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What is the truth behind Encanto?

Five ways Disney’s ‘Encanto’ celebrates refugees

In addition to the praise it has received for its representation of Colombia and Latinx cultures, Encanto has also sparked positive conversations about refugees and other displaced people.

February 7, 2022
Photo: Screenshot from Disney’s Encanto

If you listen to the radio or stream music, you probably have heard the wildly popular song, “We Don’t Talk about Bruno,” from Disney’s latest Oscar-nominated animated film, Encanto. The hit was the first song from a Disney musical to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in nearly 30 years. But have you heard how Encanto sings the praises of refugees and their invaluable contributions to their new homes?

The movie follows three generations of the Madrigals. Years ago, matriarch Abuela Alma and her family were forced to flee their village to a safer space in Colombia (a country that today serves as a haven for people who have had to leave neighboring Venezuela). In their new home, with the help of some Disney magic, Abuela Alma and her family thrive.

The Madrigals’ story of a displaced family building a new life is also the story of the 81 million displaced people around the world. Here are five ways Disney’s Encanto celebrates refugees.

(Warning, this article contains movie spoilers!)

The protagonist of ‘Encanto,’ Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz.
Photo: Screenshot from Disney's ‘Encanto’

1. The Madrigal family are celebrated for their special powers, which they use to help their adopted town, reflecting the unique contributions that refugees bring to their new communities.

The Madrigals (apart from Mirabel, who is also the film’s protagonist) are all given magical gifts—the super strength of Mirabel’s sister Luisa, for example, or her mother’s healing powers—which they use to help their neighbors. The family’s generosity mirrors that of refugees who give back to the communities that have welcomed them.

“The greatest honor of our family has been to use our blessings to serve this community,» Abuela Alma says of her family’s gifts.

Photo: Screenshot from Disney's ‘Encanto’

“It’s like a circle.”

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, Rania, a refugee from Syria, jumped at the chance to help her new community in New Jersey. The frontline worker helped distribute food to families struggling during the lockdown. “If I can help, I should help.” she said. “In the future, somebody will help me. It’s like a circle.”

2. Family matriarch Abuela Alma lost her husband when they were forced to flee their home, an all-too-common misfortune suffered by many refugees in search of safety.

Over the course of the movie, we learn exactly what happened to Abuela Alma. As she is fleeing with her three babies, her husband, Pedro, is murdered. At that moment, Abuela Alma receives a gift that enables her to protect the rest of her family—and explains why she is determined to keep the magic alive.

Even In our darkest moments, there’s light where you least expect it. —Mirabel Madrigal

The trauma and grief Abuela Alma experiences has been lived and felt by millions of refugees and other displaced people. As Charise Castro Smith, one of Encanto’s three co-directors, told Backstage, “I’m Cuban-American. My grandparents on my mother’s side came over when they were in their early 30s from Cuba. I understand that a new start is both a boon and a challenge.” She continued, “Both opportunity and trauma influenced our family—me, my brother, and my cousins’ lives. I wanted to explore that in this movie.”

Young Abuela Alma and her husband Pedro are forced to flee their home.
Photo: Screenshot from Disney's ‘Encanto’

“I’m taking care of yours, you take care of mine.”

Social worker Rosa is supporting asylum seekers and migrants through an IRC program in Mexico. When her youngest daughter, Emily, developed a rare disease, a crippling form of juvenile osteoporosis and arthritis, she needed to be hospitalized for months, and necessary medications were in short supply. Fortunately, Emily’s father is a United States citizen, so she (and her older sister) were able to emigrate to the U.S. to get lifesaving treatment. Unfortunately, Rosa was not able to obtain a visa and has been living apart from her family for almost a decade.

Despite this, Rosa has dedicated her life to giving back to her community in Mexico. She explains her choice this way: “One day, I said to God, ‘You made me a mother and you took away my children.” And he answered, ‘I’m taking care of yours, you take care of mine.’”

3. While the Madrigal family are celebrated for their contributions to their community, Encanto also explores the intergenerational trauma experienced by refugee families.

Encanto takes a multidimensional approach to storytelling and shows all sides of the refugee experience: the film does not sugarcoat the trauma experienced by people forced to flee their homes and start over, and how that trauma can impact future generations.

Dolores leans down to talk to Mirabel

Mirabel’s cousin Dolores sings about their tío Bruno in the popular song about family secrets, «We Don’t Talk about Bruno.”

Photo: Screenshot from Disney's ‘Encanto’

We see this with Abuela Alma, who has shown resilience in the face of tragedy only to put pressure on her children and grandchildren to use their gifts for good. Abuela Alma’s granddaughter Luisa sings of the pressure she feels to always be strong, and her sister Isabela later sings of the burden to be “perfect” all the time. The film’s most popular song, “We Don’t Talk about Bruno,” illustrates the family’s desire to ignore Bruno’s prophetic but disturbing visions—and to never mention their missing family member. In fact, we don’t meet Abuela Alma’s son until well into the movie, as Bruno is so fearful of disappointing or hurting his family that he hides in the walls of their home.

We eventually learn that Abuela Alma has acted out of love—but also as a consequence of the pain of losing her husband and her previous life.

Isabela, voiced by Diane Guerrero, sings about her desire to live and create without needing to be perfect.

Photo: Screenshot from Disney's ‘Encanto’

Actress Diane Guerrero, who voices Isabela, speaks openly about confronting the pressures she has put on herself after her parents were deported from the U.S. when she was just a child.

“I’ve been working on myself in terms of my mental health and learning a lot about familial trauma and ancestral trauma and all sorts of trauma,” she told the website Looper. “I’ve learned that perfection has definitely been something that has been hindering me from being comfortable with who I am, fully, and really being able to express myself in the ways that I want, and ultimately bringing me down. So I’m trying to shed that perfection, much like Isabela.»

4. Encanto celebrates the power of welcome and why community is so important for refugees—and for all of us.

The Madrigal family use their powers to give back to the community, but when they need help, the community is there for them. Neighbors pitch in to rebuild the Madrigal’s enchanted house–their “casita,” as they call it–which has collapsed as the family fractures.

Nothing can ever be broken that we can’t fix together. —Mirabel Madrigal

It’s in times of crisis that humanity shines through. In the real world, Colombia has become a safe haven for people who have had to leave neighboring countries experiencing upheaval and economic collapse. To date, the country has welcomed more than 1.8 million of the 6 million people who have left Venezuela, all with little funding or support from other nations.

The Madrigal family casita, after the town helps them rebuild.
Photo: Screenshot from Disney's ‘Encanto’

“Seeing in their faces that they feel really grateful is what keeps driving my work.”

Dr. Ariadna, originally from Cuba, found refuge in Colombia and now works at an IRC clinic in Cúcuta, supporting—and welcoming—Venezuelan women. “The best part of my job is being able to serve a population that is used to encountering closed doors,” she says. “Seeing in their faces that they feel really grateful is what keeps driving my work.”

5. And perhaps Encanto’s most important message: every displaced person—in fact, every person—has a gift.

While the film initially focuses on magical gifts, Encanto offers viewers a grander vision of enchantment: the power that exists within every person. Mirabel ends the movie looking at her own reflection in the doorknob for the family’s newly rebuilt house. «Me. All of me,» she says, reminding us that ordinary people are extraordinary, if we just look.

There is nothing more powerful than families and communities accepting and supporting each other. And when this happens, and when refugees are welcomed, the potential of the gifts they bring to their new homes are endless.

Mirabel and Abuela Alma hug.
Photo: Screenshot from Disney's ‘Encanto’

How the International Rescue Committee helps refugees around the world

The IRC’s mission is to help people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future. We are at work in over 40 crisis-affected countries as well as communities throughout Europe and the Americas.

In Latin America, the IRC is responding across the arc of the crisis, including in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and through local partners in Venezuela; in northern Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) and along the main migration corridors in Mexico, from the southern to the northern borders.

The IRC’s current programming consists of supporting women’s protection and empowerment, including prevention and protection of women, girls and members of the LGBTQ+ community who have been survivors of gender-based violence; economic recovery and development; primary, sexual and reproductive health; mental health and psychosocial support; cultural orientation; and access to critical information through InfoPa’lante in Colombia, CuéntaNos in northern Central America and InfoDigna in Mexico, all of them part of the Global Signpost project.

Support our work

Refugee families are fighting every day to survive, recover and rebuild their lives. Give now and your gift will be matched.

‘Encanto’ Is Reportedly Based on 20th Century Colombia


Disney’s newest animated film ‘Encanto’ has finally hit Disney Plus, but just where and when is the film set? Here’s what we know about it.

Dec. 29 2021, Published 7:46 p.m. ET

Disney’s newest animated film Encanto is one of the company’s few set in Latin America, but it has been heralded by many reviewers as one of positive representation for many Latinx viewers.

The family-friendly movie follows the Madrigal family, who have all developed superhuman abilities thanks to a candle that protected their family in a time of need. When their «Casita» begins to crack, Mirabel begins to band together with other family members to save their home — and their magical abilities.

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The film has already garnered much praise from viewers and critics alike, but when and where is Encanto set? Here’s what we know about the film’s setting.


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Where does ‘Encanto’ take place?

Before Encanto was officially in the works, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote many of the film’s original songs) and others from Disney came to Colombia looking for inspiration for a film based in and inspired by Latin American culture. After Alejandra Espinosa Uribe guided them around Barichara during their stay, they ultimately decided to create a film inspired by Colombia.

According to El Tiempo, Alejandra worked closely with Disney and the creators of the film to make it as culturally accurate as possible, tying in the country’s history and the idiosyncrasies of its people.

While it’s never explicitly stated in the film, Encanto is inspired by and based largely on Colombia’s history and culture.

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What time period is ‘Encanto’ set in? The film is vague for a reason.

There are many pieces within the film that have led viewers to question the time period — from the different cameras used to take photos of the characters to the mention of Spanish telenovelas, viewers are a bit confused as to when exactly Encanto takes place.

Like many of Disney’s animated movies, the time period the film is set in was intentionally made vague — though the events of the film give viewers some idea as to when it might’ve taken place.

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At the beginning of the film, Alma Madrigal is forced to flee her hometown following the death of her husband due to a conflict taking place. While it’s not explicitly stated, many believe this is alluding to the Thousand Days’ War.

Source: Disney
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This civil war, which took place from 1899 to 1902, was between the Liberal Party and the National Party (later the Conservative Party) in Colombia. The conflict was the deadliest in the country’s history, claiming the lives of up to 150,000 people (about two percent of its population at the time).

Alma flees her home due to this conflict, and many of the events of the story take place about half a century later.

If the film is, indeed, referring to the Thousand Days’ War, then it’s likely that the time period for the story is sometime in the 1950s, or the early to mid-20th century.

Ultimately, though, these characters live in their own magical bubble, which likely isn’t influenced greatly by the outside world, leaving room for nuance and uncertainty in the exact time period.

Encanto is now streaming in theaters and on Disney Plus.

How ‘Encanto’ Connects to a Real-Life Adventure Walt Disney Experienced in 1941

Walt Encanto collage

Disney’s just-released “Encanto” is the 60th animated feature produced by the studio. To mark the milestone, it features a special version of the “Steamboat Willie”-inspired logo that plays before the movie; the one that starts with the flapping of an animator’s pages and ends with Mickey Mouse, in velvety black-and-white, whistling on the bridge of a steamboat. (If it wasn’t one of the most iconic moments in animation history, that logo, seen before worldwide phenomena like “Frozen” and its sequel, has certainly made it so.) But “Steamboat Willie” and the 60th production are only a part of “Encanto’s” connection to the studio’s past – there’s a much more direct path between it and a journey that Walt Disney took. This isn’t a fairy tale, exactly, but it did take place once upon a time.

In 1940, South America was seen as being vulnerable to Nazi influence. A government post was invented called the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, the brainchild of oil heir Nelson Rockefeller (who had keen artistic and business interests in South America), and one of the chief goals was to bolster positive support of South America through film productions released in the United States and abroad. Early efforts, such as sending Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and, um, the Yale Glee Club, had been lackluster. Part of the efforts called for distribution of American films in South American theaters, with grants being provided to American studios that would produce suitably South American content. (Disney was one of those studios.)

Distribution and production deals were one thing. But in 1941, they asked Walt Disney to go.

Disney normally wouldn’t have taken time away from work to go on a goodwill tour. But ambassadorship sounded good at the time. Walt was reeling from a series of personal and professional setbacks, including (but not limited to) the death of his mother in 1938 (something he and his brother Roy shouldered much guilt about, as she died due to a gas leak in the home they had purchased for her); the critical and commercial shortcomings of “Fantasia,” a groundbreaking artistic work that was supposed to usher in a new era of animation; an overseas market that had all but dried up due to the war; and a bitter dispute with his animators that led to a contentious strike at the studio just a few weeks earlier.

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‘Encanto’ Co-Director Breaks Down That Emotional Ending

Walt was ready to get away. According to Neal Gabler’s biography, “Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination,” Walt referred to the trip as “a godsend.” “I am not so hot for it but it gives me a chance to get away from this God awful nightmare and to bring some extra work into the planet,” Disney said. He was suffering from “a case of the D.D.s – disillusionment and discouragement.” Walt described the journey as a “combined ‘business and pleasure’ trip.”

Disney assembled a small team of artists (who later called themselves “El Grupo”), along with Walt’s wife Lillian. They began their trek in Rio de Janeiro in August 1941. (This trip, by the way, was chronicled in a fascinating documentary called “Walt and El Grupo,” directed by Theodore Thomas, the son of Frank Thomas, the only animator on the trip. It’s available to watch right now on Disney+.)

Together, the team toured Brazil, Argentina, and Peru. The intent was to gather material for shorts or features that could be screened in South America, per the new deal. And there was a great deal of sketching going on. Artist Mary Blair, now viewed as one of Disney’s most incredible stylists, particularly flourished. But Frank Thomas admitted that “mainly we were wined and dined all over the place, where it was real hard to do any work.” While there were certainly discussions about potential projects, and the artists did soak up a lot of inspiration from the locals and the culture (particularly the music), the obligations of the “goodwill tour” aspect of the trip weighed on Walt. According to the Gabler biography, he told the group as they were leaving Chile that he was “goddamned tired of being dressed up like a gaucho and put on a horse.”

Also Read:
‘Encanto’ Filmmakers Break Down the Disney Movie’s Magical Origins

At one point the group boarded a boat for an ambling trip (noted in the biography) that included stops in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. That last stop is crucial. While the subsequent films that came out of this South American trip (charming, music-filled “package films” “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros”) didn’t explicitly depict the culture of Colombia, it would be something that would come back years later, when the studio was working on “Encanto.”

Like Walt’s fateful trip, the filmmakers (including director Byron Howard and Jared Bush and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda) took a research trip to South America. That trip inspired them and fueled what would become “Encanto,” and added a level of cultural authenticity. (There was also a Colombian Cultural Trust that advised on the filmmaking team long after they returned to Burbank.) Like the films that were born out of Walt and El Grupo’s trip to South America, the music of Colombia had a huge impact on “Encanto.” And the filmmakers are eager to share its unique Colombian-ness with the world. “I’m excited for the Colombian audience to see it,” Howard told TheWrap. “Our Colombian Cultural Trust and we have very close friends who are Colombian, who specifically asked us to put certain things in the film. When they, the Colombian audience sees it, I’m very excited to see them recognize themselves in the film.” And now, while watching, you might see and recognize some Disney history in the film as well.

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