Here's why 'The Casagrandes Movie' is set in Michoacán

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Fans of the Nickelodeon show “The Casagrandes” showed their love for the animated series about a Mexican American family when “The Casagrandes Movie” debuted on Netflix on March 22. It wasn’t long before the film, directed by the show’s creator Miguel Puga, entered the streaming site’s top 10 in 57 countries, standing alongside other productions that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

For Puga, having his humbly budgeted epic tale among those titles is a badge of honor.

“The Casagrandes Movie” begins when its young heroine Ronnie Anne (Izabella Alvarez) turns 12 and plans to spend the summer skating with her daredevil best friend Sid Chang (Leah Mei Gold). But Rosa (Sonia Manzano), her mother, has other plans. The entire Casagrande clan is traveling to the fictional town of Japunda, Michoacán, so that Ronnie Anne can experience the land of her ancestors. What starts as a vacation meant for fun bonding turns into a thrill-packed mission when demigod Punguari (Paulina Chávez) awakens. Her millennia-old tantrum rebelling against her own mother threatens to destroy Japunda, unless Ronnie Anne and the women in her lineage work together to stop her.

Cartoonist and cultural consultant Lalo Alcaraz, who has been involved as a producer and writer since the inception of “The Casagrandes,” served as one of the early writers on the feature-length project, which features elements of P’urhépecha culture. For the two creators, the specificity they imbue the story with is their biggest victory.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Did you always know that the plot of the movie would finally take the Casagrandes, and Ronnie Anne in particular, to visit Mexico? If so, why did you feel that would be the ultimate adventure for them?

Lalo Alcaraz: We were working on the series and when I got the first inkling that they were maybe going to do a movie, I was like, “I don’t care what anybody says it, it has to be a road trip to Mexico.” Because so many of us took those trips with our families in the back of the station wagons and pickup trucks. We all stayed the summer where our families are from, and we had fun. I just knew that it had to be that. Fast-forward to when it was time to pitch for the movie, most of the pitches coming in weren’t working. And so finally, who do they call? Me. And I said, “Hell yeah.” I came up with a pitch in about two days and they dug it. I got hired to write the first three drafts of it and then it just kept evolving.

Miguel Puga: It started off grounded and small. At first we wanted to do it about a road trip all over Mexico, but things evolve, and we thought it was better just to stay in one place. It evolved into just going to Michoacán because that’s where my family’s from, and that’s where the Casagrandes family is from. We wanted to represent Michoacán, especially to portray the P’urhépecha community in this universe — their customs, their food, their music. Not only did we have Lalo Alcaraz as our cultural consultant, but we also had Kurly Tlapoyawa and Iris Calderón, who is of P’urhépecha descent. She helped us teach the voice actors how to speak the P’urhépecha language. I only knew two words in P’urhépecha that my dad taught me: charashï k’ariri, which means “flat butt” [Laughs]. He taught me other bad words in P’urhépecha, but charashï k’ariri, always stuck to my head. And so that’s the first thing I said to Iris when she came on board. I told her, “What does charashï k’ariri mean?” And she just laughed for like five minutes straight.

Throughout the three seasons of the show, did you feel like you were saving the trip to Mexico for a big moment, or did you ever consider doing it as a regular episode?

Puga: Everything we couldn’t do on the series we did on the movie. We tried on the show, but we always hit these walls like, “That’s not universal. You can’t do that. It’s too big. We’re a grounded show.” But little by little we added things here that were leading up to it. We introduced the grandmother Mama Lupe and Paco, who came from Michoacán to visit the family. We had a Tlaloc-like god show up in one of the episodes. The family plays around with the statue that causes crazy weather events to happen all over the city. We also had a “Chancla Force” episode where Rosa is dressed like a Jedi, but she’s wearing a P’urhépecha dress. Those were like little inklings of the movie.

Alcaraz: I’m excited that we did a deep dive on their background so that we could explain where the Casagrandes are from. This is a question that we should all be asking all the time. Where am I from? We didn’t come on the Mayflower, you know. [Laugh]. And also not everyone’s an Aztec from Mexico City. It was great to have Michoacán featured because they don’t even put Michoacán in movies in Mexico, or brown people.

The fact that you were able to set it in Michoacán feels a bit groundbreaking in that it shows that Mexican culture is far from monolithic. Did it take much convincing for the studio to accept that the setting would be this exact location?

Puga: I pushed hard to get Michoacán and especially Lake Pátzcuaro and Janitzio, which we ended up using on the movie, but we changed the name to Japunda, which means “big house on a lake,” which goes great with Casagrandes. I wanted to represent Michoacán, and specifically Jacona, Michoacán. I used to spend all my summers and winters down there with family. And I just fell in love with the culture. The studios let us do it. For the first time in my career, they were like, “If it works for the movie, let’s do it.” Everyone loved it because it was authentic, it was real. And not only did we get to represent the P’urhépecha community, but we also drove home that point that Indigenous cultures are still alive and they’re vibrant. They haven’t disappeared. I hope the movie inspires the young audience to learn about their own family’s history and traditions.

In a broader sense, why do you think it’s meaningful that the movie doesn’t take place in generic or nondescript Mexico, but that it does in fact reference a particular region of the country?

Alcaraz:, I’ve been around the block, and when I was pitching my comic strip in the ’90s some of the syndicates were like, “Why do you have to make the characters Mexican? Can you make them from a fictional country?” They didn’t even want them to have a generic Mexican background. They wanted a made-up country. That’s not right. Are you embarrassed of where I’m from? I don’t think so. We have to be specific. I always say also that cartoons are a great vehicle for truth. They sometimes are superior to live action because you could tell more truth in a more pointed way. And we did that in the series and in this movie.

Tell me about the research you and the production did to respectfully portray P’urhépecha culture and imagery, as well as these cities in the state of Michoacán.

Puga: We worked with an animation studio in Guadalajara, Mexico, called Mighty Animation. They were amazing. There are two artists from Michoacán there, Artie Rodriguez and Gloria Felix Orozco, who lived in Uruapan. And they went to Janitzio and took a bunch of photos for us. They did all the research for us. We just wanted to make sure we got everything that represented the P’urhépecha community. We tried not to mix it with the different Indigenous cultures like the Aztecs or Mayan. My art director, Miguel González, also went to go take photos and research, and came back with a bunch of books. He along with Kurly and Iris were the ones telling us, “Yes, these are the type of birds you’ll see there. These are the type of food that we have.” They even showed us how to make sopa tarasca and corundas. For the gods, obviously, we don’t want to use the real gods. We changed the names, but they’re still the same gods that they represent for the P’urhépecha culture.

Is the language in the opening sequence P’urhépecha?

Puga: Exactly. What was tough is that originally the first five minutes were all spoken in P’urhépecha, in the Tarasco language, but we kept getting feedback from the studios, “You don’t want to alienate the kids. Little kids don’t want to read and they’re going to change it to ‘Coco Melon’ if you have it, so let’s mix it in there.” It was a struggle. I tried to fight for it, but in the end I could only keep it right at the three-minute mark, which I’m still proud of because I don’t think you’ve heard the P’urhépecha language in an animated series before.

Miguel, what did your family think about you making a movie that depicts the region where they are from? Seems like an incredible way to honor your roots.

Puga: Both of my parents passed away already. My mom passed away [because of] COVID in 2020, but when I signed my contract, the first thing I told her was, “I’m going make a movie about Jacona, Michoacán.” I made this movie for both of them. I hope they are proud. I think they are. My whole family’s been watching it multiple times. This is one of the reasons why I’m going to Jacona next month, to share it with the people there. They’re going show it outdoors and I’m doing a Q&A, so I need to practice my Spanish. [Laugh].

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