Disney’s 60th animated feature film, “Encanto,” has been making headlines and is trending on social media because of its catchy Lin-Manuel Miranda songs – like “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” – and the very relatable Latino family at the movie’s center. The diverse cast of characters is resonating with diverse audiences around the world, including here in Utah.
“The movie is such a powerful metaphor for the multigenerational impacts of immigrant experiences. I still can’t watch it without crying,” said Victoria Petro-Eschler, the newly elected City Council member representing District 1 and a Westside resident of Panamanian, Cuban, and Italian descent.
“Encanto” is set in early 20th century Colombia in a rural town with a magical “casita,” the home where the Familia Madrigal lives. Fifty years prior, the family matriarch Abuela Alma’s husband was killed. She and her three young triplets were displaced, as millions of Colombians have been, because of civil war, guerrilla armies, and drug traffickers. After Syria, Colombia is the country with the most internally displaced people – people who have essentially become refugees in their own country.
The Familia Madrigal is granted a miracle amidst their personal tragedy: a magical home, magical gifts for the triplets and their posterity, and a candle’s everlasting flame, which protects the miracle. Abuela Alma’s children and grandchildren all have magical gifts, ranging from superhuman strength to controlling the weather, except for Mirabel, the film’s misunderstood and underappreciated heroine. The magic is under threat of extinction and Mirabel, the only Madrigal child without a supernatural gift, decides she’s the one to save the miracle.
The displacement, the intergenerational trauma, and the family dynamics are very relatable to immigrant and refugee families who oftentimes are “waiting on a miracle,” as Mirable sings. Meanwhile, the different skin tones and hair textures in the Familia Madrigal reflect Colombia and Latin America’s diversity. It’s the first Disney film that displays the full diversity of human hair textures, per Edna Liliana Valencia, an Afro-Colombian journalist who worked with Disney on the film.
Colombians are a mix of Native South American, European, and African descent, and therefore our skin color ranges from dark to light, even in the same family! This diversity is true throughout Latin America and many Latino and other POC viewers have delighted in seeing so many characters that look like them, especially in a movie where the importance of family is front and center. Photos and videos of Latino and Black children thrilled to see themselves in the characters have gone viral on social media.
Maggie Garza, a Latina mother of eight and grandmother to 19 who lives in Glendale, said the movie has resonated both with her grandchildren and with her.
“They all love it! We all watch it at least once a day,” Garza said. “I love the fact that they show the importance of home and familia. The safety that should exist within your walls. Your sanctuary.”
Garza relates to several of the strong Latina characters, including Abuela Alma.
“I had to raise all eight of my children by myself,” Garza said. “I had no help from any family members. I was alone. I continue to sacrifice and try to protect my children and grandchildren so much that I feel that sometimes I lose sight of what is in front of me.”
For Garza, the film’s main themes of unity and resilience are its most touching elements. “It speaks so much of the difficulties we have as large families, but [also] the capability and the strength to fight on. Never give up,” Garza said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to know that my children and grandchildren do relate to ‘Encanto.’ I still tear up when I watch certain parts of the movie.”
On a personal note, I was born in the United States to Colombian immigrant parents and grew up as a big Disney fan. I’ve never related to a Disney movie in such a visceral way. I’ve watched most of the animated Disney classics, even the most obscure ones. Never did I think Disney would make a movie set in Colombia, much less with this level of accuracy.
In the early 2000s, Disney produced “The Emperor’s New Groove,” a fun movie set in the Incan Empire, but that wasn’t accurate in any real way and did not employ any voice actors of South American descent in lead roles. In 2020, when I learned “Encanto” was being produced, I couldn’t believe it; once I saw the trailer, I was hooked!
To see your family and your culture reflected on the big screen is deeply moving, especially when Colombian culture is usually only on the big screen as trauma, to leech off the struggle with drug trafficking and civil war. Being Colombian-American, the scenes of internal displacement made me tear up, because millions of Colombians have left their homes or country due to a decades-long civil war. It spoke to my experience. I also saw my experience reflected in a cast of Disney characters with a range of skin colors, because in my own extended family, we have family members with dark and light skin.
The film’s impact is due in large part to Disney’s creation of the Colombian Cultural Trust, a group of Colombian experts who ensured the movie was authentically Colombian. Given this model’s success, “Encanto” is likely to be the first of many movies that accurately reflect the diverse audiences that enjoy Disney movies; for now, it’s commendable that young Latino, Black and Colombian children have Disney characters who look like them – a small but significant step toward greater representation.