The family film — which is set in Mexico during Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead — tells the story of a boy named Miguel (voiced by Gonzalez) and his music-filled journey to the “Land of the Dead” where he meets his ancestors. The colorful film features dancing skeletons and heartwarming songs.
In order to authentically represent Mexican culture, Coco’s filmmakers spent three years traveling the country on research trips, and hired an all-Latino cast that includes Benjamin Bratt, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D actress Natalia Cordova-Buckley, and newcomer Gonzalez as the film’s hero.
Here are five things to know about the Coco lead.
1. He is a former street performer
At only 4-years-old, Gonzalez began singing with his family in the historic La Placita Olvera district in Los Angeles. The actor started because he looks up to his older siblings, who sang before him.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Wow, they’re having so much fun. I want to try that too!'” Gonzalez tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “The first time I stepped on stage and I started singing, I knew that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.”
“I just had so much fun singing,” says Gonzalez. “I just saw the people smiling and laughing, and I just had so much fun doing it.”
He was later discovered by casting director Blanca Valdez while reading passages in Spanish for the Univision channel.
2. He starred in a movie about immigration
Other than Coco, Gonzalez stars in the upcoming film Icebox—based on a short film of the same name—which follows the story of a young boy who becomes trapped in America’s immigration process.
“I think Coco came at the perfect time to show everyone to stay together and live the importance of family, that families should be united,” says Gonzalez. “At the end of the day, we’re all the same and were all human beings, and there shouldn’t be any separation between [people].
“That’s something that Coco will show: that everyone is equal and everyone is the same.”
3. He has a unique heritage
“My family is very diverse,” says Gonzalez. “I have a big family from many places.”
The Coco star’s parents grew up on a farm in Guatemala, and emigrated to Los Angeles while in their 20s to start a new life. Gonzalez has a unique heritage that also includes family from Puerto Rico, Germany, Italy and “a lot” in Mexico — like his character Miguel.
4. He relates to his character
Just like his voiced-character Miguel, Gonzalez has had dreams of pursuing music since he was young. The actor grew up admiring his idols Vicente Fernández, Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, just as Miguel admires Bratt’s character, singer Ernesto de la Cruz.
“[Miguel and I] both have a passion for music, and we both know how important our family is,” says Gonzalez. “We know the importance of remembering our ancestors.”
But Gonzalez differs from Miguel in one key area: The actor’s family has always supported his career.
“I’m just so thankful for my parents because I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them, and I’m thankful to God for giving me such wonderful parents,” he says.
5. He celebrates the Day of the Dead with family
“I’ve been celebrating the Day of the Dead since I was 6-years-old because my grandfather passed away back then,” says Gonzalez. “The Day of the Dead was just a wonderful and joyful celebration where I can be with him and connect with him again.”
Starring in Coco taught Gonzalez even more about the holiday’s meaning. He wants the world to know that anyone can celebrate it.
“I can’t wait for everyone to see [the movie] and to know that it’s a universal celebration—it’s not only for Latinos,” he says. “It can be for everyone because who doesn’t have ancestors that have passed away?”
Disney/Pixar’s Coco is in theaters Nov. 22.