Disney’s Encanto: A Tale of Accurate Representation and Political Criticism

19
January, 2022
Manuela Mora Castillo, Blog Correspondent

I’m happy to say that Disney’s Encanto positively surprised me. As a Colombian, I am used to bad representation. From Narcos to the foreign obsession with Pablo Escobar, I don’t expect media accuracy when it comes to my country. As a result, when Disney first announced their production of Encanto, I was skeptical at best. After the Mexican critiques surrounding Coco, and the lack of Colombian writers in the movie, this skepticism morphed into dread over what I thought would be an attempt at taking the fantastic things my country had to offer and fall short in the delivery; I feared that Encanto would become a representation of something I couldn’t recognize. Needless to say, I didn’t have high expectations when I walked in, but on leaving the theater my critiques about representation were almost minimal.

Not only is Encanto a good film by itself—it is filled with complex characters, profound storylines, and an amazing soundtrack—but it also successfully reminded me of home. For the small period of time I have been abroad, it has become easy to forget the bad things I used to criticize of Colombia, in favor of the good aspects that I never really paid attention to. Surprisingly, Encanto triumphed in covering both. From Julieta’s healing arepas con queso to Antonio’s animals or Isabela’s flowers, the characters represent many of the things I enjoyed as a Colombian citizen, and when Carlos Vives sang about the country in the credits, I felt almost nostalgic. The colloquial expressions used by the family, the river where Abuela received her magical gift (also known as Caño Cristales), and the rhythm of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s well-thought music brought to mind memories of jokingly teasing my friends who liked bambuco and my mom’s use of the word “miércoles” to avoid the actual swear word. The community’s unity made me recall my neighborhood’s Noche de Velitas, where Christmas carols would play from a gigantic speaker while two ladies distributed the traditional natilla and buñuelos, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed all of it until my culture was presented to me on a movie theater screen. The truth is, whether the feeling of nostalgia is due to my current place of residence, or the festive spirit that made me miss Latin American celebrations, I know I felt proud of what Encanto depicted; of the colors, and the landscapes, and the people the movie introduced as more than the product of drug trafficking or a “Third World” nation’s economic struggles. I was extremely flattered watching young kids enjoy Colombian musical rhythms, or seeing foreigners decide that they want to visit Villa de Leyva because it resembles the film’s village. It seems that, for once, the international community is able to see what I had always believed but never voiced out loud: Colombia is a marvelous place, and it was a gratifying change.

Nevertheless, as someone who has learned about the armed conflict from a young age, I couldn’t help but feel wary about the way Encanto introduced the family’s miracle. Deeply based on Gabriel García Marquez’s magical realism, the magic that surrounds the Madrigal family is born from the millions of displaced civilians that resulted from Colombia’s violence. Much like it happened to Abuela’s family, Colombian citizens have had to pack their lives into suitcases—if they were lucky—and flee their towns in fear of the guerrillas, the paramilitary, or both. Considering the movie’s target demographic, it does a fantastic job in introducing a war’s pain and suffering without going into gory details, introducing the idea of a magic-induced milagro (a miracle) that secures the Madrigal family in a safe space. But the problem with this notion is that mountain-building magic doesn’t exist in real life, and there is no prayer that could magically make the threat disappear.  The truth is that, for rural Colombia, the consequences of the armed conflict are still raw, and the emotional, social and political impacts it had on the country are being dismissed both nationally and internationally. It hardly mattered how hard people prayed: when belligerent groups were controlling multiple areas of the nation, violence was rampant and the international community sat back and watched. The national government was no more beneficial,  for their intervention was both limited and badly implemented, allowing armed groups to benefit from the increasing drug-trafficking profits—extensively romanticized in Narcos and similar media productions. For Colombians, the Madrigal’s past is still part of the present; war scars haven’t healed yet, and peace process appears to be crumbling at the seams. 

Similarly, the lack of international media coverage during this year’s strikes—where protestors were killed and injured indiscriminately, and where civilians were desperately asking for help—only leaves me to question how interested foreigners truly are in Colombian affairs. While I hope the answer to be as strong as it was when Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban seemed unthinkable, I don’t think it will ever be. Not because the international community doesn’t see Colombia as an important ally, but rather because it becomes easy to dismiss a “Third World” country’s opinion. We are either too politically weak, or we lack the economic resources, but the image the world has of Colombia surrounds all the negative things Encanto left away from the screen. I just wish people would remember my humble yet beautiful and hard-working country when things turn ugly, and not only when it is presented to them through a Disney-fabricated lens that incorporates magic into the mix. Be it family, or food, or literature, Colombia’s magic realism is worth pointing out even when national struggles emerge, and that is something the international community has been missing. Our magic manifests in many different ways.

 Sincerely, I just hope that the Colombia-related hype after watching Encanto remains in the hearts of all those who watched it, and not only in Colombian minds, for this movie has the power of bringing the nation’s discussions into the international scene. Encanto brought attention to our beautiful destinations, and hopefully, this will help the media realize that Latin America is worth thinking about too—and that our issues should be discussed in academic, political, and economic settings without the tainting “drug-trafficking” narrative or pitying approach. Maybe this way, the international community will remember that our flaws don’t surpass the benefits, and that when they willingly ignore our suffering, they are also turning their backs on Isabela’s flowers, Abuela’s house, and Julieta’s arepas. After all, while the Madrigal family was able to find their miracle, Colombian families are still praying for theirs. 

I just wish people would remember my humble yet beautiful and hard-working country when things turn ugly, and not only when it is presented to them through a Disney-fabricated lens that incorporates magic into the mix. Be it family, or food, or literature, Colombia’s magic realism is worth pointing out even when national struggles emerge, and that is something the international community has been missing. 

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