We Don’t Talk About Generational Trauma, No, No
Spoiler alert: I will be discussing the whole film, characters, and storyline from the Disney film Encanto.
Like Pixar’s Coco, my family and I were thrilled for Disney’s Encanto. I remember watching the trailer to Encanto and being enamored with all of the vibrant colors, familiar language, and nostalgic feeling of being at home with family. Without seeing the movie, I instantly felt that Encanto was going to tug at our heartstrings just like Coco and it did just that.
If you haven’t seen the movie, Encanto is about the Madrigals, a multigenerational family living in a magical town in Colombia called Encanto. Each family member is blessed with magical gifts or powers upon a family ceremony, some of which resembles their role in the family.
There are a dozen characters who play big roles within the film including Bruno, the uncle who is shunned from the family. And if I had the energy to sing The Family Madrigal theme song to introduce everyone, I would but for now I’d like to talk about the kids within the central family: Isabela, Luisa, and Mirabel.
Isabela, the eldest Madrigal grandchild, can grow beautiful flowers and plants. As the eldest, she is treated throughout the family as the golden child. Then follows Luisa, the middle child of the family Madrigal, and she was gifted with super strength. She is the “rock” of the entire family and community. And last but not least, we have the youngest Madrigal and the main character of the story, Mirabel. Unlike most of the characters within the family Madrigal, Mirabel is the only one who did not get a gift.
Encanto not only won the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film with its soundtrack reaching the Billboards with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and “Surface Pressure” being the most popular, but it won the hearts of many people across the world.
From the characters and their gifts (and lack of), the audience can conclude that Encanto is about family dynamics, which led to many people seeing themselves represented in the Madrigal family.
One common identity that I’ve seen people share online when relating to the Madrigal family is Disability, more specifically with characters Mirabel and Bruno. Mirabel experienced exclusion because she did not have a gift, while Bruno was ostracized for his gift and developed certain characteristics and behaviors from never leaving the walls of the house.
As a Disabled first generation, Mexican-American, I related to many of the characters, especially Mirabel. While I can see disability and even relate to Mirabel myself through our shared exclusion which I’ve experienced within my own family, I felt the main theme behind the exclusion and ostracization that both characters, Mirabel and Bruno, faced wasn’t talked about enough, and that’s generational trauma within Latin American families.
Britt Cannon, writer of Disney’s ‘Encanto’ and the Exploration of Generational Trauma, explains it best, “Most generational trauma comes from a systemic source. Things like poverty, addiction, the grief from death, war and political conflict, untreated mental illness due to a lack of access to proper healthcare can all traumatize individuals, and if unacknowledged, whether by choice or lack of access to help or information, that trauma can be carried into relationships and passed down to children.”
In Encanto, the matriarch Abuela Alma was not only escaping violence, but she watched her husband sacrifice himself to it. This left her to fend for herself, children, and community. Once she saw her husband’s power (that is, his love) saved them and passed on to their kids, she stepped up to take care of the whole family and community. In order to keep the magical power alive and her family and community safe, Abuela passes down family roles and expectations to her children and grandchildren. These roles and expectations came from the pressure that Abuela Alma experienced when she had to step into that leadership role.
That said, this isn’t to say that no one can experience generational trauma or relate to the Madrigal family, and it’s also not to say that you can’t relate to any of these characters because of your disability or other identities. This is to say that you can’t leave out the cultural part and actual lived experiences of people of color when this is the essence of what Encanto is about. When white people don’t acknowledge the generational trauma within Latin American families shown in Encanto, not only does it exclude Encantos’ intended audience which goes against what the film is rejecting, but it adds to the erasure of our generational trauma that most of our Latinx families already don’t talk about.
For example, within my family I’ve experienced ableism not just because of my disability, but because of the values my older relatives and Latinx people in general, pass down of having to be hard working, perfect, and strong. Ableism within families of color is typically about how productive you are, and what you can bring to the table, and this also intersects with class and race. We work hard in order to survive, and we lift up those around us.
Where I, and other Latinx with multiple identities relate to, is where these values of having to be hard-working, perfect, or productive conflict with our other identities. This can lead to exclusion and feeling like you can’t contribute to the family. In my case, these able-bodied values conflicted with my disability because I wasn’t able to be hard-working and productive with my physical disability. For example, I come from a single parent home. I have three siblings: two sisters and a brother. Alone in a new country, my mom took over many roles to take care of my siblings and me. She was our mom, dad, advocate, breadwinner, and even teacher at times. Most of these roles were then passed down to my older sister and while my mom went to work, my sister would look after my younger siblings and me. Because I have a physical disability, once my older sister went to college, her role of looking after us passed down to my younger sister. Not being able to physically contribute the way my sisters did with taking care of the family is where I felt excluded and like I didn’t contribute to my family.
When examining the character Isabela, it’s easy to assume that her problem is only being perfect through her beauty and magic. And while it is in the movie, having to be “perfect” or being the “golden child” translates to what many Latinx children grow up to experience in real life. In the movie, Isabela not only exemplifies “perfection” to hold up the family name, but she’s also betrothed to an equally handsome man to continue on the family legacy. This expectation placed on Isabela isn’t talked about, but it’s a well-known cultural expectation that Latinx people know of. In real life, having to be perfect for many Latinx children can look like excelling in school, pursuing the highest education, getting a good job, and/or marrying and having kids.
In Luisa’s case, one of the storylines in Encanto is about how she’s the one taking on all of the physical and mental labor of her family and community. This pressure of having too much to carry physically manifests itself when her eye starts to twitch. In a way, Luisa isn’t too different from her Abuela Alma. The only difference being that Luisa is able to show her emotions than her Abuela who keeps her armor up. In real life, carrying all physical, emotional, and even financial difficulties are heavy burdens that fall upon many Latinx people and even to the kids. Resting and sharing difficulties are concepts that we’re still learning because of our ancestors who had to work hard to survive.
I recently was forced to think about my role in the family and how I contributed. A couple of months ago, my family and I went through a hurricane (Hurricane Ida) that severely impacted my hometown in Louisiana. We lived an hour away from the coast and apparently, the marshes around our small town caused the hurricane to stay longer, to the point it went up a category.
My siblings were at their houses, but my mom and I evacuated our house. Throughout the evacuation, I was the one who took on the responsibility of finding a pet-friendly and accessible hotel, I was the one keeping the entire family including extended family in communication with each other. I paid for much of our evacuating expenses as well. I wanted to ease the stress of the hurricane and possibly losing our house for my mom.
After we received news that our house was destroyed, my mom dropped me off at my sister’s and from there on, I was the one who was finding resources and sending it out to my mom who was back at home trying to save everything. I even spent all of my moving out savings so that I could financially help out my mom with clothes, food, and any supplies she needed. My siblings were then able to physically contribute by taking care of me and also driving back home to help out my mom. Two days after, my dog died in the horrible weather that followed, and throughout the hurricane aftermath, I was grieving my best friend’s loss on top of doing everything I was doing before.
At first I didn’t believe I had a role in my family, but over the years and even during the hurricane, I realized that my role was way bigger than I really understood. It may not have been a physical contribution because of my disability, but it was still a contribution. Like my mom and how she took on all of the responsibility from the very beginning of our family, I stepped up to take care of my mom and did as much as I could for my family. During the hurricane, I provided emotional, financial, and resourceful labor. It wasn’t that I felt that I had this big responsibility. It was that I felt that I had to watch over my family and take off as much pressure as I could off my mom, even as I was grieving my own losses.
Like the character Luisa, I felt I had to carry all family matters alone. It felt instinctual, and by the time I realized all of the emotional and mental labor I was providing, I finally recognized how my sisters were also providing all of that labor to me and to my mom. While I still struggle with trying to be in control of everything and making sure everyone is okay, I do have to remind myself that it’s not all on me. In a way, Louisa losing her strength was a reminder of how we can’t carry it all. That’s not how family works.
One of the reasons Encanto spoke to me as a Disabled first-generation daughter and why I related to characters like Mirabel, was because of how Encanto truly captured generational trauma within Latin American families and it didn’t come from a place of criticism or judgment, but rather compassion. In the end, through the help of Mirabel, Abuela Alma finally understood the pressure she once experienced was what she had pushed down to her kids and grandchildren. It was heartbreaking, but it was a conversation needed to help the familia Madrigal heal. Generational trauma is a cycle that needs to be broken but it can’t be done alone, and Encanto is a reminder of why we have to talk about trauma within Latin American families.
Jocelyn Mondragon-Rosas, also known as Jocy at @jocyofthedragons across all social media platforms, is dedicated to building community by sharing Disability y Latinidad through a political and creative lens. She’s a Disabled content creator, speaker, and activist. Jocelyn’s online advocacy includes published essays, hashtags like #AbledsWTF and #IAmAbleist, and opening up her platforms for Disabled people to come together and share their experiences. Her work on access, disability, and the intersections of race and disability has led her to speaking at universities, political organizations, and nonprofits. Jocelyn has been featured in NowThis, Forbes, BuzzFeed, and many more. When not creating content for her social media platforms, you can find Jocelyn playing with her cat or dancing in her wheelchair on her Instagram stories. You can learn more about Jocelyn at https://www.jocyofthedragons.com/
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