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‘Encanto’: The music, joy and superpower of a multigenerational Latino family

In an age of big-screen superhero families like those of Marvel’s “Fantastic Four,” Pixar’s “The Incredibles” and DC’s “Shazam!” Disney wants to flip the script on viewers and put the spotlight on an ordinary 15-year-old Colombian girl, Mirabel, who struggles to keep her extended superhero family together as they lose their powers. 

“Encanto,” which means “charm” in Spanish, is Disney’s 60th animated feature film. It tells the story of the Madrigals, a multigenerational family who live in the mountains of Colombia. 

Two generations of Madrigal children get magical powers on their fifth birthdays, which define them both at home and in the village. They can make plants grow and flowers bloom, control the weather with their emotions, heal people with food, speak with animals and even see the future. 

The Madrigal family tree.Disney

One child doesn’t get superpowers — and that is Mirabel. In the end, however, she will know what to do to save her extraordinary family.

Beyond the characters’ super abilities and magical gifts, the animated musical — with songs and music by “Hamilton” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda — aims to show viewers the power of knowing who they and their families are.

For the Latina actor Stephanie Beatriz, who voices Mirabel, the film’s emphasis on extended family, including the powerful abuela (grandmother) Alma, brought back memories

“When I think about my childhood, it’s a lot of people talking all at once, animatedly, over each other — there’s, like, 10 conversations happening in one room, and as a kid you’re just trying to follow everything that’s going on,” said Beatriz, whose parents are Colombian and Bolivian. “It’s very loud and super rhythmic. I think that the flavor of that, the sensibility of that, is really captured within the music of this animated musical, which I think is very special.” 

The family name “Madrigal” is also a musical term that can refer to a song with two or more voice parts — which amply describes the mix of sounds and voices in the film.

“One of the things I loved in the writing of the script is that there are these conversations that happen between cousins or an aunt and a niece,” Beatriz said. “It’s those extended family relationships that I think are really, really important, particularly in Latino culture, where you might not be able to talk to your mom … but you could talk to your tía,” or aunt. 

Miranda, who wrote and co-produced eight original songs for “Encanto,” said he’s so close to his cousins from Puerto Rico that they once got matching tattoos — to the chagrin of his aunt on the island. The Madrigals, he said, remind him of his own relatives.

“Encanto.”Disney

“That was the most matriarchal family,” he said about his dad’s family in Puerto Rico. “Everyone still lived in the house, and everyone brought their checks to Abuela, and she reallocated the funds as she saw fit.” 

Many U.S. families resemble the Madrigals: A report this year by the advocacy group Generations United found that more than 1 in 4 Americans ages 18 and older — about 67 million adults — live in multigenerational households with three or more generations.

Creating the sounds of Colombia — and home

Miranda said music has the power to unlock exciting stories about different places, cultures and people. 

“Every time we leaned into the specificities of Colombian music, that always unlocks story, it always unlocks character for us. The specificities are the thing that make it relatable,” he said.

Miranda traveled to Colombia with other people from the film for research in 2018, which he said was invaluable. The details the movie got right, he said, will excite Latino viewers, such as when they see a character wearing their father’s hat or hear an accordion. 

People working on the film also brought their own memories and stories of home to the music. 

“There’s certainly musical phrases that I can point to that are ripped from family conversations that happened in my house,” Miranda said. “I think that’s what people recognize on screen when they see the film. They see slivers of their own experience.” 

When Miranda reflects on the music that evokes his own childhood memories, he thinks of his family’s mix of cast albums and Latin music. 

“It was sort of constant Gran Combo, Celia Cruz, Joe Arroyo from Colombia, Carlos Vives, Juan Luis Guerra — that would be the party music,” he said. “And then, when we would clean up after the party, it was ‘Man of La Mancha,’ it was ‘Camelot,’ it was the ‘Little Mermaid’ soundtrack and the ‘Dirty Dancing’ soundtrack. My parents loved show tunes and Latin music.”

‘The way that I grew up’

For Colombian American actor Diane Guerrero, voicing Mirabel’s cousin Isabela has been a great source of pride. 

“Disney is such a huge entity. To not be included in Disney almost feels like you don’t exist a little bit,” she said. “So to be a part of that is a long time coming and such a special moment for us.” 

For Guerrero, “Encanto” evokes memories of the generations of strong women that are part of her own heritage. 

“I see women being very powerful heads of the household, but what has been portrayed in mainstream media has been quite the opposite,” Guerrero said. “There’s still machismo — obviously men have a very strong hold on the world — but I feel that the way that I grew up I really saw this in the film. My grandmother and my mother are everything to me.” 

Reflecting on the significance of “Encanto,” Guerrero said there are many Latino stories.

“Latin America is so huge. This is just like a little sliver of what we are. It’s a little sliver of Colombia. There’s so much to tell,” she said. 

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