As told by Miguel at the beginning of the film, Imelda was born in 1899 in Santa Cecilia, living there with her younger brothers, Felipe and Óscar. As she matured, she eventually fell in love with an aspiring musician named Héctor, partially due to their shared talent in music. Their romance soon developed into a marriage, and at 19 years old, Imelda gave birth to a daughter named Coco.
While Imelda was ready to settle down and raise Coco, Héctor wanted to give his music to the world, so he set out on tour with his then-friend Ernesto de la Cruz. However, he never returned, leaving Imelda to take care of Coco alone. Angered at Héctor for neglecting his family, Imelda tore his picture off the family portrait and decreed music was forbidden from then on.
Needing to support her daughter, Imelda turned to shoemaking as Coco grew up, often making shoes for her own daughter and becoming very good at it. Soon, she taught everything she knew about shoemaking to her daughter and son-in-law, and Coco taught her own daughters in turn. Working together with the growing Rivera clan, Imelda's hard work evolved into a family business.
When she reached her 70's, Imelda finally died and her spirit was sent to the Land of the Dead. Although Héctor was also a spirit in the realm, she disowned him from the clan despite his wish to reconcile with her. With her loyal spirit guide Pepita, Imelda looked after the Riveras who arrived after their deaths. Her ban on music would be carried out by the living Riveras though, especially with Abuelita.
It came to pass that she learned the truth Ernesto De La Cruz murdered her husband by poisoning his glass of wine he drank. So she changed her attitude to help her great-great grandson Miguel defeat Cruz with all her deceased relatives. She takes the stage singing "La Llorona" which means "Weeping Lady". Even as her efforts failed, she allowed Pepita to get rid of the murderer.