I Saw My Abuela in Encanto’s Abuela Alma and That’s Why This Movie Challenges Latino Families To Be Better
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Disney’s 60th animated feature “Encanto” is all about la familia, the ways we love each other and the ways we fail to.
It centers on the Madrigal clan, who were gifted a miracle when matriarch Alma needed it most. She was fleeing violence with her baby triplets when her husband sacrificed himself to save her and the group with her. As some sort of cosmic way to balance this loss, they not only achieve safety (isolated in a tight-knit mountain community), but Alma and her offspring also get magical gifts.
However miraculous, these new powers don’t bring her husband back. And they can’t restore the bits of herself Alma loses having to be strong enough to raise three babies on her own. When “Encanto” starts, she’s a proud, active, and loving Abuela, but one whose expectations are quietly tearing her family apart.
I think the tale of the harsh grandma is something a few of us can relate to. Personally, I had this type of grandma and it was difficult for me. She was mean — especially to me, the only nieta. In typical old-school Mexican fashion, the grandsons got off easier.
My perspective has always been that abuelas are supposed to be nice. They’re supposed to be these kind, nurturing figures. When mine wasn’t, I didn’t have a script to push back on. Add in the huge age gap and shifting power dynamics between multiple generations, and it’s just so hard to untangle, to figure out what, if anything, to do. I complained some to my parents but mostly just waited it out until I got older.
Similar to my own story, Mirabel, the Colombian heroine of “Encanto,” finds herself in this dynamic. She wants to honor her Abuela, but that’s impossible when Abuela Alma doesn’t honor her. Alma is ashamed of this granddaughter, the only Madrigal without a magical gift, and is constantly asking Mirabel to make herself smaller.
And Mirabel’s not the only one. Her eldest sister Louisa is wilting under the familial expectations to use and maintain her unfaltering strength to fix… everything. As she sings in “Surface Pressure,” “I’m the strong one, I’m not nervous… Under the surface, I’m prеtty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of sеrvice… It’s pressure like a drip, drip, drip, that’ll never stop.”
Arguably, middle sister Isabella is Louisa’s opposite. Noting their differences, Mirabel calls them the “beauty and the brawn,” but Isa’s hurting too. She’s so busy being the idealized version of the perfect grandchild, that she doesn’t even know who she is, what she can do, or what happiness would look like for her.
And then there’s Bruno (“We don’t talk about Bruno” is perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda’s biggest bop on the soundtrack — it never fails to get my two-year-old wagging his hips). He’s the family failure, the open secret they’re all supposed to suppress. But why? Because he let down Abuela?
As the film reaches its crescendo, we learn all this Madrigal pain is what’s causing the magic to fade. Familial love is what maintains the miracle and Abuela Alma has been undercutting it for years. Eventually, they do lose the magic even though Abuela recognizes the errors of her ways and apologies.
But the magic returns once the townspeople finish helping the Madrigals rebuild their home.
Yes, in real life a few apologies and some community assistance would not undo decades of generational trauma. And I do wish they’d made the rebuilding montage appear to take place over more like a year, rather than a day. That would have more accurately represented the amount of time and work healing actually takes. But the film’s curing of old wounds is still earned and powerful. Bruno finds his way into the fold. Mirabel learns to love herself. Isa and Louisa escape their prisons of expectations. And Abuela, crucially, learns she has the damage she is causing and commits to changing.
With this ending, “Encanto” honors Latinx families and not just by centering our stories for the first time in the Disney pantheon. The film doesn’t portray our big, multigenerational, multiracial families as perfect or idealized. Rather, it asks us to be better. And that’s why it’s accurately titled, Encanto.
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