We don’t talk about generational trauma

The film 'Encanto' on Disney+, reviewed by Tuğçe Koca and Shrinidhi Sathish.

In Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical, we enter the world of the Madrigals, a multigenerational family in Colombia. The grandmother of the family, Abuela, loses her husband, and as a refugee she is left on her own to care for her three children. Over the years, Abuela focuses on surviving rather than thriving in their new world. When her children and grandchildren are of age, they receive their magical gifts through a miracle candle and use their gifts to be of service to their community – except our main character, Mirabel. Following on from this, the cracks in this ‘perfect’ family quickly starts to show. 

The film explores how Abuela’s actions stem from past wounds that she unconsciously passes down to her children and grandchildren. We see Abuela emphasise the use of the gifts to ‘strengthen our community, strengthen our home’, suggesting that if the family helps others, history (her trauma) will not repeat itself. As an Indian and an individual from Turkey (Shrinidhi and Tugce respectively), we can relate to this through the pressure placed on young people to enter conventional fields of work that our communities see as secure, such as doctor, engineer or lawyer. Upon reflection, we think that this may be the need of our communities to prioritise our safety over flourishing in a field we are passionate about – similar to Abuela. Alongside this, it can be detrimental if an individual’s self-worth is placed solely on their career path (or in the film, their gift) and what they can offer their community. This is illustrated beautifully in Luisa’s song ‘Surface Pressure’. We witness how the suppression of individuality and vulnerability can suddenly come to the surface without the person even realising that they are struggling. 

In a systematic review of intergenerational trauma published by Cindy Sangalang and Cindy Vang in 2017, it was found that children of refugee parents were highly susceptible to having anxiety and depression. Alongside this, they were found to have views of ‘taking on’ the pain experienced by their parents, being a burden on them, and responsibility for the surviving parents’ feelings. In an ideal world, family offers unconditional positive regard. However, we see that her past trauma leads Abuela down the road of providing conditional love for her family. This is evident with Pepa, who has the gift of impacting the weather through her emotions. When the weather is clear and sunny, this pleases Abuela, but when her anxiety causes a downpour, Abuela tells Pepa to get rid of the clouds. This has conditioned Pepa to repeat ‘clear skies’ to herself, equivalent to telling someone to ‘stop worrying’ or ‘calm down’. 

In both of our cultures, the mental health stigma is instilled into us from a young age, and we can find ourselves being gatekeepers of our emotional expression to avoid being a burden on loved ones. Despite disapproval from her mother, Pepa’s storyline shows us that our emotions are not problematic and there will be people who understand and support their expression, such as Pepa’s husband.

In addition, individuals that try to break the cycle of generational trauma can be treated differently for questioning the family dynamics, which was the case with Mirabel who was blamed for any family misfortune. Near the end, we see a cathartic moment where Mirabel confronts Abuela about her expectation of perfection. This reveals that Mirabel’s actual gift was to bring about the unconditional acceptance they were all craving and establish a healthier foundation for her family. This allows the rest of the family to come out from beneath the shadow of their gifts, such as Pepa who we see dancing with her husband whilst there is hail falling above them – she is relieved to no longer hide her emotions. 

From seeing how Encanto is taking social media by storm, clearly many people can relate to this Latinx family and their struggles. Generational trauma is real, and it can take a lot of our energy without us realising. If you are actively pushing against this, please take care of yourself and if you have not, watch Encanto. You will feel seen.

- Reviewed by Tuğçe Koca, BSc, MSc, Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner; Twitter: @Tugcek17; Instagram: @tugce_talks_psych;
and Shrinidhi Sathish, MSc Health Psychology; Instagram: @shrinidhi_speaks

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