Film Commentary: What Disney’s “Encanto” Says About Colombian Realities
By Jeremy Ray Jewell and Yulia Pereira
In Colombia and Encanto, willful ignorance is the price paid for reassurance.
Disney has come a long way since the days of its most blatant ethnic/racial caricatures. This has not meant a complete reversal, so much as smoothing out the rough edges of their caricatures, perfecting them so that they will appeal to those who are being represented. Moana had its Polynesian stereotypes, while Coco had its Mexican caricatures. Since the days of Song of the South and Dumbo, Disney has been primarily interested in diversifying its depiction of different people in ways that would please its consumer base. The model remains the same from Uncle Remus to Mulan: represent, via the lowest common denominator, the peoples you are lifting folklore and culture from. What has changed today is that Soul sells Black generalizations that Black viewers will pay to identify with. No surprise, then, that Encanto, Disney’s recent Colombian treatment, does the same.
While Disney’s formula is potentially pernicious when it sells stereotypes, these “positive” self-images may be equally harmful when they commodify identities. Lacking any depth or critical dimension, the language and behavior of groups become disembodied self-fictions. Is it done in order to make the product more flattering? Or is this just naivete on the part of Disney? Some early reactions to the film in Colombia reflect this kind of critique. A version of the “Woman yells at cat” meme began to circulate online before eventually making its way into the weekly Semana magazine: “You told me Colombia was a magical place!” “Yes, yesterday they made a dude disappear!” To the left is an image of one of Colombia’s infamously murderous paramilitaries, supported by drug money and often US aid, standing in front of the house of the Madrigal family from the movie. The gap between history’s harsh realities and the cartoon’s colorful fantasies magnifies the absurdity of Colombian life today. The cheap, easily consumable identity of Colombia which Disney offers is all too easy to ridicule when you live the realities.
A brief overview of those realities which didn’t make it into the film: 57 years of armed conflict in which US government funding has coexisted with the trafficking of drugs to the United States. The drug trade is a beast that moves through rural communities (especially Black and Indigenous ones) like wildfire. The result is often mass displacement with migration to ghettos of economic and political exclusion. 6,402 such people from displaced and other vulnerable populations were rounded up, posed as antigovernment rebels, and executed in order to meet the US-backed government’s quotas in the so-called “false positives” scandal. Now, at a time a peace process and judicial reviews have been established for the sake of reconciliation, the narco- and paramilitary-connected right wing Uribist government is doing what it can to squelch much needed social reform and begin the cycles of violence again. For example, a director of the National Center for Historical Memory was appointed who denies that many events of the 57-year conflict ever happened. Colombia is an enchanting place, indeed.
So what is Disney’s vision of Colombia? Encanto tells the story of the Madrigal family. The matriarch of the family, Alma, is displaced by an act of armed conflict. When fleeing the violence, she uses her magic candle to create a sentient house for her family in a secluded, magical valley. Each member of the Madrigal family is given magical powers, which they are to use to protect their neighbors within their bubble of security. Of Alma’s children, however, one is excluded from exploiting his power for the welfare of the village. Son Bruno has the power of precognizance, so he must be exiled from the happy home. The family didn’t like hearing his predictions of bad things to come, particularly regarding his seeing the dissipation of their protective powers. “We don’t talk about Bruno,” they sing, even as the enchanted house shows signs of cracking.
Colombians would agree with Disney that they (or their powers that be, at least) prefer not to talk about Bruno. That is, the foundational problems that terrify the population because they threaten to draw the country back into the horrific depths of a decades-old conflict. Silence is a way to not acknowledge risk. Silence means maintaining an illusion of calm, suggesting that a victory has been chalked up. Yet silence is accepting. It means overlooking the cracks in the house and ignoring their cause and effects. And that makes the acceptors guilty. Peace scenarios will not become a reality unless a reform policy is exercised in a serious and forceful way. And that means paying attention; there must be no sliding back to the bad old days. But, far from facing the menacing breaks in the “magical” facade, the song sung in the enchanted valley of Uribist Colombia is “We don’t talk about Bruno.”
One more leader dead, one more activist dead, one more child dead, one more displaced person, one more harassment, one more massacre… ignore the cracks. Insecurity is dismissed as a lack of faith. If Colombians speak of being disturbed about where they think things are headed, they will be silenced. Indigenous boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 16 are still being recruited and dispossessed of their territories in order to be part of a war that allegedly no longer exists. Time to sing the refrain one more time: “We don’t talk about Bruno!” And that is where, ironically, Disney and contemporary Colombia mesh in Encanto: Armed conflict motivated by hundreds of years of social neglect gives way to a peace process that is being sacrificed in the name of preventing elemental reforms. In Colombia and the world of Disney, willful ignorance is the price paid for reassurance.
Still, the very optimism of Encanto ends up tapping into a deep-seated anxiety. Colombians might fear that the country is not the Madrigal family. That the enchanted house of tolerable government in the enchanted valley of a relatively peaceful Colombia will not last. Bruno will not come back and save the home from the shortsightedness of the rest of the family. Ironically, this disconnect with reality — produced by the Disney commerical formula — makes Encanto a superb example of social/political critique. Intentionally or not, Disney has come up with an allegory about the see-saw on which the country finds itself. On one side, a half-century of turmoil, on the other, the fragility of an attempt to end it. Encanto says what many in Colombia will not by imagining a future that the right wing government fears — a future in which Colombia doesn’t murder its Brunos but listens to them.
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, FL. He has an MA in history of ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.
Yulia Pereira is a Colombian artist, designer, and writer. Her work focuses on Latin America, the Caribbean, and the African diaspora.