Encanto Understands the Overwhelming Pressure Put Upon Latin American Women

My grandmother was a warhorse. She kept a spotless 3-story house all on her own, kept a garden with rose bushes, mango trees, and coffee plants, repaired clothes, embroidered carpets, and cooked 5-star meals for her family. Vovó Julia never left the kitchen and would cook everything from fresh bread to empadinhas and ice cream from scratch. She would whip egg whites to perfection using only a fork and her sturdy forearms. There was homemade cake and fresh-cooked beans in the kitchen at all times. She was also a devout Christian and taught herself to read with the Bible. When she was younger, she worked as a school cook, gave birth to five daughters, and raised four. She was a tiny, five-foot-tall woman, and had lost the tip of one of her fingers in an accident involving pig feeding at my great-grandfather’s farm in Mantenópolis.

Once, my sister and I asked her to make clothes for our Barbie dolls on her old Singer sewing machine. All the while she did it, she told us how boring she thought the whole process was; how she felt like doing anything else but sewing. She did it anyway: a useless task she hated, just to make her granddaughters happy. Sometime around then, she took me and my siblings to learn embroidery at a local Home Depot. She finished up all the rugs we didn’t. There was another occasion when my aunt got a job at a shining new amusement park and took all the grandchildren. I remember Vovó Julia carefully packing sandwiches and snacks for everybody. I asked if she would go with us. She said of course not. Actually, I don’t remember her ever relaxing.

Relaxing was for my grandfather, Vovô Pedro. My memories of him were of him watching TV and avoiding the family during gatherings. I heard stories of him singing and telling jokes, but that must have been when I wasn’t around. Vovô Pedro died of an aneurysm when I was 8. Vovó Julia followed a few years later and, very much in the fashion of magic realism, we like to say that she died of saudade, because she missed him too much.

Both of my grandparents on my mother’s side were mixed, with Portuguese fathers and Indigenous mothers. They had white skin, but unmistakable native features: very black hair, wide jaws, and deep-set eyes. They came from the inland of Minas Gerais, a region that is constantly falling into itself because of the mining industry, but is also home to the best poets and storytellers of the country, like Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Guimarães Rosa (though I might be biased, of course). They moved around a good deal to find work and ended up in the suburbs of São Paulo to be close to their grown daughters, giving up a lot of poetry.

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Screenshot: Disney

When I first heard that Encanto was being made, I was skeptical. Sure, I love Lin-Manuel Miranda just as much as everybody else, but was I supposed to believe that Walt Disney Studios was going to make a worthwhile representation of Latin American culture? That the huge corporation would be doing meaningful research into magical realism and its roots in our culture and literature? That they were not going to shower us in imperialist stereotypes? But now I have seen the movie twice, once in the original English and another time dubbed in Portuguese, and have the soundtrack playing at home on repeat.

Of course, I am not Colombian and do not understand the specific political struggles the people there face. You can read more about that aspect of the film in this article at Bitch Media. But the themes of generational trauma caused by colonialism, civil war, and daily violence leading to mental health issues would resound with any Latin American. And then there’s the fact that the Family Madrigal is so like my family…

If you haven’t seen it already, Encanto (2021) is the story of a family with magical powers that help their small jungle village thrive. The matriarch, Abuela Alma, lost her husband to a civil war, but gained a miracle candle that gave her a magic house and bestows distinct powers to each of her descendants—all except for Mirabel, who didn’t get a gift of her own. As the story unfolds, we find out that each one of the family members has their own struggles and feels pressure to keep up the facade of a perfect, superhero family: an example and touchstone for the rest of the community.

The narrative points to Abuela Alma as a possible villain, who projects her own anxiety, fear, and desperation onto her daughters, son, and grandchildren. Just like my Vovó Julia, Abuela Alma seems incapable of rest and relaxation. Even during celebrations and house parties, she feels the need to pacify the community and control the reactions of those around her—especially her family. She worked so hard to keep the miracle candle burning over all these years, how could she possibly live without it? How would the cracks appearing in her house and her relatives look to that community she built by herself?

The movie’s second flashback sequence, when Abuela Alma tells Mirabel what really happened when she got her miracle, is absolutely heartbreaking. We see a young Alma who is funny and lighthearted falling in love with a man who promised her so much, but couldn’t be there to fulfill the promise of their life together for terrible reasons. We see her alone, desperate, with three little babies to care for, as well as a whole community to build in a new strange land. In this moment, we understand how trauma on this scale can reverberate through a family, through generations…

We see how the consequences of this event in Abuela Alma’s life shaped her controlling personality. If she couldn’t save the husband she loved so much, she would save everybody else—even if that meant sacrificing her own mental health and that of everyone around her. Seeing this kind of trauma, of having to carry that much responsibility on your own, and its effects on screen reminded me a lot of Vovó Julia and the way she behaved.

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Screenshot: Disney

My other grandparents were White. They were German-Jewish immigrants and carried a shipful of their own trauma. But the dynamics were very different on both sides of my family. Omi was very sick and never seemed to be able to take care of anything. While Vovó Julia is mentioned frequently as a strong matriarch in my mother’s side, my aunts hardly mention Omi Inge, except to reminiscence about her beauty.

My father loves saying that Brazil is actually a matriarchy. Of course, a country that organizes a political coup on their first female president without any precedents is certainly not, but it’s true that Brazilian women are supposed to be very strong and carry their families. We have to. In my grandmothers’ generation, while White women weren’t expected to work, women of color always supported their families. Even today, the number of women that raise their children alone is astounding, as Brazilian fathers frequently leave their families or are lost to violence. In 2009, IBGE (Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institution) counted that 17,4% of families were of single women with children. My own Vovô Pedro left his official wife and son to marry my grandmother and father five other daughters.

In Encanto, the narrative shows female characters doing nearly all of the work, as Mirabel’s non-magical father and uncle play a supporting role in the magical family, her cousin Camilo is basically comic relief, and Antonio and all his animals mainly serve as Mirabel’s sidekicks. Bruno, unmarried and ostracized, is the only male Madrigal to have a real impact on the plot, and it’s telling that he has been read as both queer and neurodivergent—a reflection of how mental illness and queerness are often rejected and ignored within “traditional” families. Mirabel, her exhausted sisters, cousin Dolores, and Abuela Alma are the ones who actually drive the plot and save their family. We watch their struggles and desires untangle on the screen and it’s easy to see ourselves in them. I, sadly, am Isabela—the golden child too tense to question her grandmother. My wife saw herself in Luisa, who, in fact, is the family member whose gift of heavy lifting most directly serves her community. I am sure so many other people could see themselves as Mirabel, the screw-up, or Dolores, the overlooked cousin who knows everyone’s business. (There is, of course, a Buzzfeed quiz to find out which one of the characters you are for yourself.)

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Screenshot: Disney

In the end, given the familial and personal connections I felt to the characters, I have some mixed feelings about Encanto’s final act and resolution. In many ways, it was actually quite satisfying to see the Madrigals lose their powers and gratefully accept the help of the community to which they dedicated so much of their lives. Maybe this way, they could finally, at long last, relax. In real life, that’s the only way to fix things: not with superpowers, but with real social change and community investment and participation. If this were my movie, that’s how I would end it.

It could have been a much darker ending, though. Magical realism, the literary genre that inspired Encanto, traditionally features some rather dark twists and turns of fate. Gabriel García Márques’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which also tells the tale of generational trauma lived by a family that founded a utopian city in the jungle, ends with everybody dying and the city being wiped out by a storm. Likewise, Of Love and Other Demons (1994) has all the main characters die in the end. Even Love in the Time of Cholera (1988), which does have a happy ending, is bittersweet as Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza eventually end up together, but only in very old age. Magical realism, in a sense, is a type of fantasy with a distinctly complex, mature worldview, always keeping one foot in reality, with very real dramas and real consequences told with supernatural twists. The genre is deeply entrenched in Latin American culture, the result of centuries of hardship and colonial exploration.

But this is a Disney movie, after all, and it is quite nice to see Latin Americans thriving, regaining their magic, and making cactuses grow and flourish everywhere. Maybe a bittersweet ending to Encanto would be more fitting as magical realism. Perhaps losing your superpowers and having to deal with real-world problems through real-world solutions, like community work and family acceptance, would be too adult an ending for a children’s movie.

And maybe the Disney magic we all need in our lives right now is simply understanding that “the miracle is you”—that every single person in the Family Madrigal is enough. After facing her trauma, Abuela Alma is finally able to let go, stop controlling the women in her family and driving them to perfection, and simply love them as they are. It’s extremely cathartic to watch the young women of the Madrigal family thriving in their own skins, released from the constant weight of expectation after so long: Luisa relaxing in a hammock, Isabela embracing her chaotic self, Dolores finally seen, no longer overlooked, and Mirabel joyfully receiving her very own doorknob and having her value recognized. Even Bruno gets a chance to explain all the misunderstandings to his family and is accepted back into their lives. The sense of healing and catharsis is especially powerful since it so rarely happens in real life—it’s a chance to experience a level of openness and relief many of us may never know. There isn’t really a villain in Encanto, or a huge evil the heroes have to face; instead, the film’s happy ending lies in knowing who you are and really seeing each other.

Deborah Happ is a queer Brazilian writer living in Germany. She complains on Twitter at @deeeehapp and you can sign up for her newsletter here.

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