Abre Los Ojos: How Encanto Shows Us 9 Paths Out of Perfectionism Toward Authenticity

Since I was young, I’ve always been drawn to discover deeper meaning, whether it was in music, art, movies, literature, people or the words spoken to me and around me. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, too: like a thirst quenched by finding connections, learning something new about humanity, or a profound recognition of the mysterious divine. The recent Disney films such as Moana and Frozen II were satisfyingly layered into deep and hopeful themes (and spared us from the tired villain vs hero narrative), but Disney really took the hero’s journey archetype to new levels with Encanto. The whole story of Encanto is meant to invite us to recognize all of the ways our personality, compulsions and fears actually block our authentic essence and urges us to embrace transformation in our individual and collective lives.

Encanto is one of the most highly symbolic movies with an easter egg in practically every word, lyric, and image of the film.  I was so inspired by the symbolism that I have written all about the 9 magical characters of the familia Madrigal, and how they each have a unique path from their personality, through their shadow and integrate their authenticity. A major message in the story is that recovery of our essence is possible, and we need to be willing to examine ourselves and trust in a new way in the face of guaranteed discomfort and the unknown. 

We naturally have a drive within ourselves to protect, persevere, and survive. Along the way we develop ways of being, some call it ego, that help us function to stay safe mentally, emotionally and physically. At some point, however, the masks we wear start to crack, and our soul, our essence, tells us in subtle and obvious ways that we are meant for more than mere survival. The stories and ruts we designed out of fear and ego become the homeostasis, and change or growth can feel downright terrifying if not impossible. The most vital character of all is Abuela Alma, and here I offer my interpretation of her character’s important paradigm that influences all of the other characters’ development. 

Abuela Runs This Show

Each character has their own powerful story told in Encanto, but all of their stories are literally born from Alma’s. Each character is trying to get the love and acceptance of their mother or grandmother who commands perfection from them. It can be a little hard to love Abuela Alma because for most of the film we wish she could have “been a different woman.” In many ways, her tunnel vision on la candela and the miracle left her unavailable to her family emotionally which led to disconnection. The ridgid clinging to her sense of what is ‘right’ became controlling and caused hurt for the family members.

Alma lived most of her life before the events of the film, and in her crone years at el rio, after the loss of what she had devoted her life to protecting, she confesses to her granddaughter that she thought her life would have been different. We know that a tragic event caused unimaginable grief, pain and sadness in Alma’s early life. As a result of colonization and violence, newly postpartum Alma was forced to flee and ultimately suffer the trauma of losing her Pedro, her love, her triplets’ father. This event that happened ‘so many years ago’ is the origin of the cracks: her mind, body and heart are suddenly broken. With this context in mind, it becomes easier to see how Alma struggled to reconcile profound grief and loneliness with the miraculous grace of her survival, a ‘refuge in which to live’, and the power of a love that could ‘never go out’.

Without time or space to process these painful experiences, they become wounds too raw to touch, and when she tells her stories, she doesn’t talk about the darkest parts. Out of necessity and with what capacity she had, we see Alma form a personality that she believes will keep her familia safe. The stories she shares and does not share become the foundation for the family which center around the concept of perfection. She deduces that she is not worthy of this grace, so “work and dedication will keep the miracle burning” and she swears “to always help those around us and earn the miracle that somehow found us.” Abuela quickly develops a sense of duty to the candle and becomes hyper-responsible as the keeper of the encanto.

The strongest subconscious fear that drives her is the fear of being corrupt, bad or unbalanced because, to her, that could mean the end of everything again. We see Abuela critical and controlling the family from the irritation and discontent with her own inner critic constantly telling her to strive to be enough for the encanto. The family members’ individual needs become roadblocks and interruptions for Abuela as she is trying so hard to get it right and doesn’t have the capacity to pivot or give attention when the focus and drive is to keep the miracle burning. She tells the children to “strengthen the community, strengthen our home and make your family proud” in her prescribed strategies, which unintentionally cuts them off from their essence and forces them to also adapt functional personalities driven by an overidentification of their gifts. 

  1. Isabela La Perfecta is driven to appease Abuela’s expectations to stay loved. 
  2. Luisa the Strong One becomes the proxy for Abuela’s expectation of the Madrigal’s community strength.
  3. Peppa is constantly moderating her mood  to be palpable to authority, especially when the risk of disapproval means disconnection, judgment, failure and possible harm to the family. 
  4. Dolores betrays herself to suffer in silence, and in self-sacrifice her desires are ‘just out of reach’. 
  5. Bruno’s character is the foil of Alma, and he withdrew from the family to create literal boundaries after his visions (read: observations) were strongly rejected and intolerable to Abuela when they touched her wounds and insecurities. 
  6. Camilo the Chameleon avoids the possibility of being stuck in suffering and judgment by having lots of options available to him and making people smile. 
  7. Julieta uses her gift to support the expectations of perfection by making sure everyone is ok: cooking up a remedy to comfort people and solve their problems.
  8. Antonio is a challenger to the legacy of perfection in his family, and part of the reason for that is due to his privilege of Mirabel’s company in the nursery. He received special insight into her perspective as well as special access to her natural gift of faith and empathy. Her unconditional positive regard toward him allowed him to experience his vulnerability in the safety of her presence, and at just five years old, he is able to support the cause of bringing truth to light with a grounded calmness.
  9. Everyone else is stuck in their lens of personality, the force of the momentum of their fixations, but Mirabel is the brave one who shows the family they have moved out of authenticity and fallen asleep to who they are in wholeness. Mirabel is the one who created the doorway out of personality (see the scene when the casita collapses, she is in a triangle of debris. Triangles symbolically representing doorways/openings), and the doorway (her doorknob on the new casita) of a new integrated way for the family to inhabit themselves and their gifts. Her seeking of “the truth and the whole truth”, sincere listening and underlying intention to save the miracle drew her along each step of the way. She got Bruno to stop spackling over the cracks, and interrupted Abuela’s drive to avoid exposing the painful truth she had been holding onto. By the end of the film, Mirabel showed us that the things that are hardest to love can often be transformed with a compassionate embrace.

Abre Los Ojos

When these fixations take over our personality (and they do even more than we are aware) it creates patterns we repeat over and over and we can become captives in prisons of our own making. We chase the high of the lie that says “if I can be good enough, I can feel at peace with myself.” We all have our own adaptations, patterns and functional personalities like Alma. At some point in being human, we develop cracks between mind, body and heart in order to survive in our own stories: no one is exempt from that. Throughout Encanto, the path of growth is depicted as uncomfortable, counterintuitive and generally what we want to avoid (at least at first).  This reminds us to remain curious about our own irritations and avoidances, and to check in with our capacity to challenge the limitations of our beliefs while holding on to our values. 

When I say no to one choice, what am I saying yes to instead? Does it serve my essence? Am I being called to be brave here?

This paradigm is as old as time: good/bad, right/wrong, appropriate/inappropriate, diagnosis, comparison, deserve-oriented thinking. When we let these beliefs run the show, it blocks compassion and alienates us from ourselves and others. How often do we expect perfection from ourselves? How often do we command perfection from others? Sometimes it’s hard to love or have compassion for family members, let alone strangers we meet who act out of alignment with our values, and yet, if we look deeply, we can find their humanity. Those individuals are the ones that need our love the most, even if for protective reasons we choose to do it from a distance.

As I write this in March 2022, the time is now more than ever to do our inner work in community to recover our wholeness, and raise the consciousness of the planet. More than ever we need to open our eyes to the ways we move in fear and away from our essence. We need to embrace our ego and notice the clever ways it tries to run the show of our lives. We enter this world alone and we leave it that way, but the constellations of future and past generations are impacted by our level of awareness and psycho-spiritual health. We don’t need to show up perfect, we just need to show up with the intention to connect with what is alive in us. When we can be a non-judgemental witness to our most vulnerable and humiliating thoughts and feelings, they loosen their grip on the wheel and we can start to head back toward our true north again. We never arrive at perfection: don’t aim for that. The miracle you are is inherently worthy: don’t even try to earn it. The tools for transformation are built-in: the light of your awareness, the returning to embodiment of your essence, and a heart with hope.

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