By: Matthew Edwards PhD., Associate Professor of Spanish, Associate Faculty of Latinx and Latin American Studies, Associate Faculty of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies


Cultural objects are important. Our life stories are written in them. And when we look at them-- read, smell, taste them--watch or listen to them we recognize not only ourselves, but also the traces of our neighbors lived experiences as well. It is important to talk about them.  They provide a useful “distance” that helps us to be critical of our own traditions, when this can be a difficult task. And when we engage with the objects of other cultures, of communities different from our own, connections are formed, and dialogue is created. Recognizing ourselves in the experiences of others—as we engage with culture—leads to understanding.

The other night, I watched Lightyear (Disney Pixar 2022) with my family. If you haven't, it is the "pre-story" to the original Toy Story series. If you don’t know what Toy Story is, maybe start there first. In Lightyear, we watch the movie that stars the same Buz Lightyear that initially inspired Andy, the young boy protagonist of Toy Story, to fall in love with this toy figure. The movie tells of how Lightyear's errors--imperial colonial, individualist, and, at times, patriarchal in nature--land him on a foreign planet. The rest of the movie follows his struggles to find a way to "redeem" himself in order to reestablish his internalized mission: to go home, complete his task, serve his country/species, and to continue protecting these values through the expansion of other missions, other tasks to complete.

During the film I heard my own story: I have struggled with life away from my family for as long as I can remember. I, like Lightyear, have followed the path my career has--my superiors, my mentors, and societal standards have--set and let it (them) take me places—often times in the wrong direction. As I watched the film, I saw traces of the challenges of emigration--of forced exits--and of community building from the position of otherness. And although Buzz is a white, able-bodied male who holds a certain amount of "star" power among his peers--a legacy clearly tied to his accomplishments related to his imperial-natured career path--he often finds himself alone and eventually understands that he himself is the root of this problem. He believes himself correct, always able, invinceable.

I like to believe that Buzz's struggles can be extrapolated and understood as connecting with other experiences, and particularly with those of the diaspora--of those communities that were forced to leave their homes and go to a strange place, often far away, in order to survive—that is the definition of success in such peripheral communities . Buzz, in a way, is pushed out by his own colonial discourse and his engagement with otherness allows for his redemption--and for independence to be replaced with collective support systems, community and, of course, happiness--this is Hollywood after all. If Buzz represents, in a Disney-esque sort of way, the white, able-bodied conquistador, then the story we follow in this movie can be read as an “offering” held up to other colonial figures, to other dominant traditions, that serves as a model for their own self-critique and future redemption. I wonder if Andy--the boy in "Toy Story" notices this transition in Buzz, and because of it, falls in love with his character? I imagine Pixar would like us to believe that he does.

Stories that we read in cultural objects help us to think about difficult questions. Their characters lend themselves to allegory, and serve as a mirror that helps us see our own patterns, our struggles and errors, as well as our moments of redemption. We should talk about them more often.