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The cultural magic of ‘Encanto’: How the ‘Disney’ film captures the essence of Latino families

The cultural magic of ‘Encanto’: How the ‘Disney’ film captures the essence of Latino families

Sitting last winter with my 8-year-old granddaughter, Cataley, to watch Disney’s “Encanto,” I thought it would be like most of the animated movies we typically see. Honestly, I was not prepared to see myself and the texture of my hair reflected on the screen.

It was the first time I felt seen from Hollywood’s standpoint. The Madrigal family was a wonderful representation of the diversity within our culture. “Encanto” is the tale of the multigenerational Madrigals, who live in a charmed place in the mountains of Colombia. The magic of the encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift.

From the opening scene, we went to a magical place familiar “The Woman King” to me with its culture, customs, rituals and music. As we met the characters in la familia Madrigal, I jumped up from my seat, pointing out to my granddaughter, “Mamita, look, that family looks like ours!”

My granddaughter looks more like the Latinas you typically see on the screens, in telenovelas and magazines with fair complexions and straight hair. While we share some features, I’m Afro Latina, several shades darker than her and with texturized super curly hair, making it difficult for outsiders to connect the dots that we’re related. From the time my daughters were little and even today with the nietos, I’m often mistaken for the nanny.

Hopefully, now that we have “Encanto” with its almost mirror image of what many Latino families look like, these misconceptions will become fewer.

I’m not the only one to get drawn into the wonders of this culturally inclusive production. Many others feel the same.

“It’s about time, and this time we’re not just watching the movie, we’re starring in it,” says my cousin Richard Rosa. My primo and his wife, Estephania, a Dominican-Colombian couple living in Fort Myers, Fla., watched “Encanto” with their 8-year-old daughter who loves seeing characters who look like her on screen.

The Rosas say “Encanto” was written realistically, from how we communicate with each other to our body types and speaking Spanglish at times.

“I really liked it because of how many people can relate to it. There were all ranges (of) the Latin community just from the jump when they introduced the family,” says Angela Banks, a biracial college student who plays soccer at Concordia University in Nebraska and lives in California.

Though proud of her Mexican and African American heritage, Banks doesn’t speak Spanish, and her looks don’t fit either stereotype. In fact, people often don’t believe her when she says she’s Mexican or Black. She was enthralled with everything about “Encanto”, from the soundtrack to its realistic depiction of Latino culture and the family’s strict matriarch, Abuela.

“It goes deeper with more than just how they all look,” she says. “It shows the structure and how immigrating to a new place affects (future) generations.”

After seeing the previews for “Encanto”, Sara Almaraz of Bloomington, Ill., was excited about the music, the colors and an entire family whose relatives have various skin shades and different hair textures and lengths — something she’d never seen in a film. Almaraz, founder of We2 Alliance, a childhood trauma advocacy organization, says her children, ages 5, 12 and 15, resemble the three siblings in the Madrigal family.

An Indigenous Mexican who identifies as Afro Mexican, Almaraz says it’s important to see yourself to know yourself because as a child, she was “othered” and called morena or negrita because of her hair and complexion not looking “Mexican enough.” It led to an identity crisis and a long journey in discovering her heritage.

She says her 5-year-old, Sol, looks like the character Antonio, the little boy who receives the gift of communicating with animals.

“And when he saw the scene, it was just like his world stopped. He had a real aha! moment of representation,” Almaraz says. “And this is why representation matters; he was watching himself.”

Almaraz says many mental health professionals took to social media to break down the “Encanto” cultural phenomenon.

“We are kind of conditioned to not be represented, or we grew up with these white images of what beauty is supposed to look like, what the female and male bodies should look like. We look at ourselves, and we are quite opposite of that,” says Cynthia Cerrato, a Los Angeles Latinx therapist at marriage and family therapy practice Corazon y Aire.

Cerrato says representation in big platforms is crucial for a sense of belonging and inclusivity, and its absence can lead to a lack of self-esteem, anxiety and depression for some viewers.

So while “Encanto” might be the first mainstream animated film to accomplish this feat for our community, we’re all hoping it’s a trendsetter.

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