Is Miguel Musical?
Philip Brett once winkingly asked “Are you musical?” noting the historical slippage between musical and gay identities which “exist in an uneasy relation.”<1> Both represent dissident forms of being in a macho-normative culture, and as Brett trenchantly put it, “All musicians are faggots in the parlance of the male locker room.”<2> For LGBTQ children who experience disproportinate amounts of bullying from peers, disapproval from parents, and the scorn of community and political leaders, “music appears as a veritable lifeline.”<3> Reflecting on his adolescent habit of listening to Broadway soundtracks in a suburban basement, D. A. Miller wondered how many other young queer boys harnessed “the strength to endure a depressive status quo” and realized through music’s “interruptive mode-shifting” their fantasy of “sending the whole world packing?”<4> Miguel Rivera, the protagonist of Disney/Pixar’s Coco, is one such boy.
Generations ago, the premature death of her musician husband left Miguel’s great-great grandmother, Imelda, brokenhearted with a child to raise on her own and a smoldering hatred of musicians. Banishing music forever, the Riveras stewarded subsequent generations away from the dishonorable musical lifestyle, toward the sensible family shoemaking trade. Although his family reprimands him that “a Rivera is a shoemaker, through and through,” Miguel resists, insisting that “I am not like the rest of my family.” He longs to escape the humdrum banality of a cobbler’s life and dreams of becoming a famous musician, playing to huge crowds, and sharing his talents with the world. While Miguel’s desires clash with those of his family, he embraces his innate musicality and, deus ex Disney, embarks on a fantastical quest to pursue his destiny. Miguel’s plight constitutes a queer narrative framed as a specifically musical struggle.
Miguel’s Musical Closet
Closed spaces factor in the lives of many Disney characters who face tensions between social norms and their identities. For instance, Ariel stores a vast collection of human stuff in a secret grotto concealed behind a massive stone door whose metaphorical suggestions myriad: the tomb of Christ from which the transfigured savior emerges or the homosexual closet which Sedgwick identifies as the central trope of contemporary culture. Ariel’s closet provided her comfort but also elicited anxiety that she would be discovered. Upon discovering Ariel’s secret space, Triton panics, destroying her collection in the process and propelling Ariel’s quest to inhabit a body that feels natural to her, a journey Spencer interprets as a transgender narrative.<5> Miguel, too, has a secret hidden behind an old sign above the family workroom. There, he escapes his music-hating abuela to find solace among musical bric-a-brac: album jackets, photographs, and VHS tapes containing black-and-white movie musicals starring his idol, the late Ernesto de la Cruz.
Weston identifies three salient characteristics of coming-out narratives, all of which are embedded in Miguel’s story: 1) a sense of deep and enduring social isolation, 2) searching for LGBTQ traces in a variety of media forms, and 3) a draw toward urban spaces.<6> Surveying his ancestors on the ofrenda and in family stories, Miguel can find few traces of a musical past; therefore, he feels isolated and alone, like he might be the only musician in his entire family. Although he identifies as musical deep in his bones and makes numerous direct statements about the queerness of his desire, Miguel fears that his family will neither understand nor accept this part of his identity. So, he turns to Weston’s second stage, “tracking the gay imaginary” in print and broadcast media.
By collecting de la Cruz ephemera, Miguel constructs his own musical/queer genealogy using popular culture for guidance. According to Halperin, LGBTQs “routinely cherish non-gay artifacts and cultural forms [because they] offer a way of escaping from their particular personal queerness into total, global queerness. In the place of an identity, they are offered a world.”<7> Decoding heterosexual artifacts like movies, plays, songs, and music videos, queer folks empty them of straight meaning and refill these cultural vessels with their own meaning. Strong identification with powerful musical figures is a hallmark of queer identity. Opera and musical theater queens obsess over biographical trivia, collect ephemera, and seek out rare recordings—all venerated objects in rites of diva worship.
While the typical diva is female (Maria Callas, Barbra Streisand, or Madonna; Bette Davis and Joan Crawford), de la Cruz presents a masculine spin on the diva figure, a male diva. Modeled after Mexican singer-actors Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, who rose to fame in Mexico’s cinematic golden age during the 1940s, De la Cruz at first appears wholly unreachable, visible only through the fuzzy glow of the television. In his secret altar to de la Cruz (a name meaning, literally, “of the Cross”) centered around the television screen, Miguel performs the rites of diva worship: he practices on his makeshift guitar and mimics the language, vocal inflections, gestures, and sounds of his musical idol.
Rivera Family Ofrenda
Miguel’s family, in turn, traces their heritage through another, older media form: the photograph. Ancestors appear in black-and-white portraits on the family ofrenda for the Day of the Dead. Atop the altar stands a picture of Mamá Imelda, her infant daughter Coco, and the headless body of a great-great grandfather, whose name cannot be uttered. When Miguel accidentally shatters the frame holding this photograph, he discovers that the headless male figure holds a guitar, which Miguel recognizes as the famous instrument of Ernesto de la Cruz who he wrongly surmises is his great-great grandfather.
Miguel Discovers the Photograph
Emboldened by the discovery of his own musical legacy, Miguel flings open the closet door, proudly coming out as a musician. Like King Triton, Miguel’s abuela flies into a rage, denounces his newly-proclaimed identity, tosses his collection of de la Cruz ephemera into the trash, and destroys her grandson’s guitar with a terse rebuff: NO MUSIC! Following Brett’s musical-queer calculus, this action is not simply a rejection of Miguel’s desire to be a musician but also a rebuff against his queerness. Over the ruins of his guitar, a distraught Miguel fires back at the matriarch, “I don’t want to be a part of this stupid family!”
Miguel in his Attic
The explosive confrontation with his family motivates Miguel’s flight from the Land of the Living in search of a broader, musical family in the Land of the Dead. That flight, at the same time, takes Miguel from village to city. For many LGBTQs, the city “represents a beacon of tolerance and gay community [because] its anonymity [offered] a refuge from the discipline of small-town surveillance.” Like another famous queer media icon, Miguel follows his own Yellow Brick Road—in this case, a magical marigold version of the Golden Gate Bridge that leads to the City of the Dead, a necropolis populated with queer figures including the ghost of Frida Kahlo and plenty of musicians, including Ernesto de la Cruz and Miguel’s own great, great grandfather, Hector Rivera. Carrying the stigma of a soiled identity, Miguel flees his family, and like generations of LGBTQ refugees, hopes to discover his heritage and forge a future on his own terms.
The Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco
Marigold Bridges to the City of the Dead
When Miguel crosses over into the Land of the Dead, he enters a Disneyfied version of Halberstam’s “queer time and place,” a neon-infused landscape that turns Mexico’s ancient topography inside out. Monolithic temples anchor the bustling metropolis but also blend into its architecture. The ruins of indigenous empires, literal building Blocks for modern cities, are reconstituted in The Land of the Dead, bringing past and present into direct contact. Miguel’s crossing-over into “musicality” is facilitated by his temporal border crossing into a space where past becomes present. This collision between life/death and past/present parallels the formation of queer identities out of the detritus of straight, mainstream culture, using the passé to refashion fabulous futures. Miguel finds himself caught between two worlds. If he remains in the Land of the Living, he cannot live as a musician. Yet if he remains in the land of the dead, his animated flesh transforms to skeleton and bones. We can literally see inside Miguel and discern his essential resemblance to his musical/artistic/queer ancestors in the Land of the Dead.
Whereas Miguel felt queer in the Land of the Living, he finds support in the Land of the Dead; he even receives the appellation of “artist” from Frida Kahlo. Her validation inspires Miguel to embrace his musical identity by singing a “coming out” song, “Un Poco Loco,” in the Plaza de la Cruz, an inverse of the Mariachi Plaza stage upon which he is forbidden to perform by his living family. Among the dead, Miguel finds the queer musical family he has searched for, exemplified above all by Hector Rivera, Miguel’s true great-great grandfather who first appears as Frida Kahlo in-drag. This cross-dressing ancestor helps to redirect Miguel’s fixation on the ultra-masculine De la Cruz towards a recognition of an even broader musical family that includes Mamá Imelda, whose musical performance toward the movie’s finale helps to expose De la Cruz as a false diva.
Once redeemed in the Land of the Dead, however, Miguel must return to the Land of the Living by securing the blessing of an ancestor before sunrise, when the Day of the Dead ends. Miguel’s race against cosmic time mirrors the mythological journey of the Quetzalcoatl, the mythological Mesoamerican “Plumed Serpent” who sets out to recuperate human bones from the Land of the Dead to repopulate the earth. Miguel will act as such an agent of change in the film’s final scene, bringing with him the lessons of his ancestors to create a new normal in which his queer identity as a musician is accepted and even celebrated.
Miguel and Hector perform “Un Poco Loco”
Miguel receives ancestral blessing
Animal companions are common in Disney films; heroines from Snow White to Ariel have plenty of animal friends but few meaningful human interactions. Miguel befriends a dog called Dante, surely an allusion to the author of the Divine Comedy whose portrayal of purgatory remains one of the most terrifying literary expressions of the Catholic hell. Similarly, the ancient Aztecs, the Land of the Dead (Mictlan in Nahuatl) consisted of nine layers through which a soul journeyed to reach their final resting place. The Mexican hairless dog xoloitzcuintli, xolotl for short, served as a guide for the deceased, taking its canine form from the belief that when burying or digging for bones, dogs dug a path to the underworld. A loyal companion who is easily distracted by the lure of his next meal, Dante is on his own transformative journey to become a fluorescent, rainbow-colored alebrije (spirit guide). In this way, Dante, too “comes out” to reveal his true self and facilitate Miguel’s own self-actualization.
Proud Corázon: Coming Out and the New Family Normal
In the final scene, Miguel’s voice sings over bustling family action: food preparation, gathering of objects for the ofrenda, including a portrait of Mama Coco who died during the intervening year. People spread Marigold petals to guide ancestral spirits home. The camera pans across the Rivera family yard, coming to rest on Miguel dressed in a Mariachi costume. Surrounded by his living family and his departed ancestors, Miguel’s coming out is complete. He sings a song, “Proud Corázon,” about the importance of family bonds, love, and the “song played on the strings of our souls.” The Rivera family has accepted Miguel’s new identity and integrated it into a new family normal in which musical/queer identity registers as an important part of their lineage and, importantly, their future.
The final Scene: Miguel as Mariachi on the Day of the Dead
Brett, Phillip. “Are You Musical?: Phillip Brett Charts the Rise of the New Gay and Lesbian Musicology.” The Musical Times 135/1816 (1994): 370-374 + 376.
---. “Musicality, Essentialism, and the Closet” in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, eds. Brett, Thomspon, and Wood. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Space: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005.
Haplerin, David. How to be Gay. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.
Miller, D. A. Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Spencer, Leland. “Performing Transgender Identity in The Little Mermaid: From Andersen to Disney.” Communication Studies 65/1 (2014): 112-127.
Weston, Kath. “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration.” GLQ 2 (1995): 253-277.
<1>Philip Brett, “Are You Musical?” and Brett, “Musicality, Essentialism, and the Closet,” 17.
<2>Brett, “Musicality,” 17-18.
<3>Brett, “Musicality,” 17.
<4>Miller, Place for Us, 7-11.
<5>Spencer, “Performing Transgender Identity in The Little Mermaid.”
<6>Weston, “Get Thee to a Big City,” 257-258.
<7>Halperin, How to Be Gay, 112.
Martín Vega Olmedo is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 2016 he graduated from the University of Michigan with a PhD in Romance Languages and Literatures and went on to teach at Harvard University as a College Fellow. Currently he is writing a book on the role of beauty, colors, and cosmetic techniques in the conquest of Mexico. His work deals broadly with indigenous cultures, colonialism and gender in Latin America and the US borderlands.
Matthew J. Jones (PhD: Critical & Comparative Studies of Music, UVA 2014) is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Miami University of Ohio. His work explores intersections of American music, sexuality, illness, and social justice. He is a recipient of the 2017 ASCAP Deems Taylor/ Virgil Thomson Article Award for Concert Music Criticism for his essay “Enough of Being Basely Tearful: ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ and the Camp Politics of Queer Resistance” in The Journal of the Society for American Music. His work also appears in Women and Music and The Journal of Popular Music Studies as well as the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Music and Queerness and Joni Mitchell: New Critical Readings. He is currently at work on a book project about music, affect, and AIDS activism.