Monday, November 29, 2021

I'm Colombian. Here's what 'Encanto' means to me

You've been dazzled by the toucans and the capybaras and the bougainvilleas. Now let me give you the whole context.

After the end credits of Disney's new animated musical Encanto, there's a brief shot of Mickey Mouse in his iconic Steamboat Willie pose, whistling and dancing, while the beats of cumbia keep playing in the background. It's a powerful juxtaposition: from now on, there will forever be a piece of Disney official canon where Mickey is dancing cumbia. He's obviously not doing the right moves, but the moment is important in view of how aggressively protective Disney is about the uses of Mickey's image.

When a media megacorporation places its sights on an underrepresented culture, it's inevitable to perceive the interaction in terms of unequal power dynamics. So one has to be very careful when assessing the result. A great deal of the discussion around previous production Raya and the Last Dragon had to do, on one hand, with Disney's unfortunate choice to hire East Asian instead of Southeast Asian voice actors for the majority of the cast, and to summarize the enormous diversity of the region in a single mixture that wasn't very convincing to actual Southeast Asians. On the other hand, you had American critics being clueless about the source cultures and therefore unequipped to interpret the movie's symbolic content.

So when I, a Colombian reviewer, draw attention to the significance of Mickey Mouse dancing cumbia at the end of Encanto, I'm absolutely not in any way framing it as our culture being finally worthy of being showcased by Hollywood. The question to ask is exactly the opposite: it's whether Hollywood is worthy of getting its hands on our culture.

Fun fact: Colombia's literacy rate is 95% for adults and 98% for children!

Also fun fact: Americans just can't be bothered to spell Colombia correctly!

It needs to be set in those terms because American movies have so far done a horrendously offensive job of representing Colombia. Examples abound, of which the absolute worst is Romancing the Stone, whose influence on American perceptions of Colombia has done damage comparable to what Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom did to perceptions of India. So Disney had to be aware that, after the multiple ways Hollywood has mistreated us, they needed to put in a lot of extra effort to earn our good will. Fortunately, Disney did its homework this time.

Encanto is set in a deliberately ambiguous location on the Andean mountains, in a town built in the Spanish colonial style of architecture and surrounded by the emblematic wax palms, Colombia's official national tree. (Remember the "wax" part. It'll be important later.) From the start, that choice of location is loaded with tension. It's true that the natural habitat of the wax palm is breathtakingly beautiful, and a suitable stage for a fantasy story...

Fun fact: Colombia has the world's highest diversity of bird species!

Also fun fact: Colombia has the world's seventh highest rate of tropical deforestation!

... but Andean locations, peoples, and cultures have been overemphasized in Colombian popular media (and in government budgets), mainly because our most important industrial centers and the best-funded universities and theaters and libraries are located in Andean cities. Movies and television shows produced in Colombia have tended to reinforce a narrow idea of what our society looks and sounds like, and when stories choose to include characters from disadvantaged regions, it's done via tired stereotypes that often veer into blatant derision. So, while the wax palm forest is a gorgeous sight that clearly lends itself to magical storytelling, you need to keep in mind that it's impossible for one single location to represent the entire country, and that the locations that have nevertheless been selected for that purpose have usually been the same few, while the peripheral regions are only allowed to represent their isolation.

Fun fact: Colombia is the third richest country in South America by GDP!

Also fun fact: Colombia has the third worst income inequality in South America!

Just like in the United States you hear of a divide between the prosperous, educated, productive coastal cities vs. the neglected flyover country, in Colombia we have prosperous, educated, productive mountain cities vs. the neglected coasts and forests. It has become a habitual refrain to say that ruling elites in Colombia live secluded between mountains and oblivious to what goes on elsewhere. In the flashback scene where the matriarch of the Madrigal family loses her husband, bursts into tears and magically creates an entire town (am I the only one getting WandaVision vibes here?) so that she can raise her kids in safety, the most striking image is the rising of the mountains that keep her refuge closed off from the world. This is a symbolic clue to the persistent anxiety that defines this character: she's afraid of everything outside of her microcosm.

It's a brilliant move by the film to establish the grandmother's character flaw in terms of her relation to physical space. It has been pointed out that Encanto is the rare adventure story where the adventure doesn't leave the home, and there's a solid reason for that. There's a certain current in Colombian literature that treats the extended family household as a metaphor for the country. You may have perceived this trope in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, but it's present in many other novels, such as The Big House by Álvaro Cepeda Samudio, The House with Two Palm Trees by Manuel Mejía Vallejo, and House of Fury by Evelio Rosero. In the Colombian narrative tradition, if you want a practical way to write a "total novel" about the country, you write a novel about a house, one where the family members suffer under the constraints of arbitrary authority, and the elders' emotional trauma is inherited by every subsequent generation.

Fun fact: Colombia has been ranked multiple times as the world's happiest country!

Also fun fact: Colombia has the world's highest percentage of former child soldiers!

When viewed through this "house-as-stand-in-for-the-country" lens, Encanto's focus on a single authority figure dictating the lives of others resonates with a well-known mindset of centralism that has caused much resentment in the peripheral Colombian regions. One of our most consequential historic missteps was the failure to set up a federal system that would integrate the immense diversity of cultures contained within our territory while allowing them enough breathing room to decide on their own affairs. To give you an idea of just how disastrous our rulers have been: the entire countries of Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama used to be part of Colombia, as founding members of a titanically ambitious project to harness the momentum of the recently liberated colonies and turn South America into a world power. But they went their own way, and for roughly the same reason: our central government's frustrating refusal to look beyond the tiny space between the mountains.

The breakup of Greater Colombia is one of the foundational traumas of our national identity. But today we don't even give it a moment's thought, because much worse traumas have overshadowed it. Once we had failed to keep other nations living with us, we went on to fail to keep ourselves living together. For our entire history since independence, we have disagreed so ferociously over every detail of our form of government (centralism vs. federalism, protectionism vs. free trade, church schools vs. secular schools, land concentration vs. land reform) that the Wikipedia entry for "Colombian Civil War" is a disambiguation page. More recently, when the Juan Manuel Santos administration asked the Colombian people to vote on a peace agreement to end the last armed conflict of the Western Hemisphere, the most traumatic thing wasn't even that the total count turned out against the agreement, but that it did so by a negligible margin. If the house represents the country, the reoccurring cracks in the house in Encanto represent the numerous disputes that continue to hurt us. Our most persistent notion of ourselves as a people is that we are a house divided against itself.

Fun fact: Colombia is the oldest standing democracy in Latin America!

Also fun fact: Colombia has been climbing the list of most fragile states for the past 5 years!

In an interview with The Wrap, Encanto co-director and co-scriptwriter Charise Castro Smith pointed out the symbolic importance of keeping the open crack in the mountains after the Madrigal house is rebuilt. According to her explanation, part of the emotional healing process is being able to see out of your shell and acknowledge the roots of your pain. This is a key element in any story that aspires to represent Colombia. We eat transgenerational trauma for breakfast, both in the sense that it's given to us as a common part of daily life, and in the sense that we pretend we're over it and we keep it stored inside us until we burst (see: Luisa's character song). It's no coincidence that "open your eyes" becomes a motif in Encanto, because it truly is our superpower to live in denial. Colombia, as a whole, is a traumatized society. Our families are traumatized families that excel at perpetuating trauma. There's only so much of Colombian rural violence that you can show on a fantasy musical for kids, but the horrific backstory of the Madrigal grandmother, as well as the effect such violence has had on her personality and her parenting style, is vividly recognizable to us as a still ongoing tragedy, repeated millions of times upon millions of widows and orphans. It's notable that Pedro's killers are never identified in the movie. Liberals? Conservatives? Far left militias? Far right militias? To the victims, it's all the same.

Instead, let's talk about raccoons.

Before the start of Encanto, Disney has inserted the animated short Far from the Tree, which, perhaps intentionally, summarizes the themes of Encanto. It shows us a raccoon that protects its offspring with excessive zeal because it was injured by a predator and wants to prevent that from happening again. Alas, it does happen again, and the baby raccoon barely escapes death. The parent then scolds the baby with a severity that we know comes from pain, but ends up causing lasting fear and insecurity. When that baby raccoon grows up, it replicates the same behavior with its offspring, but quickly learns that it doesn't need to repeat the same overprotective parenting style. Instead, it accompanies its baby in exploring the world safely.

Fun fact: Last year, Colombia was selected as the top trending destination for tourism!

Also fun fact: Colombia is ranked as more violent than Myanmar, Palestine and Ethiopia!

The tendency of parents who were traumatized as children to engage in hypervigilance that in turn traumatizes their children is the emotional core of Encanto (and of many Colombian life stories). It's valuable that this societal problem is recognized, but the way the movie resolves it leaves much to be desired. Here I'm going to have to speculate a bit, but I'll present evidence to support my interpretation.

Twice in the movie, in the songs "The Family Madrigal" and "All of You," protagonist Mirabel refers to the members of her family as comprising a constellation. Once would have been attributable to a whimsical turn of phrase, but twice signals meaningful intention. And I find that intention questionable.

Family constellation therapy is a scientifically dubious and unproven approach to the processing and overcoming of transgenerational trauma. It treats family roles as archetypal connections that continue to influence descendants, even those who don't know their ancestors' life stories. There are a lot of charlatan red flags in the theory, which, depending on the practitioner, can include total nonsense like morphic resonance and quantum mysticism. The idea is that our elders' experiences leave ripples in the unseen fabric of the family, and the way to break free of them is to openly acknowledge their effects. A session of family constellation therapy involves roleplaying in order to question the roles assigned to each family member. However, the emphasis is on the acknowledging, and that is assumed to be enough for closure. No actual changes of behavior are indicated. If Mirabel's scene of reconciliation with her grandmother by the river feels somewhat off, I suspect it's because it's written from this theory. They just voice their roles to each other. They declare what they have experienced. But there's no admission of wrongdoing, no commitment to amends. This may explain why, as others have noted, Encanto comes off as promoting the dangerous idea that you should forgive your family just because they're family and not because they're going to start treating you better.

Fun fact: A Colombian pediatrician pioneered the Kangaroo protocol of
neonatal care, which is estimated to reduce preterm deaths by more than 36%!

Also fun fact: Out of 180 countries surveyed, Colombia
is ranked 126th in quality of childhood life experiences!

Fake psychology is terrible for real life, but it's useful for making (and reading) fiction. The theory of family constellations helps explain another plot point of Encanto. As it happens, one key step of its therapeutic method is the reintegration of members who have been erased from the family. And this brings us to the topic of Bruno, a bearer of unpleasant truths who represents one of the most enduring and venerable Colombian traditions: shooting the messenger.

The original sin of Colombian society is fear of truth. The grandmother's nervous reassurances that everything is fine, and the house stands strong, and what are you waiting for to go back to the dance floor, call to mind the amazing Colombian ability to not ignore the elephant in the room but successfully pretend to ignore it. (Yes, that's two levels of self-deception, and we're the masters at it.)

To be fair, our selective attention is not a personality flaw, but a survival strategy. We live surrounded by incomparably beautiful landscapes and appalling political violence, we have a ridiculously fertile land yet every year there's news of malnourished children somewhere, we are inexhaustibly creative and hardworking and dedicated while the rest of the world thinks we're only good as hired guns or drug mules, every day we make a monumental effort to put on a happy face and build something resembling a normal life while things around us keep breaking into pieces, and we're barely holding it together. When Luisa protests that she can't go on carrying the weight of everything, when Isabela protests that she's sick of keeping up appearances, we hear them and nod. When Mirabel cries because she hasn't been given a chance to pursue any achievement to be proud of, we cry with her.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges put it best when he declared that being Colombian is an act of faith.

Many Colombians end up feeling they don't really have a place here (or are forced to relinquish their place). The character of Bruno represents the human cost of social exclusion. It may be in the form of Native Americans (there's a lot of Native imagery in Bruno's bedroom, on which more below), who are made to feel like strangers in their own territories; or the growing numbers of people who are forcibly displaced from rural areas, are rarely helped back to their feet, and end up as beggars in the cities; or the portion of Colombians who leave the country because our society turns too hostile. However, like Bruno, exiled Colombians keep a close eye on events at home, maintaining an ambivalent relationship to a place they want to love.

Fun fact: Colombia is the world's eighth most welcoming country for foreigners!

Also fun fact: Colombia is the world's fourth largest source of political asylum seekers!

Since much of Encanto has to do with a reappraisal of people's ties to home, it's worthwhile to analyze the symbolic weight of places in the story. There's a very Pan's Labyrinth feeling to Mirabel's exploration of locations in her house that lead to huge, magical spaces for adventure. Of course one child exclaims that the house is bigger on the inside, because Mirabel's journey to uncover her family's history has the qualities of time travel, starting with the hourglass carvings and flowing sand in Bruno's bedroom. The fact that Bruno's bedroom is located in a tower also has its own significance, and to untangle it, we're going to need a bit more context.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard is most famous for his contributions to epistemology, but he also wrote about the meaning-making power of architecture. His book The Poetics of Space describes the house as a literary analogue of the human psyche: it has hidden rooms, and forbidden doors, and places we go to for comfort, and memories attached to every corner. In Encanto, each Madrigal descendant has access to a private world in a bedroom, a sanctum uniquely theirs, furnished with objects that reflect their personalities. In chapter 8 of The Poetics of Space, Bachelard speaks of the vast places contained within us: "Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone." Mirabel's forbidden visit to Bruno's bedroom resembles the laborious work of introspection done during therapy when a patient explores past incidents too painful to admit.

Regarding Bruno's abode in a tower, we find in chapter 1 of The Poetics of Space: "And all the spaces of our last moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows instinctively that this space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams."

For Bachelard, the attic's position at the top of the house brings up unconscious connections to the roof's protective function. It is a refuge of serenity. It is where the mind can sustain an illusion of safety from the secrets buried below, in the cellar.

Of the traditional components of a house, the most prominent spatial referent used in Encanto is the door. Chapter 9 of the The Poetics of Space has this to say on the matter: "the door is an entire cosmos of the half-open [...] one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations..." The door both connects and separates; both contains possibility and hides consequence. As long as Mirabel doesn't have a place of her own (she's still sleeping in the nursery, effectively infantilized), she has no access to the realm of possibility. Going into the hidden rooms of the house occurs in parallel with going into the untapped potential of her maturity.

The first inner space we see in the house is Antonio's new room, a piece of Colombian jungle meticulously represented in all its diversity. Here it must be admitted that we've not developed a healthy relationship with nature. Colombia prides itself in its ecological tourism destinations, but we've seriously missed the mark when it comes to conservation efforts. We treat our forests as pretty promotional material for travel brochures (and, by extension, as a tool to sell tickets for Encanto), but at every opportunity, we've cut them down to use the land for mining or raising cattle. Antonio's ability to talk to animals reflects our need to reconnect to a natural space we've mostly spoiled and mismanaged. (Also, it's interesting that his side of the family has all the gifts of empathy: he can communicate with those who can't speak, his mother has the power to make her true feelings visible, his sister has the power to listen, and his brother has the power to put himself in anyone's shoes.)

The next inner space we see is Bruno's bedroom, the place where he retreated to hold prophetic ceremonies. For Colombian viewers, the geometric patterns and carved faces on the walls of this vault have an immediate resonance: they resemble the Native art found in the subterranean tombs of Tierradentro, a place loaded with religious meaning. It's thematically fitting that the place where Mirabel starts to reconnect with her history resembles the most important Native American burial site in Colombia, a place whose construction deliberately used the symbolic power of architecture to express the connection between the individual and the ancestors, a place built by people whom Colombian society has treated with criminal neglect and often tried to write out of history.

You'll recall that, when Mirabel enters this vault, a giant door closes and she finds herself in complete darkness, and then green lights appear from a circle on the ground. The experience will be familiar to you if you've visited the Gold Museum in Bogotá, our largest collection of Native American metallurgy. At the end of your visit, you're invited into a closed room where all the lights are out. Suddenly, a circle on the floor is illuminated, and you see wondrous emerald jewelry encased in gold.

That's the green crystal Mirabel takes from the vault: it's emerald.

Fun fact: Colombia produces the world's finest and most valued emeralds!

Also fun fact: Emerald mining is one of Colombia's bloodiest industries!

The next inner space we see is Isabela's room, an immaculate garden kept with painstaking care until Isabela learns to create a more spontaneous form of beauty. There are several possible readings of this moment. For Mirabel, her sisters are extreme poles of femininity, with Isabela standing in for the oppressive beauty standards that continue to constrain Colombian women. Almost every town in Colombia has its own beauty pageant, and such contests are often used as ladders of social mobility for disadvantaged women. Another possible reading of Isabela's growth, if we see her as a creative type of character, is the rebellion of Colombian artists against a strictly conservative establishment that has historically been eager to impose censorship and enforce antiquated aesthetic canons.

Fun fact: Colombia is the world's second largest exporter of flowers!

Also fun fact: The Colombian flower industry has outrageous labor conditions!

Finally, the location where Mirabel reconciles with her grandmother is not the inside of a bedroom, but it nevertheless has a powerful meaning for Colombian viewers. The river used in this scene is inspired by the real river Caño Cristales, an impossibly beautiful spectacle that you almost can't believe can happen on this planet. In a country that has failed to protect so many of its natural wonders, Caño Cristales still explodes in color every year due to the life cycle of the algae that dwell under the waters. This river's yearly resurgence has made it, in Colombian consciousness, a hopeful signifier of perseverance, and that makes it the perfect stage for the rebuilding of the Madrigal family ties.

The fragility of Colombian ecosystems is visible to us from the start of the movie. Wax palms are protected by law, but they're endangered because their leaves are popular in a Catholic festival and their wax (remember I said I'd come back to the wax?) can be used to make candles, which are important in another Catholic festival, very likely the one where the grandmother met her husband. In the vaguely-early-20th-century setting of the movie, the possible sources of wax for candles are either beeswax (which would explain why Mirabel's father has so many encounters with bees) or wax palms. The grim realization is that it would take several wax palms to keep that miraculous candle lit for decades. Were it not for magic, the continuous burning of that candle should require mass-scale environmental devastation, which, if it was an intentional choice by the filmmakers, would be a brutal hidden metaphor for the cost of Colombia's often unrealistic projects.

In the reconciliation scene there is, of course, an even more powerful symbol. If you're not familiar with Colombian literature, you need to know that it's absolutely crucial that the butterflies that appear through the grandmother's backstory happen to be yellow.

Yellow butterflies are the most famous motif employed in the works of Gabriel García Márquez as a visual shortcut for hopeful love. By extension, they have become a symbol of the entire genre of magical realism. We did not invent magical realism, but we put it on the map. It was almost mandatory that a fantasy tale about Colombia should feature yellow butterflies.

(Another recurring shoutout to García Márquez in Encanto is the hurricane, which famously ends One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both Luisa and Pepa speak of the hurricane as a threat to the family's stability, but Isabela celebrates it as an explosion of joy.)

The grandmother's flashback is accompanied by the song "Dos Oruguitas" ("Two Caterpillars"), which ties together all the movie's themes. The grandmother's character flaw is to anxiously try to keep her family sheltered in a coccoon; as said above, both geographical and emotional barriers are among Colombia's longstanding problems. But also, caterpillars are baby butterflies. To pass from caterpillar to butterfly is to achieve maturity and freedom.

Inner conflict has been an interesting substitute for traditional villains in recent Disney productions. In Coco, what saves the day is the power of memory. In Raya and the Last Dragon, it's the power of trust. In Luca, it's the power of acceptance. In Encanto, the power that Mirabel discovers, what one could call her gift, is the power of community. Time and again, that's what has saved Colombia from falling into the abyss. The Madrigal family share their gifts with the town without compensation, to the point that they can be said to have built a literal gift economy. Their generosity is rewarded when the community comes to their aid and Mirabel finally gets to see herself.

Earlier I said that Mirabel's sisters are two poles of femininity, basically the butch and femme archetypes. If we take Bachelard's image of the household as a symbol for the self, Mirabel's sisters are the potential paths of her own womanhood (including also her mother as the archetype of the selfless caretaker), which is why it's so meaningful that her definitive moment of growth is to see herself in her fullness. The limits of gender expectations are another of the many ways Colombia has continued to cause itself lasting harm (see how both Bruno and Mirabel start being mistrusted by the family when they each disrupt the rituals of traditional marriage). The restoration of the self and the restoration of the home are the dearest wishes of every Colombian, and to reach that goal our best tool is the same that saves the Encanto: the power to rebuild together.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the care to animate gestures and facial expressions that are uniquely Colombian, +1 for the accuracy in plant leaf shapes, all of which correspond to actual plants we've had at home, +1 for skillfully employing Colombian cultural imagery to bolster the story's meaning, +1 for honestly addressing the sequelae of violence on Colombian families.

Penalties: −3 for a muddled psychological foundation.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Bachelard, Gaston [author], Jolas, Maria [translator]. The Poetics of Space [Penguin, 2014].