The first time I saw the teaser trailer for Disney’s “Encanto” — an animated musical set in Colombia — two feelings flooded me. First came a surge of excitement for what it could be. Then, almost instantly, a shift to the defensive. “They’d better not mess this up,” I thought.
After “Narcos” hit Netflix in August 2015, glossing drug lords, the Medellín cartel and cocaine with a sheen of glamour, couples dressed for Halloween as Pablo Escobar and his wife, María Henao. Escobar’s mug shot and mustache were plastered onto canvas tote bags. Introducing myself as Colombian American became tinged with perceived intrigue — before “Narcos,” my peers may not have immediately associated Colombia with drug violence. Now, the country was a curiosity.
But “Encanto” was a chance for a new generation to view Colombia in a fresh light.
In October, I watched an early screening of “Encanto” for an article I was working on. Not long into the film — as towering wax palm trees filled the screen — my eyes glazed with tears. The filmmakers hadn’t messed it up. Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard, it turns out, had a close relationship with the Colombian filmmakers Juan Rendon and Natalie Osma, with whom they traveled on a research trip to Colombia. A group of Latino Disney Animation employees called Familia shared their experiences and perspectives to help shape the film. Charise Castro Smith, who wrote the screenplay with Bush and is a co-director, is Cuban American.
The movie captivated me, as someone who had grown up with my heritage held an arm’s length away from me. I knew where my father’s family came from — I had visited Colombia — but I always itched to know more. But what about my dad, who left home behind to build a new one?
“Encanto” means “enchantment” or “spell” in Spanish, and the movie lives up to its name: Years ago, Alma Madrigal fled her home while escaping armed conflict. She saved her three infant children, Julieta, Pepa and Bruno, but lost her husband, Pedro. Devastated, Alma clung to the candle she was using to light her way, which became enchanted. Its magic imbues each member of the Madrigal family with a fantastical gift when they come of age — except for Julieta’s youngest daughter, Mirabel.
Julieta can heal physical ailments with the food she cooks (often arepas de queso or buñuelos). Pepa’s moods influence the weather, and Bruno sees visions of the future. Isabela, one of Julieta’s two older daughters, makes flowers bloom; Luisa, her sister, has superhuman strength. Pepa’s three children each have a power, like talking to animals. And our protagonist, Mirabel? Well, she never got a gift.
For me, as the only cousin in my family born outside of Colombia — and the only one not raised speaking Spanish — that resonated.
My father, Francisco Zornosa, is from Cali; he emigrated to the United States when he was around my age, at 25. He was born a year after a five-decade-long armed conflict began in Colombia and grew up amid warfare between leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and government forces. It’s an aspect of his childhood we’ve never really talked about.
I had just started college in 2016 when the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was signed. Growing up, I was fascinated by the mysterious land where my dad was from, where my grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins lived. But with my fair skin, red hair and mangled Spanish, I would stand out like a sore American thumb. It was deemed too dangerous for me to visit.
Once the peace agreement was signed, though, my incessant wheedling began. Finally, my father caved: We embarked on a tour of his homeland. We stayed with my grandmother in Cali, nestled comfortably between the mountains. We drank in the sun in Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast. And we hiked through Cocora Valley in the Zona Cafetera, where the wax palm trees stretched impossibly tall, through the mist toward the sky.
Walking out of the screening, I knew I had to show “Encanto” to my dad. “Look!” I wanted to tell him. “I recognize these trees! That animal! This pastry!” I wanted to hold up a shiny piece of him — of both of us — to be proud of.
On Thanksgiving weekend, I dragged him to a theater. Maybe 20 minutes in, his glasses came off and the tissues came out. I had only ever seen him cry once, when his father died.
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Abuela Alma, the fiercely protective matriarch of the family in the movie, bore a strong resemblance to his mother, who passed away this year. Later, I found out that she looked a lot like my grandfather’s mom, too. Even my dad — who usually kept Colombia tightly sealed in a box — had told me plenty of stories about that tough old woman who lived in the mountains, tending to her finca and her family — much like Alma.
And then, of course, there was the scene by the river. Upset, Mirabel flees beyond the mountains, far into the rainforest, and stops beside a rushing river. Alma finds her there, in a place she has never been able to return to: This is where her husband was killed all those years ago, when their brand-new family was forced to flee from its home.
Since then, Alma has been clinging to the family members that remain, desperate to protect them. But now, sitting by the river with Mirabel, she realizes that she’s been holding the family so close that it’s starting to crack. As a cloud of Gabriel García Márquez’s golden butterflies enveloped the granddaughter and grandmother, my dad and I cried together.
I never knew my abuela well, but I did know that she could be unusually hard on my father, her youngest son. I hoped he saw now that maybe, probably, that pressure came from a place of love and protection, albeit misguided.
When I asked him later what felt familiar in the film, he said the family dynamics. He said vallenato and salsa and marimba and alpargatas and Tejo. He reveled in the flora and fauna, the food and the tiniest, most intricate details. “Whoever made this,” he said, “they made it right.” They’d done the country, its people, its culture and its customs justice.
The soundtrack transfixed him. “Colombia, Mi Encanto,” a “love letter” to the land sung by the Colombian singer Carlos Vives, plays during the credits over a steaming bowl of sancocho — the soup my family once welcomed me home with. “Colombia, te quiero tanto,” goes the chorus. “Que siempre me enamora tu encanto.”
“Colombia, I love you so much, that I always fall in love with your charm.”
“Encanto” had done more than serve my dad a slice of his homeland — it brought him all the way back.