Disney’s Encanto depicts a multigenerational story about a grandmother and her family endowed with magic gifts, who were forced to flee their village for a safer place in Colombia. The film has received critical acclaim and won the Oscar for best animated feature at the March 27 Academy Awards.
But commentators have also made scathing criticisms too, especially in relation to the lack of a villain or worse, the vilification of the matriarch character, Abuela.
From my perspective as a scholar who researches displacement and migration, what stands out in Encanto is how each generation of the Madrigals experienced trauma and how it shapes their lives and choices. As an Assyrian (Indigenous to Iraq) with experiences of displacement and migration, it seems to me these negative reviews missed key aspects of the film.
Reverberations of trauma and displacement
Viewers get to know specific members of the Madrigal family through their solo numbers such as Lousia’s “Surface Pressure” or Isabela’s “What Else Can I Do?”
Yet as we put these characterizations together, it becomes clear that the family as a whole has its own dynamic: a dysfunctional one, as each member silently struggles with their gifts to the point of exhaustion. It seems like each family member is silently struggling with mental health issues as well.
But isn’t this the story of almost every migrant family? The idea that we are so grateful for “making it” to our new homes that we should do everything in our power to build the best life possible, regardless of how we are doing?
Migration means leaving everything and everyone you know behind. That kind of sacrifice demands a constant striving for perfection to make it worthwhile — a constant striving that can be toxic and harmful.
Plenty of villains
This is why critiques of this movie not having a “bad guy” miss the point. Anyone watching the movie who has experienced displacement through war or violence likely does not need Disney to draw the villain.
For example, Assyrians are haunted by the spectre of genocide, the theft of our land in the making of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, and the recent Kurdistan Region that turned us into “minorities” on our ancestral homeland in an ongoing process of dispossession and displacement.
“The villain” lurks in the shadows of our minds: It is colonialism, imperialism and constructed borders meant to keep us out of the same countries that had a hand in the destruction of our homeland, turning us into refugees, and forcing us to migrate away from our families, relatives and friends.
‘Encanto’ tells a story of displacement from a Latinx family perspective — a family whose different skin shades speak to the complex colonial realities of invasion, theft of land and people, and intertwined histories and racialized identities. It is from the perspective of a family whose experiences speak to people across oceans, lands and time.
The reviews condemning Abuela as “toxic” remove her from her context of trauma. A trauma-informed lens isn’t meant to excuse or legitimize toxicity and dysfunction, but to help us understand that people who are in pain often pass down this pain. A trauma-informed lens means focusing on compassion for both victim and perpetrator. It means a framework of culturally specific interventions that acknowledge historical and intergenerational trauma.
From this lens, we can understand Abuela is not a power-hungry villain but a trauma survivor.
Showing new ways
Abuela needs help to heal from her trauma and grief to break the cycle of toxicity and dysfunction that is firmly rooted within her historical context. Mirabel, the youngest daughter of Julieta and Augustín Madrigal and Encanto’s protagonist, holds Abuela accountable by explaining how her toxic behaviour has affected her family.
Mirabel models the power of compassion as she takes Abuela’s hand and thanks her for everything she’s done to ensure their family’s and community’s survival, and leads her back home to show her another way.
Two things can be true: Abuela’s behaviour is toxic, and she has ensured her family’s and community’s survival. Mirabel can hold her accountable and be grateful for her labour and sacrifice.
The Madrigals used their gifts selflessly to build and serve their community. Trauma survivors learn from a small age that they should not ask for what they need as individuals. Survival means everyone doing their part for the collective good because you only survive as a collective — a reminder we can all use in our contemporary context of a global pandemic.
Refugees and immigrants often have toxic family dynamics born out of unjust and violent circumstances because trauma rewires our brains.
Disrupting survival mode
Mirabel helps her family break this cycle of intergenerational trauma by reminding Abuela survival mode is not meant to be a permanent place, and that life is the true destination. Mirabel begins this unlearning process throughout the movie with her family, including Abuela. The end of the movie shows the casita — the family home — rebuilt on different values to live life, instead of just surviving it.
Mirabel was able do this healing work because she didn’t have to be Abuela. Mirabel’s embrace of Abuela after finally appreciating her experiences and sacrifices models the gift of compassion and signifies the beginning of doing things differently going forward. This is what healing looks like.
Maybe it’s time to listen to voices of people who had no trouble naming the villain of the movie, and who could see members of their own families in each character, because they understand the legacy of intergenerational trauma. Breaking the cycle of toxicity and dysfunction is important, but situating these dynamics through a lens of trauma and compassion is the way to break this cycle, and to heal as a family and as communities.