What Latino Health Research Says About ‘Encanto’

Jan 5, 2022
1:40 PM

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures/Disney Animation Studios

Encanto is Disney Animation Studios’ latest film, released in theaters on November 24 and just recently released to the masses on Disney+ on December 24. Set in the mountains of Colombia, the film is a deep dive into the family dynamics of la familia Madrigal. The Madrigals are no ordinary family, as each family member has been given a “gift,” —such as superhuman strength, the ability to heal, or godlike hearing— that they use to support the town.

But one family member, Mirabel, has no gift and must navigate life amid the crushing pressure of living up to the magical members of her family.

Of course, Mirabel is not the only member of the Madrigals living under the debilitating weight of family pressure. Scene by scene, we see the pressure to excel, whether by helping other villagers, preparing healing arepas, or simply being overwhelmingly perfect and beautiful, is too much for family members to bear. This is the crux of Encanto: family is beautiful, but family pressure can be crushing.

As a proud Tejano Latino who grew up with aunts, uncles, and cousins all around me, and a first-generation college student who left Tejas to go to college in the predominantly white Midwest, I found the family dynamics and talk of navigating familial pressure to be accurate. A quick look around the internet shows that I’m certainly not the only Latino to relate deeply and personally to many of the themes in Encanto.

But I can also relate professionally. As a public health professor who studies the factors that shape Latino health, I couldn’t help but think of all the health research Encanto was beautifully putting to song. Here’s a look at what Latino health research has to say about my three favorite songs in the film.

“The Family Madrigal”

A song in the musical style that introduces all the members of the Madrigal family, this one presents the Madrigal family as “the perfect constellation,” a colorful and fun-loving family dedicated to each other and their community.

When we look at the research focused on Latinos in the 1980s and early ’90s, much of it was also tinged with this idealistic focus on the strengths of family. Familismo, or the idea of dedication, loyalty, mutual support, and commitment to the family, was part of every research paradigm, and was shown to be related to outcomes like college success, employment, and health.

But “The Family Madrigal” then gestures, ever so slightly, at what lies “under the surface,” most notably in the family members’ reaction to Maribel’s uncle:

My tío Bruno
We don’t talk about Bruno!

There is also a brief and passing description of what it takes to be a valued member of the family: 

We swear to always
Help those around us
And earn the miracle
That somehow found us

The idea of familismo in and of itself is not bad, and was certainly a necessary evolution in the research world that moved researchers away from individualistic —and white—analyses. But it quickly became a shorthand way to indicate that you really got Latino culture, as well as a roadblock to anyone trying to write nuanced pieces about Latino health as we had to spend paragraphs upon paragraphs discussing familismo before we could write about anything else. Researchers, often Latinos themselves, began to push against this and argue that familismo is “a more contested and evocative concept” than usually presented.

I remember back as a budding Ph.D. student how I hated reading about familismo, and not because I didn’t love my family, but because in my experience, I had observed family many times not quite being the protective factor it was often reduced to. I had seen my mom struggle with all sorts of family dynamics, including, like so many other Latino families, long bouts of extensive caregiving for older parents.

The first paper I read that brilliantly blew up the simplified model of familismo argued that familismo is “dynamic” and pushed and pulled, stretched and strained, under the weight of family and social ties. Basically, the authors said, immigrants do well when they arrive in the U.S., and that’s at least partially because of the support they get from family and community. But constantly supporting your family members can lead to all sorts of tensions, especially when you have already depleted your own resources and are still pressured to support others.

What the researchers also found was that it wasn’t simply economic support that was needed, but what they called “identity support,” or constructing your identity with people like you to feel valuable independently of the resources you provide. Put in Encanto terms, perhaps your stress-induced eye twitch would go away if people liked you even if you couldn’t lift things.

“Surface Pressure”

Damn. This song is my vote for best in the film, if not best Disney song of all time—I did like Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go,” also a rhythmically creative song sung by a woman of color revolving around a matriarchal grandmother. Luisa, Maribel’s sister, is gifted with incredible physical strength, but this strength has led nearly everyone in the town to depend on her to do things they are incapable of doing themselves.

The song is a conversation between Luisa and her own insecurities, with half her brain arguing that she’s inherently valuable, while the other half questions her value outside of her utility: 

I’m the strong one, I’m not nervous
I’m as tough as the crust of the earth is
I move mountains, I move churches
And I glow ’cause I know what my worth is

But under the surface
I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus…
Under the surface
I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service

As Luisa walks through the town with Mirabel, she confesses that the pressure is too much to bear, and she fears that one day she’ll simply crack. 

While Isabela, not Luisa, is the oldest Madrigal sister, the song is also meant to capture the burden of being the older and therefore more responsible sibling:

Give it to your sister, your sister’s stronger
See if she can hang on a little longer

Research shows that those stronger siblings in Latino families can have enormously positive impacts on the life of their (often younger) siblings. Siblings can be the motivation for academic success. Older siblings can help younger siblings learn English and adapt to U.S. culture in ways their immigrant parents cannot. First-generation college students provide all sorts of informational social support to their younger siblings as they navigate college applications, positively impacting their upward mobility.

As the first one in my family to fill out a FAFSA, I later filled FAFSAs for my brother and cousins. I’ve probably completed dozens upon dozens of FAFSAs in my life and was surprised when I went to college and my non-Latino friends didn’t know what they were. 

But being the super-strong family member that serves as the bridge to your kin’s upward mobility has its downsides. For example, the real-life superpower of many Latino children is the bilingual, bicultural way in which they navigate the world. Yet this superpower can be stressful for children, especially when translating in tense spaces, like hospitals, where they’re dealing with vocabulary and themes beyond their development stage.

And while family can help you succeed in college, it can also be hard on parents to watch their college-bound children engage in behaviors that don’t make cultural sense to them, resulting in anxiety or depressive symptoms for their children. 

Luisa, with her eye twitching under growing pressure, then questions who she would be if so much weren’t required of her: 

But wait
If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations
Would that free some room up for joy
Or relaxation, or simple pleasure?

Researchers call this our tendency to “subjugate the self for the benefit of the family, or pause or prevent self-exploration and identity development for the sake of fulfilling familial roles. This self-subjugation doesn’t happen equally to all siblings. In a study on the impacts of caregiving, researchers described how “variations in caregiving contexts [can] lead to the unequal self-subjugation across family members.”

Sometimes being the oldest sibling, or the strongest sibling, or the first college-educated sibling means you have less space to figure out who you are and what you love, perhaps causing you to miss out on the joy of dancing with those you are usually charged with uplifting.  

“We Don’t Talk About Bruno”

Bruno, Mirabel’s uncle, has been gifted with the ability to see the future. But the townspeople don’t particularly like when Bruno tells what he sees, as he tends to predict dark prophecies of death (at least of goldfish) and destruction (at least of weddings). The Madrigal family is therefore forbidden to talk about Bruno, lest his memory tarnish their otherwise sterling reputation.

Bruno’s story is a bit tough to talk about here, as it likely represents an unfortunately common reaction to those facing mental health challenges that others don’t understand:

Grew to live in fear of Bruno stuttering or stumbling
I can always hear him sort of muttering and mumbling…
We don’t talk about Bruno, no, no, no
We don’t talk about Bruno

Some research has shown that, in Latino communities, mental illness may be seen as an incurable illness that is possibly dangerous or, at the very least, impossible to understand. This can result in stigmatization of the person with mental illness, which can then delay care and cause early death due to preventable medical conditions.

Bruno’s choice to forego care and social contact and instead stay with those who do not stigmatize him —which in this case happens to be the rats who live in the walls of the house— very much mirrors what happens when families are unwilling or unable to care for their relatives with mental health issues. 

But this is where a little perspective is needed. That Latino families stigmatize those with mental illness is a simplified, reductive narrative that overlooks challenges that exist outside of the family. Families aren’t simply avoiding their Brunos out of spite. Often, their reluctance to even broach the subject is the unfortunate result of helplessness in the face of a system that offers no solutions or actively limits the resources to address the mental illness itself. In fact, it is often because of systemic disenfranchisement —think about gerrymandered voting districts, the lack of translators, health insurance tied to employment, worker exploitation, and racial profiling, incarceration, or deportation— that Latino families have to rely on each other so much. There’s simply no institutional solution to the challenges presented.

This disenfranchisement was brilliantly represented by the faceless, nameless entity referred to only as “The Violence” that displaced the Madrigals and the residents of Encanto from their land. The Madrigals shunned Bruno because they couldn’t help him, as they were busy helping an entire village after violence had cut them off and isolated them from any outside support.

“All of You”

So what are we to take from Encanto about Latino family dynamics and their relationship to health? The Madrigals are a strong and dedicated family, a family charged —whether by choice or by necessity— with caring for the rest of their community. As Latino health research shows, this familismo is a powerful, beautiful thing that can keep you healthy, mostly by providing the social support you need to overcome all sorts of stressors in your lives.

But this same dedication to family can come at a cost, whether that’s the stigma of failure Bruno feels that drives him between the walls or the pressure that leads to physical repercussions like high blood pressure, sleeplessness, anxiety, or a twitchy eye.

In the final song of the film, Abuela apologizes for the impossibly high standards to which she held her family, and promises to love them beyond their magical gifts:

And I’m sorry I held on too tight
Just so afraid I’d lose you too
The miracle is not some magic that you’ve got
The miracle is you, not some gift, just you

Together, the Madrigals promise to love each other despite and because of their imperfections: 

Home sweet home
I like the new foundation
It isn’t perfect
Neither are we

To me, though, the largest lesson of the film, which tracks with the evolution of the Latino health literature, is the moment the people of Encanto come to the now-destroyed Madrigal home and help rebuild it: 

What’s that sound? (Oh, oh)
I think it’s everyone in town
Lay down your load (lay down your load)
We are only down the road (we are only down the road)
We have no gifts, but we are many
And we’ll do anything for you

In the end, the strains that come from familismo are not necessarily the fault of a selfish, reputation-obsessed matriarch or patriarch—sometimes it’s the violence they have experienced that has forced them into desperate circumstances, that has taught them that supporting family is absolutely crucial for survival. Abuela, after all, was holding her family to the impossibly high standard of caring for a people who had just been displaced by something far beyond their control. Her primary sin, then, was surviving The Violence, and pushing her family too hard to make sure everyone in Encanto survived it, too. 


William D. Lopez is a clinical assistant professor at the School of Public Health and faculty associate in the Department of Latina/o Studies at the University of Michigan. A Tejano of Mexican descent, he now lives and works in the midwest with his partner, children, and #pandemicpup. He is the author of the book Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid. Twitter: @lopez_wd