If the questions I repeatedly answered on first dates while living in Los Angeles were any indication, Americans tend to think of Colombia as a violent, drug-ridden failed state, half-slum and half-jungle, which also happens to be the source of their coffee and Sofía Vergara. But who can blame them? They mostly learned about Colombia from movies and television, and there isn’t much room for nuance in the exoticism of 1984’s Romancing the Stone, the cartel violence of Netflix’s Narcos series, or Gloria’s humorous otherness in ABC’s sitcom Modern Family.
So when Disney announced Encanto, a new animated feature that takes place in my home country of Colombia, it was admittedly exciting and validating.
This excitement had its caveats. Disney has a complicated history of depicting non-European cultures. Even beyond the clear cases of “This film was made in a different era,” such as the portrayal of Native-Americans in 1953’s Peter Pan or the softened racism of 1995’s Pocahontas, Disney creators still struggle with clichéd depictions of people of color, which understandably come under endless scrutiny in today’s more race-conscious environment.
Disney’s first Black protagonist, The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana, was introduced in 2009. While she herself has become a popular figure, her movie took immediate flak for its handling of race. A few years later, Moana was generally well-received, but suffered its own criticisms from Pacific Islander communities. Still, it marked a clear turning point in the way the studio handled its non-white characters and settings. Moana found its heart in the amalgam of cultures it was portraying. Its nods to Polynesian culture aren’t just set-dressing, they’re key components of her story and its themes.
Enter Encanto, which isn’t just set in a pastiche of similar cultures, like Disney’s Latine-inspired show Elena of Avalor. Encanto writer-directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard, and Charise Castro Smith wanted to explicitly set their story in the very real country of Colombia. Their company’s recent track record of representation was certainly a good sign, but Hollywood’s history of portraying Colombia was reason enough for doubts. These concerns all found a place amid the collective Colombian excitement as Encanto’s opening night approached, but for me, at least, they disappeared a few minutes into the movie’s prologue. Once we learn that the central family, the Madrigals, like millions of real Colombians, have been displaced from their home by that abstract, omnipresent force we tend to simply call The Violence, it seemed evident that Bush, Howard, and Smith weren’t just coming from a place of understanding, it was also a place of love.
Encanto tells the story of Mirabel Madrigal, who was born into a magical family where everyone has a special gift except her. One of her sisters is super-strong, another can produce flowers out of nowhere, her mom can cure any ailment with her food, and so forth. But Mirabel was never given a special gift, and her lack of powers is a regular source of tension between her and her Abuela.
These gifts aren’t innate. They are given to the family by a magical candle the Madrigals call “our miracle,” a force that saved Abuela and her three kids when she was young when they were forced to flee their hometown. As The Violence caught up with them, killing their Abuelo, the candle gave the surviving Madrigals a home: a magical house that became a source of refuge, comfort, and the subsequent generations’ special gifts.
The movie follows Mirabel as she sees that the house, their Casita, is starting to crack at the foundations, which her Abuela adamantly denies in an effort to maintain order. It’s up to Mirabel, the least special Madrigal, to find out what’s endangering their miracle and to protect the home that has protected her family all these years.
That quest to save her beloved house makes Encanto not just a story set in Colombia, but about Colombia as well. There’s nothing more Colombian than the desire to find a home in an inherently broken country.
Colombia’s problems are so intrinsic that being aware of them from birth almost seems necessary to feel Colombian at all. The genocidal conquest by Spain, as well as the subsequent decade-long independence process, set the stage for a very messy 200 years of history. Nine civil wars between liberals and conservatives during the 19th century resulted in an unsolvable national schism where the only overlap between the two sides was the exploitation and dismissal of a mostly racialized rural underclass. 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.
This is a very brief and even generous summary of our national history, but it’s still more detailed than the image the First World tends to have of us. It makes sense, though, that as this violent environment became pervasive, most of the media made about us focused solely on that. The Violence, after all, stains almost every Colombian family. This focus on the country’s tensions happens in Colombian-made media too, as exemplified by the “narco-novelas” that clutter our networks. We have come to believe that this is all we get: an echo chamber of drugs, massacres, kidnappings, indifferent politicians, and a population that lacks memory, but still bears its baggage.
The Colombian Cultural Trust — a collection of consultants from a wide variety of fields, brought in to ensure the film’s authenticity — may have spoken to the writer-directors about this problem. Disney’s movie about our country couldn’t overtly include our violent past and present. But at some point, they decided not to ignore it, either. Disney’s Colombian movie centers on finding a place free of that innate suffering: a place its people can safely call home.
So how wonderful, really, that we get to indulge in the fun, the color, the joy of Encanto when so much of the media about ourselves is focused on these vicious cycles of violence that we’re trapped in. What a miracle that we still, after all this time, have such beautiful things for Disney to portray, from unique musical stylings to delicious food and a rich storytelling tradition. Just as the Madrigals discovered, it’s a miracle that we can still share these gifts at all.
“Representation matters” has become a cliché, especially since representation only superficially addresses the larger cultural problems of Hollywood media. However, there’s no denying that there is power in seeing your own world elevated to the ranks of iconic fairytales and animated blockbusters.
The Cultural Trust helped Encanto leave behind caricature and stereotypes to create something that rings true to its subjects. This approach, first implemented with the Oceanic Story Trust in the production of Moana, is proving to be a step in the right direction for Disney when it comes to telling stories outside of the European bubble.
Is this the product of a multi-billion-dollar corporation that’s coming to understand what good business it is to appeal to increasingly diverse markets? Of course, but that doesn’t prevent the smaller players within this system from approaching a personal project with love. They set out to create something that would resonate with people around the world — but also specifically with Colombians, knowing that we don’t always get to feel that way. And if initial reactions here in Colombia are any indication, the film is resonating. Not because of cynical corporate decisions, but because the artists behind the movie cared.
But this is about a lot more than just representation. The happiness portrayed in Encanto isn’t just escapism, it’s defiance. It’s about challenging that notion that we Colombians have to be miserable forever.
After arguing throughout the whole movie about how to save the house and who’s to blame for its impending destruction, the Madrigals ultimately have to accept that their miracle wasn’t the magical house, or their magical gifts. In fact, the miracle is that after all these years, the family has somehow figured out how to thrive in the face of tragedy. The magic gave them their Casita, sure, but they were the ones to create love, beauty, and community in it. A broken history got them there, but it’s a miracle that they’re still there regardless. And at the end of the day, that’s worth a lot.
In the process of deeply rooting the film in Colombian culture, whether through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s well-researched music that spans all sorts of regional genres or the unique cast of characters meant to encompass a weird and disparate country, Encanto celebrates the diversity of Colombia, the happiness to be found in its art, its nature, its heritage, and, more than anything, its people.
Perhaps the most telling detail is the deliberate choice to not give The Violence a face. If the brief history lesson above is any indication, this force that displaced the Madrigals could have been anything from militias to warlords. Sure, Disney was probably avoiding details because they’d be too graphic or complicated for young viewers (or, more cynically, because they might be taken as a political statement). But I choose to see it differently.
In Encanto, unlike all other American depictions of Colombia, there’s no room for The Violence or its perpetrators. The focus is on the survivors. It’s about the miracle of thriving when you seem almost cosmically predisposed to suffer ad infinitum. Because that’s what Colombia is: a country of people trying their best to thrive in spite of themselves.
We’re a country of Mirabels, all struggling to figure out how to fix these evils that seem like our birthright. Like Mirabel’s prognosticating Uncle Bruno, we’re overwhelmed with an undeniably dire future. Like Abuela, we sometimes fight to pretend these threats aren’t there, because we can’t bear the thought of facing them again. Like the Madrigals, we’re each trying to deal with all this alone — and realizing, perhaps through projects like Encanto, that maybe we don’t have to.
Encanto is in theaters and now streaming on Disney Plus.