Examining Latin American representation in Disney’s animated film Encanto

Kathryn Cloonan

Disney’s newest film, Encanto, which has broken box office and musical chart records, features a cast of entirely Latinx characters. The movie tells the story of Mirabel Madrigal, an ordinary girl in a family with extraordinary magical powers, that lives in Valle de Cocora, Colombia. Through colorful animation and catchy musical compositions, the film highlights the tensions between Mirabel and her “abuela” (grandmother) as Mirabel tries to save her family’s magic from disappearing. 

In global reviews, Encanto is being celebrated for how it features characters of all different skin tones, highlighting the diversity within the Latinx community. Some students at the College are similarly celebrating Encanto’s depiction of Latinx families. A third-generation Colombian student, Aracely Watson ’25 said she enjoyed seeing the inclusion of smaller pieces of Colombian culture like the foods “arepas” and “buñuelos.” 

Additionally, Watson found familiarity in the way that the Madrigal family struggles to live up to Abuela’s expectations as they sacrifice everything for their community. “The Colombian guilt thing — the whole ‘do this for your family or you don’t love them’ — is 100 percent accurate,” Watson said. “Abuela is just like my grandmother. She’s the matriarch of the family. You do everything for her.” 

Although Watson appreciated the portrayal of Colombian characters, other students noted the challenges of representing Latinx characters in animation. They specially discussed the process of “Disneyfication,” or the company’s commercial transformation of culture. Leslie Garcia ’22, a member of VISTA, the Williams College Latinx and Allies Student Organization, spoke to this frustration. “I used the word ‘Disneyfication’ to describe the characters’ appearances because I was looking at all their faces while watching the movie, and they all look like Elsa and Anna,” Garcia said. “To me, it felt like they’d used a template and then made [the Encanto characters] browner.

VISTA Co-Chair Karla De La Fuente ’22 agreed. “The Disneyfication of Latinx identity has been interesting to witness on a bigger screen because a lot of what we’re viewing is U.S. imaginary perceptions of what Latinidades or Latinx identities entail.” 

VISTA’s other Co-Chair, Darío Herrera ’22, said that another drawback of animating Latinx characters is that the film does not offer professional visibility for real Latinx people, as actors who voice animated characters may receive less appreciation than those in live-action roles. “The Disneyfication limits the characters to existing in an imaginary world,” Herrera said. “It doesn’t really leave room for actors of color, especially Afro-Latino actors, to gain public attention.” 

One part of Encanto has received a large amount of public attention: the music. Watson appreciated the presence of Colombian music in the film. “Music is such a big part of Latin American culture,” Watson said. “I can’t go to dinner with my family without hearing Colombian music playing in the background.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is Puerto Rican, composed the music for Encanto as well as In the Heights and Vivo, two other films centering Latinx stories released in 2021. In Encanto, he combined salsa, bachata, and the hip-hop of his traditional musical theatre style, which many came to know through the 2015 musical Hamilton.

Some students recognized the disadvantages of Miranda leading a musical-themed push for Latinx representation in cinema. “It’s dangerous to have one sole representative of Latinx identities in Hollywood or on Broadway,” De La Fuente said. “Lin also buys into a lot of U.S. ideas of belonging. He’s definitely sold on the idea of the American dream, which we know is mythical. Latinx people are being spotlighted but only through these narrow scopes of what belonging can look like in the United States.”

Associate Professor of Latina/o Studies Nelly Rosario described a similar experience when watching Miranda’s In the Heights, a film that explores themes of immigration and identity in Washington Heights. “I could recognize pieces of Latin-ness that the mainstream was already familiar with,” Rosario said. “It was doing a lot of substitution work and it meant to feel diverse, but it felt processed.”

Though some of the themes in recent movie musicals seem overused, something new that these movies have tried to implement is a lack of subtitles for Spanish phrases. Though Herrera considered the lack of translation a disadvantage for non-Spanish speaking Latinx people, Mikayla Kappes ’22 was excited about the opportunity to watch Encanto without subtitles. “I love hearing Spanglish and the colloquial phrases worked into these films,” she said. “I think [the lack of subtitles] was never an obstacle to understanding the story. Having that added bit of language use that feels very natural outweighs any loss of comprehension for me.”  

Beyond its incorporation of Colombian musical instruments and the Spanish language, students said Encanto may be a starting point for more Latinx representation in film. Still, Herrera recommended additional ways for students to learn more about and help promote Latinx representation. “If you really want to understand the movie beyond the plot, go to these ally events [like Claiming Williams] on campus and take DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] classes,” Herrera said. 

De La Fuente added that she would encourage students to take Latino/a Studies courses. “You get to dive into the complexities of identities and get more insight into what you’re viewing,” she said.

As students wait for Hollywood to expand and diversify its representation, Rosario urged students to create inclusive work of their own. “We want representation, but we also have the power to create it. I always say before we complain about anything we see, we first have to try to create something and offer an alternative vision. Critique is easy, it’s hard to create.”