“I love the girl and the monkey the most,” my 4½ year old daughter says after watching Vivo. The last film of In the heights designers Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes follows a Latin American kinkajou or “honey bear” named Vivo on his quest to fulfill the dying wish of his first human friend, Andrés. Along the way, he reluctantly teams up with Andrés’s grandniece, Gaby, a misfit with purple hair and the girl my daughter particularly loved. And she’s not wrong to focus on these two – their developing friendship is especially sweet and poignant.
But what really hit me Vivo is how the movie portrays Latinx identities as normal. It’s not that the film takes them for granted: rather, it’s the cultura that functions as its baseline. It is woven throughout the film in details that make the story resonate particularly with our communities. For starters, each main character in the film is Latinx and voiced by a Latinx actor. Gaby is played by 13-year-old newcomer Ynairaly Simo, whose talent is matched by a who’s who of Latinx stars including: Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays Vivo; Zoe Saldana, who voices Gaby’s mother, Rosa; and Gloria Estefan, who expresses love interest.
Corn Vivo is not a movie about being Latinx: at least not in the sense In the heights, STARZ Vida, or Netflix Gentified are. These all deal directly with identity and explore what it’s like to be uniquely Latinx while pushing or strengthening our identity markers. While this type of portrayal is important because it helps us determine who we are and why our community matters, it cannot and should not be the only time we see ourselves on screen. Because the truth is, we Latinx don’t spend all day worrying about what it means to be who we are. Most of the time we come from are and it’s important to see this portrayed as well, especially in children’s films reaching a generation that doesn’t have (and hopefully won’t soak up) all of the negative messages that American culture “big” public “sends on what it means to be Latinx. Vivo is a particularly good movie for children because it subtly shows them that there is nothing “different” about having family members who speak Spanish or come from Latin America.
Yes, there are some jokes that will ring louder for the Latinx audience than others (slight spoilers to come). At the beginning there is a scene where someone is almost hit by a car and starts screaming. But in seconds, the driver and pedestrian go from hostile strangers to great friends. Towards the end, our daughter Gaby tries to get out of a sticky situation by telling a blonde haired adult that she doesn’t speak English. But given that this is Miami, the adult’s Spanish ends up being better than Gaby’s. These gags play with fairly common Latinx experiences, nodding to our understanding of ourselves, but can still be enjoyed by a non-Latinx audience. At their core, these moments highlight the fun flexibility of human nature and the awkwardness of being caught in a lie. Who can’t relate to that?
I also liked the way the characters in Vivo do not struggle with their identity or at least not their racial or ethnic origin. No one makes fun of their accent or makes fun of the food they eat. Instead, these things are either celebrated or normalized. In the film, everyone adores Gloria Estefan’s Marta Sandoval as a masterful singer and beloved star. In fact, she sings exclusively in Spanish using Latin American styles, and yet it’s not something that has never been addressed or questioned. Likewise, when Rosa de Zoe Saldana plays the fiercely protective Latina mom. We sympathize and we laugh not at her, but with her. Rosa is every mom, doing what she needs to do to protect her child.
On the other hand, Gaby is labeled as “different”. She has disheveled hair and doesn’t want to sell cookies or wear her troop’s uniform. But it’s just who she is as an individual – she even sings it. “I bounce to the beat of my own drum. I’m a wow in a world full of ho-hum. I’m a wild young lady, but you know, nap? I’d rather be home with my own drum !,” raps she does. So yes, Gaby is unique in her own right, but it’s all down to her daring personality. It has nothing to do with the racial or ethnic group in which she was born.
There is so much freedom in just being able to be yourself – the flaws and all – without being hyper-defined by the narratives of our culture. And this freedom is without cause or comment in Vivo. It’s the kind of world I want my daughter to grow up in. Not the one I had where Latinxes were largely invisible in the media and when they did show up they often played the role of overtly sexy drug dealers or bombshells. it gives me hope that my daughter likes Vivo because the monkey is cute and the songs are catchy. She grows up seeing families like ours represented everywhere and if that isn’t progress, I don’t know what it is.