Confession: since watching Disney’s animated film Encanto, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” has been a nonstop jam in my household. Although, it’s rather extreme to ostracize someone for predicting a fish will die. Maybe that’s the whole point? Lin-Manuel Miranda, can you comment on this absurdity? I want answers.
Fish questions aside, I think a more accurate mantra for the Madrigal family would be: “We don’t talk about our generational trauma.” And honestly, doesn’t that seem like a recurring theme in many of our own lives too?
That is precisely what makes Encanto so relatable with audiences, not to mention, a resonant piece of our zeitgeist already. I mean…the viral soundtrack just peaked at number one on Billboard’s Hot 200. This colorful, complicated story is topping the charts because it strikes a chord with those of us who see the toxic dysfunction in our relationships, cultures, institutions, or histories—and feel compelled to break the cycle.
Finding Themes of Generational Trauma in Encanto
I want to begin with a disclaimer that I’m not a member of the Latinx community, so I cannot dive into the specific cultural and ethnic nuances portrayed in Encanto. But with that said, representation matters, and it’s powerful to watch Columbia come alive on screen for the first time in Disney animation. The Madrigals are as diverse in their skin tones, body shapes, and hair textures as they are in their supernatural abilities. Together, they comprise one beautiful, vibrant—albeit, broken—family.
Now back to the generational trauma (because don’t we Millennials love to dissect this topic?). Our teenage heroine Mirabel comes from a magical ancestry with a mother who can heal injuries, sisters who can bloom flowers and move mountains, and other relatives who can perform all sorts of extraordinary feats. My personal favorite is 5-year-old Antonio who can speak to animals. If I could have just one conversation with my cat…well, that’s the dream.
Recognizing generational trauma
But I digress, while she’s been raised in a magical casita with enchantment around each corner, Mirabel has inexplicably received no gift of her own. For that reason, she often feels the disappointment and even neglect of her Abuela, the family matriarch. Mirabel has something the others do not, however—a keen awareness of their veiled suffering, which threatens to crush the casita’s foundation and sever the Madrigal clan at its core.
This sets her on a mission to become an unlikely whistleblower, committed to reveal the truth about her ancestral origins and restore those she loves to wholeness and unity. In a bold response that counters other Disney protagonists before her, Mirabel moves toward the pain, not away from it. She doesn’t escape to an isolated mountain to free her unconventional self a la Elsa. Nor does she voyage across an ocean in search of a goddess to save her home a la Moana (no shade to these badass fictional women—I adore them both).
On the contrary, Mirabel chooses to remain firmly rooted where she’s at, confronting the problem at its source. As a result, she exposes generations of dysfunction from within…and flips a societal narrative that you must detach from the “restraints” of community in order to liberate yourself. But she’s not resigned to the status quo either.
What makes Mirabel so different from her relatives is that she sees another option besides enmeshment: forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately, interdependence. Her willingness to lead with vulnerability, extend compassion, and uncover the honest, messy cracks beneath this smooth, glossy facade shows everyone else they have equal permission to do the same.
Isabela releases the expectation to always be perfect. Luisa finds that she no longer has to carry an entire village worth of burdens. Pepa is relieved of the pressure to contain her stormy emotions. Bruno—the original scorned truth-teller prior to Mirabel’s time—is brought back into the relational fold. Even stoic, composed Abuela finally mourns the horrific violence, loss, and trauma of her own story, rather than continuing to espouse the cleaner, more palatable version she’s clung to for most of her life.
As for Mirabel, she comes to realize her existence alone is a miracle. Her sense of identity, personal value, and role in the communal ecosystem are not measured by unique powers, or lack thereof. Born from this revelation, we see a family mired in generations of conditional love—in which the currency for validation was performance and service—transform into a group of flawed but authentic humans who embrace themselves and each other.
This journey of restoration the Madrigals embark on as a unit renounces the Disney trope (and cultural bias) that people are the villains. It’s easy to point a finger at those like Bruno or Mirabel who refuse to tow the party line. But it takes resilience to stand apart from a toxic pattern of normalized behavior. It requires courage to halt this cycle in its tracks. And it calls for empathy to invite others to be part of the solution moving forward.
The real villain, our characters learn, is the unresolved trauma, causing fractures in their souls and division in their ranks. Once they look this reality in the face, healing can occur. That’s a lesson I believe we all can latch onto from the magical world of Encanto.
If we are brave enough to both own and atone for the harms of our past, then just maybe we can link arms together as a unified collective. So let’s talk about it. Let’s borrow a chapter from Mirabel’s playbook. Let’s do what is hard…but true.