figurines that represent their dead loved ones and ancestors. There is a special pan de muertos (bread for the dead) that is baked for this holiday. The figurines show their deceased family doing activities that they enjoyed doing while alive and other foods and beverages that they liked are also prepared. All of these features of the holiday appear in the movie and the characters even look like the skeletal dolls that represent the dead on the altars.

Day of the Dead figures

Day of the Dead figures

The movie is lighthearted and the characters endearing. It is full of color, music and folklore. It is spoken and sung mostly in English, but there is a Spanish version that is playing in Spanish speaking countries. The Book of Life meshes the Mexican with the United States language (English) and its manner of presenting the story is simple and accessible to most. It is perhaps consoling to Mexican-Americans living in the Southwest, and familiar to a younger generation of “anglos” who have learned of Day of the Dead in school or in community events. At any rate, this is an uplifting and fun story that is educational and enjoyable to watch unfold. Go see it!

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