In the lead-up to the release of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album in 2015, I remember having what could only be categorized as a very peculiar feeling: nervousness. And it wasn’t that fun version of nervousness that exists as a byproduct of excitement. It was nervousness that existed as a byproduct of fear. Because I felt like there were some very real stakes involved for TPAB.
By then, in addition to all the already-existing internet hype, Kendrick had put out Section.80 (which was very, very strong) and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, which was instantly (and correctly) deemed a classic rap album. And just off the strength of those two projects, he was a legitimate dynamo, and that’s without even mentioning his work outside of the context of his own studio albums (his guest verse on Big Sean’s “Control”—wherein he took measure of who he saw as the biggest threats to his eventual rap supremacy and then hit them all in the face one by one with a fucking sledgehammer—remains essential; and him getting snubbed at the 2014 Grammys somehow made him seem even more like a culture winner than if he’d actually won). And so, genuinely, the implications were already clear by that point: Kendrick was angling toward becoming the best, most important, most vital rapper of hip-hop’s new era.
So when To Pimp a Butterfly was about to come out, it had the weight of all that leaning up against its backside, which is a massive amount of pressure for a record to have to withstand. If it had been a dud—or, in fact, anything less than stellar—it would have surely unraveled the case Kendrick had spent the better part of four years indirectly building for himself. And that’s why I was nervous: Because I was not comfortable with the level of risk that had become baked into the release. I’d grown to love Kendrick, and I’d also grown to believe (like many, many others) that he was going to be rap’s next pivot point; a generational talent who, 25 years from now, people would look back at a chart of the trajectory of rap and point to a spot on the line and say, “There it is. Right there. That’s where Kendrick Lamar etched his name into lore.”
Now, fortunately (and blessedly), To Pimp a Butterfly was a masterwork; a genre-bending rap album that had an immediate and unavoidable gravity. It was daring and brave and smart and lush and, somehow, familiar and brand new all at once. And, perhaps most importantly, it was also a perfect encapsulation of the urgency and necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is to say it was a snapshot of America, and that is a thing only a small basket of rap albums could ever legitimately claim to be. And so Kendrick’s claim as heir to the throne was bolstered with its release.
But, to the original point: I’ll always remember that pre-release nervousness. And though it’s not exactly the same, I had a similar sort of feeling once the rollout began for Coco, Pixar’s newest movie.
A summation of Coco is as such: A little boy wants to be a musician, but his family does not want him to be a musician, but it doesn’t matter because the universe wants the little boy to be a musician, and so through mysticism and majesty, the little boy becomes a musician.
Here’s the thing, though—and I almost don’t even want to use “here’s the thing, though” to begin to describe this because it’s so huge—but here’s the thing, though: The little boy—and everyone else—is Latino. And what’s more, they are (a) Latino while (b) in a movie that is being presented not as a backdoor totem, but as a very real, very legit, potentially canonizable entry into the Pixar universe. Which is why I had that same nervous feeling as with Kendrick and TPAB. Think on it like this: We (and I’m saying “we” right now as “Latinos,” because I am speaking for every Latino on the planet at the moment, a right that was granted to me by the elder councilman at our most recent Latino meeting, which was held in the parking lot of a carniceria and overseen by the ghost of Selena Quintanilla) have been saying for so long that our stories, too, deserved to be told and celebrated and accepted. If, when finally given the opportunity to do so in a big-budget movie meant for worldwide consumption, the story turned out to be boring and lifeless and unimaginative and uninteresting, then it would be a very real critical blow.
It would be a disaster, for real.
It would be the worst possible thing.
It would be reason for those in charge to say, “See? Told you. Now bugger off, little brown people. Scurry away back to your Knights of Columbus halls for your quinceañeras.”
Do you know the first fictional Latino cartoon character who I think about when I’m asked to do such a thing? (I will admit that it’s not a question I am asked to consider very often.) It’s Slowpoke Rodriguez, cousin to Speedy Gonzalez. I really enjoyed Slowpoke Rodriguez when I was a kid. I thought he was funny and at least a little bit cool, what with his whole thing being that he didn’t even bother to care about running fast like Speedy because he could just carry a gun to shoot people in the face, which is exactly what he did in every episode in which he appeared.
Back in 2013, I mentioned him in passing to one of the classes I was teaching at the time and was absolutely floored that none of the kids (nearly all of whom were Latino) knew who I was talking about. “How can you all not know who Slowpoke Rodriguez is?” I asked. “He’s one of, like, four Mexican cartoon characters.” They started mentioning newer Latino cartoon characters on TV that I’d only sideways or halfway heard about—Dora the Explorer, Manny the Builder, people like that—but I bucked back. I said, “Just watch this because this guy was great,” and then I called up a clip on the class computer of Slowpoke Rodriguez where these two cats are talking about not being able to catch Speedy Gonzalez. One of them mentions catching Slowpoke Rodriguez instead, at which point the other cat (Jose) runs off, finds Slowpoke Rodriguez, catches him, then gets shot in the face. As the shooting is about to happen, the first cat is running behind the second cat. He drunkenly shouts, “Ay, Jose! There’s something I forgot to told you!” It’s right then that Jose gets shot, to which the first cat responds by saying, “That’s what I wanted to told you. Slowpoke Rodriguez … he pack a gun.” Then Jose, somehow even more ignorantly than the first cat, looks at the camera and clumsily says, “Now he tolds me,” and the scene ends.
When it was over, I could feel the kids looking at me, and so I said, “That’s maybe not a great example.” Then I clicked on the next clip, and it was Slowpoke Rodriguez knocking on Sylvester the Cat’s door. When Sylvester opens it, Slowpoke says, “Is this where lives it my cousin, Señor Speedy Gonzalez?” Sylvester, sensing an opportunity to eat him, invites him in, and then as Slowpoke walks toward Speedy’s mouse hole he honest to god sings a song in Spanish about being mad that a guy doesn’t have any marijuana for him to smoke. It was incredible, and so much worse than I’d remembered (because, honestly, I’d remembered Slowpoke Rodriguez fondly). They packed, like, at least 15 or 20 just terribly racist things into just those two minutes of TV.
So Slowpoke is who I thought about every time I watched Miguel, who is the star of Coco, and it just makes me very happy that my sons are going to have Miguel to look at (Miguel is a precocious, charming, silly, easy-to-fall-in-love-with little boy) and not Slowpoke Rodriguez. (Here’s a bad thing: Despite Slowpoke Rodriguez being a first-ballot selection into the Problematic Hall of Fame, I’m always going to care about him and love him. I wish I was strong enough and smart enough to not be that way.)
Back around April, I was in Los Angeles for work-related things and ended up at the Disney facilities for a tour, part of which included getting a peek at Coco that had not yet made its way out onto the internet. It was a neat experience, and when it was over I could tell that the guy who’d orchestrated the visit—a very likable (and also Latino) guy—was very invested in whatever my response was going to be. And I told him then a version of what I’m going to tell you now, and what everyone will soon see because Coco is in theaters: That the nervousness I felt around the film was (going to be) for naught.
Because, and this is the very best news: Coco (it certainly seems) was built by people who wanted to make a movie that relied zero percent on going, “Hey, look at these wacky non-white people doing wacky non-white-people things, isn’t it strange,” and 100 percent on going, “Hey, look at people doing things, isn’t it great,” which is always the best way to handle things. It is good. And grand. And smart. And vibrant. And we get to say all of those things without a “Latino” qualifier in it, like how nobody said anything like, “Inside Out really delivered for a white film.”
In total, Coco is a beautiful movie that has been cared for deeply.