*Warning this review contains spoilers for the entire movie*
It’s definitely a difficult time for anyone named Bruno. First, it’s “silenzio Bruno” and now it’s “we don’t talk about Bruno”. Fun fact: I have a cousin named Bruno who I don’t talk to at all.
Jokes aside, I wasn’t really excited for this movie since Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the original songs for it. In case folks weren’t aware, Lin-Manuel has been under intense scrutiny for his Anti-Blackness over the years from the criticisms surrounding Hamilton to the erasure of Black Latines In the Heights. He also made a small cameo in Summer of Soul, explaining the existence of Ray Barretto at the concert meanwhile Ray goes on about how in his blood “he has Black, white, indian, puerto rican, I’m all messed up” blood quantum bullshit that’s all too familiar in conversations about mestizaje (i.e. we are all one race and are united as one).
It also doesn’t help that I don’t think Lin-Manuel is a good singer and the reason I was able to get through watching Hamilton was because his co-stars can actually sing. After seeing Encanto, it’s clear that Lin-Manuel is far better at writing music than he is at singing (keep it that way).
Understanding Intergenerational Trauma in Familias
Having said all of that, did I like the movie? Surprisingly, the answer is “yes” and it’s a major improvement to Coco (Coco was a mistake and I hate it exists). The movie tackles so many issues that it’s difficult to know where to start, but I am going to try my best to cover all my bases.
The protagonist, Mirabel Madrigal was born into a family blessed with supernatural abilities and unfortunately during her coming of age ceremony, she wasn’t granted any special powers. Despite disappointing the family matriarch, Alma Madrigal, Mirabel still tried her best to support the family and figure out her self worth. If I’m to be honest, I really resonated with Mirabel’s struggles to be accepted by her family and it was hella relatable to see her put on a performance to hide the fact she wasn’t “ok”. The reality is I’m all too familiar with the feeling of carrying an enormous sense of responsibility to make my family proud of me because I want all their hard work and suffering to have some meaning.
I cannot express how much colonial violence and immigration has negatively impacted my family – particularly the women. I grew up hearing stories about the violence my awichas had endured and I saw the mental toll it took on my mom and tías having to be disrespected by their bosses at their jobs. My point is the stakes are high for children born out of that trauma and if those children don’t live up to the expectations set out by their families, then any self-esteem they had is destroyed.
On the other hand, I completely understand why Alma pushed her family so hard to secure their legacy because she’s aware of how quickly they can lose everything. The film glosses over La Violencia that took place in Colombia between “1948 to 1958” (the conflict continues to this day), but what you need to know is that over 200,000.00 in the countryside were massacred, which forced people to abandon their homes and communities. Alma lost everything she ever cared about, but in losing her home and husband, she was granted magical powers through her candle. She was able to create a safe haven for fellow refugees that wanted to escape the violence from the ongoing civil war.
If there is one thing that both Coco and Encanto have in common is that there is an acknowledgment that it’s often the women that become the sole breadwinners for their families. It’s also important to remember that within the context of Latin America and the Caribbean it’s primarily Black, Afro-Indigenous and Indigenous women that are targeted by the state and are forced to take on the brunt of physical labor – at the cost of their mental health. They are often the ones that have to raise their families alone and survive in environments that don’t want them to thrive. Even though Alma never explicitly states how she self-identifies, her struggles and mindset are aspects I’m used to seeing in my own elders. Alma even says it herself:
“We swear to always help those around us and earn the miracle that somehow found us, the town keeps growing the world keeps turning, but work and dedication will keep the miracle burning and each new generation must keep the miracle burning.”Alma Madrigal
These verses always hits me in the feels because I’m personally amazed by how much my family went through in order to survive. I have so many stories about my antepasados passed down to me by oral tradition that always either make me laugh or cry. I love hearing about the moments of joy they experienced and how dedicated they were in helping their communities. I always feel a sense of guilt that my life is easier than theirs, but I’m also extremely grateful for the “miracles” they blessed me with and it’s because of them that I am still here.
This is why Alma’s resilience is admirable because she was able to defy larger socio-political forces that tried to eliminate her family and community, which made her internalize a “what doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger” attitude. The problem is that by solely thinking about the future, she refused to directly deal with her painful past and, as a result, she passed on her trauma to the next generation.
Objectively, Alma’s logic makes sense. She wants to make sure the magic in her family is strong enough to handle whatever life throws at them, but she isn’t doing them any favors by pushing them to adhere to expectations they might not be able to handle. It’s the subtle microaggressions that Mirabel deals with that forces her to stand up against her grandmother because her behavior was hurting the family. Whether Alma liked it or not, she needed to hear the truth about how she was making her loved ones feel about themselves and needed to start the process of healing not just for them, but for herself.
The raw conversation between Mirabel and Alma not only made me cry, but it also made me realize “this conversation is never going to happen between me and my elders”. My awichas never got a chance to deal with their trauma when they were alive and I know for a fact that my mother is never going to apologize for the hurtful things she has said and done to me. The question then becomes “how do I personally heal from my own trauma knowing my mother is never going to change? and how do I learn to love myself knowing I didn’t meet my elders expectations for me?”. I don’t have the answers and it’s a work in progress for me (I’m such a mess in real life and I’m really underestimating the amount of self-loathing I go through on a daily basis).
Judging by the discourse on social media, there is a lot of debate about whether or not Mirabel should’ve forgiven her abuelita and to be honest, I think we can hold space for folks that have complicated feelings about it. I also understand why everyone loves that scene because it allows us to imagine what it would feel like if our elders allowed themselves to be that vulnerable in our presence. I know for me personally, when Alma told Mirabel that her existence was a blessing, I cannot tell you how often I wished someone would tell me the same thing.
It’s exhausting having my self-worth tied to my material value and it would honestly mean the world to me, if someone would tell me my existence is enough (especially on my darkest days). I’m not alone in feeling like this. If social media is an indicator of anything, so many of us are projecting onto Alma and Mirabel’s relationship because we want our families to heal from their pain, but the reality is, these conversations are extremely difficult and might never happen for some of us.
Ok, that was depressing and since I have no idea how to end this section on a positive note, LET’S MOVE ON!!
Depiction of Andean Spirituality
At this point, I hope folks understand why Coco has been heavily critiqued by Indigenous writers. If you are still not in the know then I highly suggest you read Binnizá/Zapotec writer Eren Cervantes-Altamirano article about how the movie stripes Día de los Muertos from its roots and erased the presence of Indigenous people. In terms of Encanto, I’m actually ok with how Andean spirituality was depicted because it never goes beyond the surface level. Unlike Coco, the movie doesn’t try to explain things it doesn’t understand and stays within the realm of certain relatives having special powers that aren’t supposed to be talked about openly.
On that note, let’s talk about Bruno. There’s actually historical context for communal silence over people like Bruno that is sadly related to the colonial legacy of christian missionaries. The history of the Iberian Peninsula is long and complicated, but if there is one aspect that’s consistent is the immense death toll caused by religious wars in Spain and Portugal. It’s because of that violence enacted in the name of “faith” the conquistadors developed vile notions about religion, gender and sexuality, which they annoyingly brought to the Americas.
Once the conquistadors saw how differently our societies functioned based on Andean worldviews, they worked together with the missionaries to violently replace our ceremonies and spiritual beliefs with christianity. It’s important to mention that during this time the transatlantic slave trade was at its peak, which meant that Black Indigenous people also brought over their own customs and beliefs that was equally repressed by the conquistadors. As a result, knowledge keepers and medicine people were systematically killed in order to prevent them from passing on their sabiduria to the next generation.
This violent takeover pushed many spiritual leaders with ancestral knowledge to live in secrecy and gradually a culture of silence was created to shield them from further state-sanctioned violence. However, this served as a double-edged sword because not only were they seen as “outcasts”, but everything they did was considered “evil” and “devil’s magic” as opposed to the “pure” and “sanctity” of christian teachings. The funny thing is that it didn’t stop people from seeking them out for medicinal and spiritual matters – it just needed to be done in a hush manner. Even though there’s a resurgence happening for indigenous epistemologies, there’s still a lot of stigma and various christian sects continue to have a firm control all over Latin America and the Caribbean.
In the context of Encanto, Bruno’s gift is different from the rest of his family because it directly deals with foresight, spirituality and ceremonies. In the song, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”, the entire family and the townsfolk make it clear that his predictions are always seen as bad omens, which creates negative rumors about him. Even after Bruno disappears, he continues to be the subject of ridicule and overall is set up to be a difficult guy who’s going to give Mirabel a hard time. That is why it’s incredibly meaningful when it’s revealed that Bruno is just a nice and awkward dude who feels isolated from his own family. Bruno only wants to make his family happy and help his community, but because his abilities are seen as “ominous”, he feels his existence is a nuisance to his loved ones.
I appreciate that Bruno’s experiences were humanized and validated, especially in comparison to how characters like him are treated in Latin America and Caribbean mainstream media. In telenovelas, spiritual leaders and medicine healers are always depicted as “demonic” and “sinister” while priest characters are always viewed as “virtuous” and “reasonable”. It isn’t lost on me that these same characterizations are seen through Bruno and his family’s magical abilities. While it’s great that the movie flipped the script, I wish the movie dedicated enough time for the family to acknowledge their mistreatment of Bruno and give him the proper apology he deserves instead of dealing with it via musical number.
I’ve had discussions with friends about the rise of Andean representation in live-action and animated films, and truthfully there’s a real concern about how much of Andean ceremonies and traditions should be shown without the risk of it being commercialized by big corporations. After Disney tried to trademark Dia de los Muertos, it became clear that there isn’t any respect for how sacred Indigenous beliefs are to our communities so the question then becomes “who should tell our stories and how do we make sure community protocols are being respected?”
These are tough questions and I don’t think they can be easily answered as long as Indigenous people aren’t in positions of power to have a say in what can and cannot be shared. For now, I think my friend, Silvia made a good point about the matter:
“We don’t need gringos coming in thinking they can do the real stuff. Let them have Walter Mercado because he’s for everyone. The actual shit is just for us.”Silvia
On that note, let’s move on to the final section. I promise, I’m almost done!!
Mestizaje and Representation – Imagined Racial Harmony
I’ll admit, that I actually got excited to see this movie after some of my mutuals on twitter enjoyed it, but that excitement was immediately ruined when it was announced that J Balvin (white Colombian) won “Afro-Latino Artist of the Year” and was awarded by The African Entertainment Awards (AEAUSA). It didn’t help that after the backlash, AEAUSA changed the category to “Best Latin Artist of the Year”, which proves the point how warped everyone’s ideas about the way race functions in Latin America and the Caribbean to the extent that this Black diasporic organization chose a white Colombian artist as the winner over Black Latine artists from a category meant for them.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I will say it again, the purpose of mestizaje is to promote the “mixing” of various racial groups in order to erase any ties to Black, Afro-Indigenous and Indigenous communities. It is because of mestizaje, different racial categories were created, which in turn helped develop the concept of latinidad that essentially means that our blood is so mixed, “we are all the same” and that we live in a “racial harmony with each other”. Everything about this is sinister and what’s equally frustrating is that people outside of Latin America and the Caribbean have bought into these perceptions and have influenced the fact that only white latines and mestizes are representative of our home countries.
J-Balvin’s win happened in the same week that Encanto premiered on Disney Plus and to be honest it was a brutal reminder why it’s difficult for me to engage in any media that imagines “racial harmony”. The reality is Latin American and Caribbean mainstream media completely relies on the narrative that we live in a “racial democracy” to specifically ignore the racial inequities that exist in our communities. While I do appreciate any medium that wants to explore what it would be like to live in a world without any structural violence, unfortunately, I’m also frustrated by those stories because I know they are being used to endorse latinidad.
Despite my mixed feelings about this movie, I respect the enormous research the animation team did in order to make sure Black and Brown characters looked as authentic as possible. They even reached out to a famed Afro-Colombian journalist named Edna Liliana Valencia Murillo who was vital in making sure Black Colombians were not depicted in a stereotypical manner. Edna even shared her own family pictures as a resource so that the animators understood the different hair textures and skin tones that exist within Black communities. If that wasn’t enough, Disney also made sure all the Black characters were voiced by Black Colombians (in the English dub), which is a step in the right direction in terms of creating more opportunities for BIPOC voice actors (the voice acting industry needs to do better – just saying).
It’s important to remember how abysmal diverse representation is in Latin American and Caribbean media. Even Edna herself mentioned in a Spanish interview how incredibly rare it is for Black creators to get a chance to depict Black people in a positive light; so when a big juggernaut like Disney offered her a chance to be a consultant for the movie she naturally accepted the job since the Colombian entertainment industry wasn’t making similar offers.
Aside from the representation aspect, Edna was also the one who suggested the Valley of Cocora in her family’s home department of Chocó to be the movie’s main setting. Even though the area is the most biodiverse location in Colombia, the department of Chocó has been historically ignored by the Colombian government. Edna used her newfound position with Disney to highlight her home region so that the government can be forced to provide basic necessities and create a better infrastructure for the people living there.
The sad reality is requests like Edna’s aren’t unusual. In the Black Latin America History online courses taught by Dash Harris and Javier Wallace, Black athletes have made similar requests after they won major national and international championships, which speaks volumes about how Black communities are purposefully and systemically ignored by the state. It’s also extremely unfair that they have to demand for basic necessities needed for their survival. I could go on about this, but I think my readers should just check out the Black Latin America History online classes. (I promise you the classes are great and Dash and Javier are wonderful teachers!!)
The last point I want to talk about is Disney’s collaboration with Indigenous Zenú artisans. It’s great that animators worked with them to recreate Zenú crafts for the movie, but on the other hand, I worry about the continuous cultural erasure of Indigenous commodities from their specific communities. This isn’t an unusual concern because Frida Kahlo did this with the clothing of Zapotec women in Mexico and now it’s considered a part of the country’s general culture without acknowledging its cultural ties.
This is an ongoing problem for many Black and Indigenous communities that keep getting aspects of their culture appropriated by the state for the sake of creating a homogenous national identity, but selling their crafts, music and food is also one of the few sources of revenue available to them since their pueblos have historically been ignored by the government.
This is a complicated conversation and it doesn’t help that there isn’t a lot of good representation of Black and Indigenous people in Latin American and Caribbean media. These are the same networks that allow countless “comedians” to perform Black and Brown face to a willing audience, which perpetuates the immense racism that exists in our home countries.
I understand the importance of being able to see yourself in any medium because not only does it build self-confidence in ourselves, it also reinforces the idea that we were never less than anybody else. While I wish there were explicitly named Indigenous characters in the movie, I’m glad that Disney gave organizations Cultural Survival Bazaars and Finatur Design a much needed boost, but I have to wonder what are the long-term sustainable consequences the Zenú community will experience long after the hype of Encanto dies down? I want to be optimistic that support for Indigenous artisans will continue long after the end credits roll, but I need to see it to believe it.
Regardless of my gripes and my frustration with this movie, I agree with Edna’s perspective as to why Encanto is an important film:
“Disney’s Encanto shows a beautiful Colombia, a Colombia of unity, a Colombia without drugs, prostitution. Definitely, the image of Colombia will change from this moment on. I am not saying that it is the solution to Colombia’s problems, but when we see Colombia with a different look, it begins to change and this film contributes a lot to that.”Edna Liliana Valencia Murillo
Colombia has been through so many terrible events and sadly the country still suffers the stigma created by the drug wars. The civil war in the countryside isn’t over and the recent national protests against former president Iván Duque pension cuts and tax “reforms” during COVID-19 have only heightened the immense social inequalities. Edna’s comments about the movie creating a positive impact is meaningful because she wants to envision a future where her country experiences peace and joy without the threat of violence looming in the background. I resonate so strongly with Edna’s hopes and dreams not just for her country, but I’m rooting for all marginalized communities in Latin America and the Caribbean to heal and thrive because damn it we deserve it!!
The recent news of Colombia electing it’s first Black woman Vice-President, Francia Márquez has sparked some hope for a better future and if that wasn’t enough Edna has released a book called “El Racismo y Yo” that examines how Anti-Blackness has affected her life and the lives of Afro-Colombian women. Since there are positive things happening in Colombia right now I want to end this article on a good note.
I wish I could simply enjoy Encanto without having so many deep thoughts about it, but unfortunately, we don’t often have these nuanced conversations when discussing representation. I don’t expect the general audience to have an understanding about the way racial dynamics works in Latin America and the Caribbean, however I do think it’s important to think more critically about what are the implications of representation and is “being seen” the only end result we want in these discussions?
There isn’t any doubt that “being seen” can have a positive effect and I don’t want to diminish those feelings at all, but “being seen” shouldn’t be the only thing we strive for. There should be active and continuous measures established to ensure historically marginalized people are supported in their endeavors to tell their own stories and to take that success back to their own communities. I want to see my communities thrive as well as being proud of who we are because so often we are fed the message that we weren’t meant to survive.
In the end, I did enjoy Encanto and for what it’s worth it definitely has more soul than Coco ever did. I liked that it explored intense themes like how intergenerational trauma can negatively impact family members and how it can be extremely difficult to confront the events that affected our loved ones. Regardless, I think it’s hard for me to fully enjoy movies about Latin America and the Caribbean because I’ll always be thinking about how these movies will either negatively or positively affect marginalized communities.