An enthralling film for both children and adults, Encanto features a cast of Latinx females attempting to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma. As a Nicaraguan American, I know that most of us who identify as First-Gen often relate to “ni de aqui ni de allá” – a feeling of belonging neither here (in the US) nor there (in the country our family came from). And as a Latinx therapist, I see many of my clients come to therapy because of this struggle. Encanto offers me – y mi comunidad – some tools: empathy, compassion and understanding, while giving us powerful characters we can recognize and relate to.

Encanto tells the story of a family named the Madrigals, who live in the the mountains of Colombia in a lovely (and bewitched) place called Encanto. Every child in the family receives a supernatural gift when he or she turns five, except for a young girl named Mirabel. But when she finds out the powerful magic protecting Encanto is threatened, she realizes that she may be the only one who can save it.

Underlying the charmed Encanto is also a story of intergenerational trauma: Mirabel’s grandfather Pedro, fleeing with his wife Alma and their children after Colombian soldiers attacked their village, is shot and killed. “The grandmother’s journey is that of recognizing her own trauma and letting it go,” said Alejandra Espinosa of Barichara, Colombia, who served as the film’s cultural consultant, in an interview with El Pais. “We are a traumatized society that is still moving forward. Sometimes it is necessary to stop, think and accept the trauma in order to let it go.”

Encanto features a cast of Latinx females attempting to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma, which occurs when the descendants of someone who has experienced a terrifying event reacts to it and similar events in much the same way the family member did, often with feelings of shame, depression, hypervigilance, increased anxiety, guilt and helplessness, as well as difficulty controlling stress and aggression. 

Although not blatant, the intergenerational trauma in Encanto is something that causes ripples of tension in the Madrigal family, from Abuela Alma’s hypervigilance and constant efforts to keep the family image strong, to the cousins and siblings forced to keep the peace so as to not upset Abuela. One scene that breaks that peace is when Mirabel tells Abuela: 

“I will never be good enough for you, will I? No matter how hard I try… no matter how hard any of us try. Luisa will never be strong enough. Isabela won’t be perfect enough. Bruno left our family because you only saw the worst in him.” 

This reflects the terrible pressure that everyone, even Abuela, is experiencing. This is what intergenerational trauma causes: friction, stress, anxiety, and loss of trust. One tries to be part of this uneasy collective, but, like Mirabel, one recognizes it is suffocating. 

The shadow of stigma often derails even such conversations, since there is shame in discussing anything that causes pain

From the matriarch, Abuela Alma, to the “normal” Mirabel, the women in this movie are helping us have a much-needed conversation in our cultura. Why is this conversation so important? To begin with, most of us who identify as First-Gen often relate to “ni de aqui ni de allá,” meaning a feeling of belonging neither here (in the US) nor there (in the country our family came from), which can be difficult for our parents to understand. In addition, the shadow of stigma often derails even such conversations, since there is shame in discussing anything that causes pain. As a Latinx female-identifying therapist, I see many of my clients come to therapy because of this struggle.

Throughout Encanto, lyrics from Lin-Manual Miranda and Stephanie Beatriz & Diane Guerrero capture this tension. “Under the surface/ I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service,” or “I make practiced poses/ so much hides behind my smile” – songs from siblings Luisa and Isabela – have brought up conversations that include the overwhelming expectations weighing down many First-Gen Latinx women and men and the difficulties navigating the worlds of both Latinx culture and the dominant American culture. 

Encanto explores the struggles between Latinx generations attempting to find their footing in a new culture: the older generation following the “norm” and the new generations challenging things like misogyny, gendered norms, and purity culture. As a First-Gen Nicaraguan American, what truly resonated from Encanto was Mirabel’s character and feeling as if she did not belong because she lacked a “power” – but the power is already there. If we delve further into her character, we can recognize that she represents what we all hope to be one day: a fully accepted, independent person who embodies both collective and individual spirit. 

Intergenerational trauma is not something to just challenge, but to try to understand

The film also reminds us that intergenerational trauma is not something to just challenge, but to try to understand. If we can develop a lens of empathy for ourselves and for those before us, we can continue to practice a collective culture but still embrace our individual needs. It is not one or the other, but rather an acceptance that many of our families had no choice in their trauma – and that the newer generation is seeking to find reconciliation and hope to create a new Latinx experience, one that honors that trauma as well as healing for all of us. 

In one of the most poignant songs in Encanto, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Dos Oruguitas, we hear:

Dos oruguitas desorientadas
En dos capullos bien abrigadas
Con sueños nuevos
Ya solo falta hacer lo necesario
En el mundo que sigue cambiando
Tumbando sus paredes
Ahí viene nuestro milagro
Nuestro milagro

This verse tells us of two caterpillars in cozy cocoons, disoriented by new dreams in a world that keeps changing, who need to knock down the walls to embrace the miracle – our miracle – that awaits them. This is Encanto’s message to all of us: To shed our cocoons, embrace change, and fly. 

-Mara Sammartino, LCSW, has a private practice in Vacaville, California. She focuses her work in the areas of domestic violence, anxiety, depression and evaluations for immigration and is a member of Inclusive Therapists, which is culturally responsive, LGBTQ+ affirming, and social justice-oriented.

@thelatina_therapist.lcsw (Instagram and TikTok)