With ‘Encanto’, Hollywood Continues its Disneyfication of Latin Cultures

Disney
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I walked out of the movie theater after seeing Encanto with a lump still in my throat. An almost smug feeling of triumph battled a fearful thought: what I had just witnessed was not for a greater good.

Even before I sat in a pleather recliner at the Regal movie theater in Battery Park, I kept replaying the original trailer announcing the film as Disney’s 60th motion-animated picture in my head. I remembered the joy that washed over me as a glittering butterfly danced through the air toward an hacienda-style house snuggled in what any Colombian would recognize as the Andes Mountains, the double beat of the famous nationalist cumbia, “Colombia, Tierra Querida”, gradually building toward a gallant chorus of “Colombia!” as a gale of golden butterflies (a la Gabriel García Márquez) filled the screen.

Encanto’s trailer promises an ambrosial respite from traditional depictions of Colombians as lewd, criminal, and hyper-violent. The Colombia pictured in this trailer is saturated in fuchsias and azures, dripping with flowers in that art style endemic to Disney’s studios. There is a jarring contrast between this new vision and the muted color schemes, wartorn countrysides, and seedy avenues populated by raven-haired mobsters and their wide-hipped companions that characterized virtually all prior Western depictions of Colombia, which often came with a headache of a yellow filter that US filmmakers use to channel feelings of wet heat (a climate not found in most of Colombia). The trailer alone — with its verdant depictions of the Andean mountains and gigantic wax palm trees (indigenous to central Colombia and the tallest of their kind) — was immediate proof that the directors of this film (two white men and a Cuban-American woman) were well-advised during the film’s production. “Finally,” I thought, “people will know the beauty of our traditions and breadth of our peoples. At last,” I thought with relief, “Colombians will come to be associated with more than just sex and death.”

But at what cost? Many non-white writers have explained at length that relatively nascent movements demanding accurate and thoughtful depictions of the lives and cultures of people of color will not grant us the proverbial freedom or equality many of us are denied in US society. At best, some think, onscreen representation only serves to pacify more radical demands for justice regarding “real” issues, such as police brutality, socioeconomic inequality, and the overall imperialist agenda of the US state, all of which rest upon an unspoken loyalty to white patriarchy.

The first thing Encanto makes me feel is solace, but the second is apprehension. After all, why should any Colombian — no — any person of color trust an American media giant like Disney with the customs and experiences most important to us, identities made all the more precious by the perpetual glower of racism and xenophobia that makes us hold onto who we are even tighter? Yet now — thanks to Disney — the world has another view of Colombia: one which perceives and (dare I say) appreciates the splendid music, majestic landscapes, and commitment to collectivist lifestyles often disparaged by the children of immigrants and other Americanized Latinos.

I needed guidance, and I knew that Encanto was not the first of its kind. It is but the latest in a small and unstudied legacy of what I call the “Disneyfication” of Latin America. Most people reading this will probably think first of 2017’s Coco, seemingly the first time Disney homed in on one of Latin America’s cultures. The film was lauded for its historical and cultural accuracy, but more recently, it has been criticized by Indigenous people for commodifying Día de Los Muertos, a Mexican holiday squarely rooted in Indigenous spirituality. This is just one example of how representation can go wrong, even when it can feel so right for the Mexican teenager sitting front row, bawling as Abuelita Coco’s life is celebrated not in spite of death, but, in true Mexican fashion, hand in hand with it.

Many will be surprised that this is not Encanto’s only predecessor, but one of several. This strange, exoticizing story begins with Disney’s shortest animated film to date, Saludos Amigos. The film, which was the first time a major studio depicted Latin America through its cartoons, premiered in Rio de Janeiro in 1942 and was an attempt by the US government to bring about a positive relationship between the US and various Latin American governments, which were, at the time, allegedly in league with Nazi Germany. The film consists of four vignettes across four South American cities, three of which star Donald Duck or Goofy. In the first vignette, Donald Duck treks into the “Indian Country” of Lake Titicaca in Peru, where brown, blob-like figures akin to racist caricatures of South American Natives teach Donald their “strange and exotic” music; next, Goofy learns the chivalrous and swashbuckling ways of the Argentine gaucho; and then we are introduced to José Carioca, a smooth-talking Brazilian parrot who accompanies Donald on a tour of the country. The latter vignette is especially striking for the way it whitewashes Brazil, as all the denizens who appear onscreen are basically indistinguishable from the everyday white American, made “other” only by the way they stiffly samba, a musical tradition mostly rooted in the Black, Afro-descended communities of Brazil.

In the 1944 sequel, aptly titled The Three Caballeros, we find Donald Duck yet again enamored by Latin Americans and their cultures, accompanied once more by José Carioca and newcomer Panchito, a Mexican rooster that I suppose isn’t nearly as offensive as Speedy Gonzales. Worse, however, is the five-minute-long sequence of Donald houndishly lusting after fair-skinned Mexican women sunbathing on a beach in Acapulco.

These films coincide with what journalist Juan Gonzalez, in his luminous Harvest of Empire, refers to as a fascinating but short-lived Golden Age of sorts, during which Hollywood was pressured by the government to portray Latin Americans more sympathetically — after all, they were “good neighbors’’ and much-needed allies against the fascism of the day. Irony aside, these two films are the archaic and oft-forgotten ancestors in the Disneyfication of Latin America. After them, it gets real quiet. As Gonzalez points out somewhat surprisingly, Latin(o) onscreen representation declined significantly after the heyday of actors like half-Mexican Anthony Quinn, Cuban darling Rita Moreno, and Brazilian diva Carmen Miranda. Gonzalez cites a study — “Watching America” — which reports that, between 1955–1986, an unsurprising but nevertheless jarring 2% of all television characters were Hispanic, followed by 1.1% of primetime characters between 1982–1992. These figures don’t even factor in how many of these appearances portrayed some sort of harmful or reductive stereotype.

It’s facts like these that remind me not to judge myself or others so harshly for breathing a sigh of relief when we leave the theater thinking Hollywood did our cultures — ourselves — some justice. However, it’s still not an excuse to dispose of one’s critical eye. The entertainment industrial complex of the US is to be scrutinized, even if we’re not yet at a point where we can dispose of profit economies.

In the last decade, something has begun to awaken. Perhaps Hollywood has realized the sheer number of Latino Americans makes us quite the cash cow, or maybe Latino creatives are finally getting a seat at the proverbial table. Either way, I realized, while watching 2011’s Rio, that, like Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros, US filmmakers clearly have an easier time representing Latin Americans using animals than with our actual selves. In an industry that, since its inception, has excluded us from its conference rooms and movie sets, directors and producers still resort to stories centered around animated animal characters, because bringing to life the many birds of paradise that populate Rio and the kinkajous and serpents of 2021’s Vivo proves much easier than seeking out the Latino talent who can give audiences a feeling of self-image most of us have learned to live without in humble silence.

This phenomenon reminds me of a survey of children’s literature published in 2018 that reported that only 5% of children’s books included Latino characters, a statistic that becomes all the more sobering when you compare it to the 18% of people in the US who identified as Latino in 2019. Clearly, we are amongst the most disproportionately represented in many aspects of the entertainment industry. This is the mindset with which I approached Encanto.

The film follows Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), a young woman who lives with her family in a lush village whose environment is modeled after the Cocora Valley, home to the aforementioned titanic wax palms. Mirabel is one of many family members under the tender guidance of the stately and resilient Alma (María Cecilia Botero). I was pleasantly surprised to see the film reflect the matriarchal dynamics of Colombian domestic life, which are no doubt precipitated by the prevalence of single motherhood in Colombian society — perhaps because our men make terrible fathers, or perhaps for other, graver reasons the plot points toward.

All of this is borne by the matriarchal Alma after her husband’s murder at the hands of faceless pillagers. This reflects a phenomenon that one sees not just in Colombia but in much of Latin America as well: fathers and other male caretakers lost to countless wars that have been waged since what seems like time immemorial. It is a condition that has forced Colombian women, even in the face of poverty and femicide — an issue of its own — to assume the role of breadwinner and sole caretaker of entire families. That the amorphous killers take Alma’s husband from her even as she tries to escape with three children in her arms in a caravan of refugees reflects the very real state of dispossession in Colombia, the country with the third-highest number of internally displaced refugees (due to conflict) in the world as of 2020.

But there is also something Biblical, even Christ-like, in the way one man’s sacrifice for those he loves heralds a new beginning in the film. In the wake of Alma’s husband’s death, a single white candle remains. My family often uses white candles in prayer as a sort of petition for something they desire deeply, and in Encanto, it becomes symbolic of ultimate sacrifice and undying hope even in the face of death itself. I commend the way the film signals the Catholic tradition of life springing forth from death without being explicitly religious — for better or worse, Colombians tend to be fiercely Catholic, and the film subtly imbues this spiritual tradition into itself without shying away from it in favor of a vaguer, more secular magic.

The premise of the film is that Mirabel seems to be the only family member who was not blessed by the encanto, the magic gifted to Alma that allows her to create a permanent settlement, banishing the armed vigilantes and crowning this mystical pueblo with an enchanted house that feels like a character all its own and is controlled by a beneficent spirit on whom the family relies in daily life. Some family members have superhuman strength; others can shapeshift and use their emotions to control the weather. Colombian journalist Javier Ocaña calls the Madrigals a storybook version of the Buendías, the family at the center of One Hundred Years of Solitude, arguably the most famous work of magical realism ever. In true magical realist fashion, the citizens of the pueblo coexist with the Madrigals, reverent of their magical powers and often relying on Alma for good counsel. I appreciate the film’s engagement with magical realism because it reflects the way Colombian and Latin American imaginations respect the mystery and sheer uncanniness of everyday life; it emulates a perception of seeing the wondrous and even the horrible as entirely magical and yet to be expected. Mirabel can’t seem to find her way in this world, and I think this internal conflict is emblematic of how regular many Latin Americans feel in a rapidly industrializing world that is so utterly strange; glorious and terrifying, but odd all the same.

Another aspect that blooms in its specificity is the character design. Mirabel and her family remind me of many Colombians I know, and it’s refreshing, to say the least, to finally see Colombians depicted as being darker than Shakira-beige and with more ethnic features than the J Balvins of the world. Indeed, the width of Mirabel’s nose, the fullness of her cheeks, and the brownness of her skin capture a broader share of the Colombian population than many would want us to think. Yes, there absolutely are many Colombians with fair skin and beachy, brunette waves, but there are even more with thick, jet-black hair like Isabela (Diane Guerrero), tight, dark curls like Félix (Mauro Castillo), and long, sloping noses like Alma and Agustín (Wilmer Valderrama). The US (and Colombia) has succeeded in exporting a Eurocentric vision of the everyday Colombian citizen to the world. At the very least, Encanto has put some pressure on this narrow and racist perception.

I presumed that the film wasn’t going to be a success in Colombia. Surely, given the diversity (and therefore diverse interests) of the country, there wasn’t going to be enough of a rollout for it to enter mainstream Colombian consciousness. But after getting in touch with my family — almost all of whom live in the urbanized highlands, I must note — it became clear that there has been quite the publicity campaign for the film, at least in the big, majority Mestizo and white cities. Two of my cousins, both of whom are mothers to young boys, explained that there have been ads for the film on national television, Discovery Kids, the radio, on buses, and in shopping malls. One of my cousins, Catalina, explained that the film’s presence has been exactly like its name: “un encanto” (an enchantment). Both explained that people were excited for its showcase of Colombian culture and the involvement of actual Colombian voice actors. For some Colombians, at least, a broad appreciation for the many cultures of Colombia, albeit tinged with some shallow nationalism, is enough to get them to pay 25,000 Colombian pesos a pop (roughly six American dollars) so that they can see a film that, for once, shows something familiar (although, admittedly, they might not have been spurred by a desire for self-actualization to the extent that I was).

It’s safe to say that, even in Colombia, Encanto is the first of its kind. Backed by one of the most powerful film studios in the world and boasting a budget in the hundreds of millions, the film’s supernatural charm has succeeded in captivating audiences both in its host country and stateside, a feat accomplished by few Latin(o) American films. It owes this accomplishment to its portrayal of something rarely found in Latin cinema: triumph over despair. Even so, this victory makes it easy to forget how Latin America’s sorrowful associations came to be in the first place.

By its nature, Encanto must look at Colombia through rose-tinted glasses — after all, it is a children’s movie, and therefore must represent an idealized version of Colombian society, one in which racism does not prevail and people coexist on the basis of shared culture, and in which spells and enchantments save you from violent death. Unsurprisingly, this does not reflect the racism rampant in Colombia and virtually all of Latin America, particularly against Black, Indigenous, and dark-skinned people in general. The film does not reflect the poverty and morose closeness of violent death that bring people like me here in the first place. These are just some of the truths I fear become lost in translation between the brutal reality and the sparkling, Spanglish-speaking rendition that appears on a silver screen.

While I cannot complain about the film’s inclusive and benevolent nature, one must remember that movies like Encanto, Coco, Vivo, and Rio all eschew the hyper-violent realities of these societies: perpetual states of suffering that were forced into existence in no small part by the US government and its imperialist interests in the region. But I value that the movie, with its depiction of the encanto as a reward — as an answer to Alma’s supplication to be freed from the threat of exile and murder — acknowledges Colombia’s, and much of Latin America’s, intimate relationship with death. Mexican poet Octavio Paz went so far as to describe the average Mexican’s understanding of death as “one of [their] favorite toys and [their] most steadfast love.” The film seems to follow in this tradition, but I cannot — will not — forget, despite the beauty of Encanto and all the offerings of representation yet to come, from whence this violence springs forth.

 

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