Warning: spoilers for Encanto follow.
Disney (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) dazzled us once again with the beautifully animated, culturally competent, and gloriously colorful animated film Encanto. The story of the Madrigal family won the hearts of my family. It tells the story of Alma Madrigal’s (Abuela) rescue of her triplet children from an armed conflict that takes her husband Pedro. Because she performs this heroic act, a candle of hers creates a magical house, “Casita,” for her family. Her entire town becomes magical, it becomes “Encanto.” The candle burns for half a century and blesses the Madrigal family with gifts. But Mirabel, the story’s protagonist, is not bestowed with a gift and is treated differently as a result.
But Mirabel has an eye for something. She notices that the Casita is cracking and sees the candle going out. But when she tells Abuela this, she is ignored. But the house continues to weaken, and the family’s powers weaken along with it. Interestingly, as the thing that bonds them together weakens, the family learns that their powers actually inhibit their development. Luisa is burdened by her strength, Isabela by her ability to make things beautiful. Meanwhile, Mirabel connects with Bruno to uncover a vision that he had about the house and how its fate depends on Mirabel.
The key to the house’s restoration is reconciliation between Mirabel and her sister Isabela. Mirabel liberates Isabel from her idyllic future marriage and husband, and Isabela becomes more creative with her superpower of making flowers grow. The house’s power begins to be restored, but witnessing the changes to the house, Abuela confronts Mirabel, and they have a major falling out. Abuela accuses Mirabel of ruining the household with her jealousy of not having a gift, and Mirabel says that the pressure Abuela puts on everyone has destroyed the house – and even estranged her son, Bruno. The house is destroyed along with the magical candle.
After the falling out, the two reconcile. Abuela addresses her grief of losing Pedro, whom she pines for throughout the movie, and realizes that she has given that pain to her family. Mirabel sees her Abuela in a new light as well. The two reconcile and they build Casita again, and it is restored with magical power along with the gifts of the house. Bruno is reintegrated into the family as well.
This heartwarming story is one that helps us see our gifts, use them to their fullest potential, without outside expectations from our family systems burdening us. It tells us that our elders can move past their vision for things, and make way for something new to happen with the next generation.
I enjoyed the movie, but I told my friends that family systems often don’t work out this way. Elders that can’t let go of their vision and power usually just leave the house destroyed. But despite my experience with that in my extended family system as well as other places, I loved the hope Encanto offered us.
The legacy and heroism of Abuela should be lauded and remembered. Her brave act blessed the house, and her hard work built it. No one should take that from her. But her inability to see what was next and to move with Mirabel’s vision – to even believe Mirabel that the thing that Abuela spent her life building was cracking – destroyed the house further. Abuela’s recalcitrance destroys the thing she was trying to save. Her unprocessed loss of her husband leads to further destruction and the alienation of her child.
None of us are immune from this sort of fallout. Our old wounds, our insecurities, our anxiety about our future can lead us to ruin the very things we care about the most. It takes the Mirabels of our life to show us to move on. Our ability to move on preserves the things that we cherish. We learn this lesson throughout history and throughout our lives. Our elders should showcase that to us, but too often, they do just the opposite.
Jesus explains it this way:
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”—Matthew 16:24-26
Jesus says that the best way to save your life is to lose it. The best way to hold on to your legacy is to get out of your way of those who are moving with what the spirit is doing next. Jesus is calling his disciples to humility here, hoping that they won’t try to gain the whole world. Following Jesus means denying ourselves, self-emptying ourselves, and being filled with Jesus. Abuela has to let go of her vision for the house, her preservation of her legacy. She needs to stop pressuring her children and let go of her expectations. In many ways, she needs to let go of her power as the matriarch of the house and give way to her children. She needs to take up her cross, so to speak. Jesus calls us all to that self-emptying and humility, and not just with our families, our organizations, our households, and our churches, but also with things like the power we’ve inherited from our gender, our skin color, our abilities, and our socioeconomic status.
Abuela learned this nearly at the expense of her house. Abuela almost lost her soul and the Casita’s soul when she tried to save her whole life, and gain the world. Her arrogance and her pain blinded her from what was happening. She refused to see the cracks in the house until it was too late. She thought Mirabel’s vision for the house’s future would destroy the house itself.
Too often we think that critiquing organizations threatens the legacy of those who built them, or threatens the organizations themselves. But we need to pay attention to the Mirabels of our world and trust their vision, not ridicule them, gaslight them, or cast them aside. The cracks they see in our proverbial homes may feel like a threat to us, they may feel manifestations of their own psychology to us, but they are real and should be believed. The next generation will always lead us into what is next if we let them. If we fail to, we may forfeit our souls and our legacies.