Updated: Apr 13
This is an edited version of a podcast episode. If you prefer to listen, click Make Me Whole Podcast to find this and all my other episodes.
Back in December, I had some much needed time off, and one day I sat down to watch the new, much anticipated Lin Manuel Miranda movie called Encanto. I really didn't know much about it beforehand, but come on, it's Lin Manuel Miranda. I knew it was going to be good. Catchy music and clever dialogue? Saw that coming. A mental health masterpiece? I definitely wasn't expecting that. As a member of a pretty large family, this movie touched me deeply. Just like the Madrigal family, my own family (and I'm sure many of yours) has different characters that feel their emotions passionately, who handle themselves based on rigid ideas about what is right. Were they really all making the best choices, though? Why did Encanto affect so many people in so many ways? Why did so many people, especially Latinxs, find such connection with the themes and storylines? Here's what I think. When you know your own story, you can better understand your own needs and begin to break those unhealthy patterns you find in your life.
We'll start with Abuela Alma. She sees herself as the protector of the family. Making sure that the home and the family are safe is her top priority and role. It's really a good example for people who need help understanding their elders’ behavior. It's important for us to develop a level of empathy for parents and grandparents who might have experienced trauma and responded to those ordeals by becoming extremely overprotective. Abuela Alma is a fantastic demonstration of intergenerational trauma, and a lot of people related to her as a matriarch in the family. But just as generational trauma is real, so is generational healing. Under Abuela Alma’s leadership, the characters in Encanto carry the stress of presenting as the perfect family all the while avoiding the problems that threaten their future and their foundation. The lesson here is that suppressing our feelings can really lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and much more. By the end of the movie, Abuela Alma has a better understanding of the value and importance of processing your feelings.
Next let's talk about the perfectionist who feels that failure isn’t an option: Isabela. When you first meet her, you think, “Wow! She has it all: the looks, the room, the flowers. She's going to get married, and it doesn't seem like she has a care in the world. But as we hear more of her story, we see how limiting perfectionism can be. Often in families that include first generation immigrants or others who have made significant changes in their life to improve their children’s situation, the child has this sense that they cannot let anyone down. They are constantly aware of the sacrifices that their parents made to have them in these good schools or locations, and are trying to be worthy of those sacrifices and measure up to the expectations. They are left with the message that they need to always be doing more, and that kind of pressure is extremely stressful. I see a lot of second generation Latinxs who are resentful because of the immense pressure that is unacknowledged by the family.
And that leads me to Luisa, the sibling who is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. She is the one that has been expected to, sometimes literally, bear the burden of everything that the family has to handle. When we meet her, we understand that she's at her wit’s end. She's going to crack under that pressure, and I know a lot of us feel that way, especially if we are an older sibling or an only child. There are a lot of responsibilities that we've taken on for ourselves. Luisa, like Isabela, talks about the anxiety of trying to be perfect. A lot of us can relate to that. When you're constantly solving everyone else’s conflicts, protecting younger siblings, or setting an example for others to follow, it can mess you up big time. I think that Luisa’s struggle helps us understand that it's common to feel overwhelmed. When we recognize that there is nothing more we can hold, we need to reach out and allow for others to help us. Her story gives us the okay to say, “Wow, I wasn't the only one who went through this.” I think I experienced that specifically being the oldest child in my family and really not having anyone ahead of me to lead the way. Both my parents had experienced high school, but never college or graduate level studies, so when it was time to get the grades, pick the right schools, etc., it was really challenging for all of us. The expectation to do things just right so that my siblings could follow in that same path not only affected me, but also impacted my siblings, who were then expected to fit the mold. Oftentimes that created another pressure to reach some level of perfection that I hadn't.
Mirabel was one of my favorite characters because she became brave enough to ask the questions about the family and how they related with one another that no one else dared to ask. By the end of the movie, we realize that her power or gift is seeing her family members for exactly who they are. By doing that, she was able to keep them together. She's open to speaking with everyone individually to get to know them better and give them the opportunity to express themselves. At the end, she's able to communicate that to her grandmother, resulting in an acknowledgment of the validity of varying thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s (more than) okay for those hard conversations to take place. It only helped strengthen the family dynamic.
And of course, we got to talk about Bruno. Bruno's gift was seeing the future, and as a result family members were angry with him when those prophecies and thoughts came to pass. Some people think maybe this character has mental illness, or maybe there was just something so different about him that he didn't relate well with the rest of the Madrigal family, leading to him being shunned. Here's another example of intergenerational trauma. Just like with Bruno and how his family interacted with him, we don't talk about our feelings. We don't talk about what we want for our life. We don't talk about bad things that happened in the past. It's too uncomfortable for so many reasons for so many people, so we just sweep those things under the rug and pretend like they don’t exist. This is one of the reasons why we don't like having those hard conversations with our parents or grandparents. If you don't practice expressing your emotions, however, you're not going to know how to communicate in a healthy way. I think that's what happened for many members of the Madrigal family. It wasn't a normal practice to talk about how you felt. You had to pretty much suck it up and move on. Also, if we are considering that Bruno might have had some form of mental illness, it was the lack of understanding of his condition that led to the isolation and judgment from his family. What would change if we truly embraced the differences, whether it be personality, whether it be core beliefs, whether it be sexual orientation, or even mental illness.
So what are the true takeaways of this movie, Encanto? Everyone in our family or our friend circle deserves to be fully heard, respected, and accepted instead of being part of the cycle of not showing our true selves. I think specifically Mirabel’s story gives us a reminder to ask challenging questions about ourselves and know that if we have a life story that might be shaking up our foundations, we don't want to wait until it's too late to start healing. Instead we need to honor our needs and break the cycles. That's often the healthiest thing you can do.
Towards the end of the movie, Abuela apologizes for how she had treated the members of her family. In real life, Disney endings are very rare. Being able to accept and be present with yourself can only help strengthen the relationships you have with others. It was Mirabel’s courage and curiosity that helped her to leave behind the habit of comparing herself to other family members and find her own purpose. No matter where you come from or who you are, your story is powerful and it's never too late to discuss the hard things. If you have a story that's affecting you, start paying attention and making changes today. Thank you Lin Manuel for bringing things to life in ways so many individuals, especially Latine people, can relate to. And I consider myself to be the ‘Bruno’ in my own family. I just have to say that I’m real, I’m here, and I’m glad to be heard.