Fantasy vs. RealityWhat “Encanto” Gets Right—and Wrong—About Colombia

An animated young Latine woman in an embroidered shirt and long skirt stands surprised in the middle of a circle of people cheering her on, lit by a warm glow from yellow-orange dots of light that glow around them.

(Photo credit: Disney)

**This review contains spoilers for the movie Encanto (2021)**

I had my apprehensions about Colombia’s portrayal in Disney’s Encanto. As a Colombian American, I couldn’t quite fathom how the country—whose politics have been based on class and racial hierarchies for centuries—would be used as a model for racial equity in Latin America. The Los Angeles Times recently published an article explaining that Colombia was considered a quintessential setting for a Latin American musical due to its deep Indigenous, European, and African cultural roots. “We needed to find the perfect place and all roads kept pointing toward Colombia,” director Byron Howard told the newspaper, “which is this incredible crossroads of Latin American culture, of ethnicity, of traditions in food and dance. The families themselves are incredibly diverse and that’s embraced in a way that we absolutely loved.” However ostensibly diverse, Colombia is still a country mired in struggle, in part due to the conflict that Encanto nods to superficially. 

Of course, when I watched Encanto ​​I expected to cry, because representation in visual media can do that. I expected to feel embarrassed by the tears inevitably elicited from watching a cartoon eat arepas. However, I was not prepared for the connections that Encanto makes between ancestral trauma and mental health. On one hand, with the plethora of neon-pink colonial houses, flouncy patterned skirts, talking toucans, and  performative ethnic mixing, Encanto can be read as a caricature of Caribbean-Colombian life. On the other hand, the film links ancestral trauma, mental health, and the effects of war in a way that positions it within the same camp of allegorical films such as Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). 

Encanto starts with the specter of failure. Born into a family equipped with magical powers, Mirabel Madrigal (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) is the only “normal” one in her family. Living in a lush pocket of the jungle that looks like a mix of the colonial city Cartagena and smaller mountain towns like Guatapé or Minca, the Madrigal family keeps their town afloat using their supernatural gifts. Under the reign of the ever-vigilant matriarch Abuela Alma, Mirabel’s mother Julieta heals people with food and her sister Luisa literally moves mountains. Before her little cousin Antonio’s gift ceremony, Mirabel must reenact her own trauma by walking him to the door of his animal kingdom (each character’s room is a safe haven for their gift; Antonio gains the ability to talk to animals). It’s a sad tale of conditional love. Mirabel only remembers her grandmother looking upon her fondly in early childhood, before the family finds out that Mirabel does not have a gift. 

Yet, the film does not discount sympathy for Abuelita Alma; in fact, that’s where it starts. Upon telling the story of the origins of the Madrigal house, we find out that Abuela Alma and her husband Pedro had to flee their home due to unspecified violence, which seems like a nod to Colombia’s La Violencia. In the wake of their ambiguous escape, Pedro dies. It is only after this tragedy that Abuela Alma witnesses magic that invents a house and town in the heart of the jungle, where her children, and then her grandchildren, cultivate their other-worldly powers. 

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In watching the film, I was struck by the familiarity of Abuela Alma’s fierce—and, at times, cruel—efforts to save the magical powers of her family and their casita. Viewers learn that Alma’s protectiveness is a response to the pain of losing her husband and her homeland. But this protectiveness is not without consequence: Her magically gifted children and grandchildren suffer from various mental-health challenges as a response to the pressure placed on them to perform their gifts. Strong Luisa cracks under the demand to never show weakness. Tía Pepa’s inability to hide her emotions influences the weather. Mirabel’s perfect sister Isabela also breaks under her abuela’s demands for perfection, shedding her (literally) rosy lifestyle to cultivate cacti and adopt angsty green streaks in her shiny hair. Mirabel’s mysterious uncle Bruno, the black sheep of the family, wrestles with acute anxiety and possibly obsessive-compulsive disorder as a result of his visions, which he believes influence the family’s fate. Mirabel’s own die-hard commitment to her family perpetuates a toxic trope of self-sacrifice. 

During the flashback when the Madrigal abuelitos flee across the river in the hopes of finding safety, I found myself sobbing. Virtually no member of the Colombian diaspora has been left unaffected by the decades-long civil war, and the violence and displacement that it’s left in its wake. As José María Luna writes in Polygon, “There’s nothing more Colombian than the desire to find a home in an inherently broken country.” During that river scene, I understood the character’s manifestations of perfectionism, anxiety, and emotional volatility as a response to this personal and national tragedy.

The Disneyfication of race turns Colombia’s racial diversity into a commodity—something to be celebrated—rather than a result of colonial violence and political suppression. 

Though Encanto engages with mental health and inherited trauma in a surprisingly nuanced way for a Disney movie, it minimizes the violence implicit in the country’s prized multicultural identity. While it’s true that Colombia is one of Latin America’s most diverse countries, there’s a danger to this “Raza Cósmica” vision of equity. After Colombia’s drawn-out independence movement, the country’s political system became a tug of war between the conservative and liberal parties, neither of which represented the interests of Colombia’s rural, mostly Indigenous communities. This political fissure gave way to racialized and class-based political suppression and exploitation, which came to a boiling point during a conflict referred to as La Violencia in 1948.

Luna explains: “Class tensions steadily grew until the global advent of Communism gave birth to leftist guerrilla warfare, spawning fascist militias across the country in response. In this armed conflict, both sides eventually gave up ideology in favor of the blood-stained profits of drug trafficking.

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Colombia has the second largest population of Afro Latinx people in Latin America. While the country’s port cities such as Cartagena are heralded for their broad ethnic make up, these very ports were key stops in the slave trade, which was alive and well from the beginning of the 16th century until Colombia abolished slavery in 1851. Recently, Colombia’s race problem has only been exposed further by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. According to The Bogotá Post, while Afro-Colombians represent a quarter of the population, they make up almost 80 percent of those living in poverty. More than 30 percent of Afro-Colombians have no water and sanitation services. The Disneyfication of race turns Colombia’s racial diversity into a commodity—something to be celebrated—rather than a result of colonial violence and political suppression. 


Through engaging with Colombia’s painful past yet still flattening the implications of colonial contact, Encanto operates both within and outside of the framework of a typical Disney movie. Of course, this interpretation of personal and political loss could be as much about what an audience brings to the film; we see what we want to see. Intentionally or not, Encanto leaves enough gaps specifically for the Colombian diaspora to fill with our own cultural experiences of political strife, historical silence, and family memory. But the mirage of multicultural equity that Encanto attempts to cultivate undercuts the film’s subtle use of allusion to point to national memory, and it downplays the work that Colombia and many other Latin American countries have ahead in actually offering basic human rights to its most marginalized communities.

 

by Rosa Boshier
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Rosa Boshier is a writer whose work can be found in publications like Literary Hub, The Rumpus, The Offing, Vice, and The Guardian. She teaches Latinx cultural studies and art history at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.