In the chaos during and after this year’s recent Academy Awards show, the importance of Latino representation and firsts may have been unfairly overshadowed.
Among the Oscar winners was the latest Walt Disney film, “Encanto,” for Animated Feature, which also boasts a nominee for Original Score (Music) and Original Song (Music) for “Dos Oruguitas” (Two Little Caterpillars).
“Dos Orugitas” is an emotional song composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and this is the first time that the “Hamilton” creator wrote an entire song in Spanish. Colombian musician Sebastian Yatra performed the song in the film and live during the ceremony. The song put Miranda close to earning EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) status, but in the end he didn’t win.
Miranda was one of three Latino nominees this year, a very low number that unfortunately is the norm for the Oscars.
In this year’s Academy list was Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, with four nominations for “Nightmare Alley,” and Ariana DeBose, the first queer Afro-Latina to win Best Supporting Actress for her role in “West Side Story.”
Latinos were, of course, part of other nominee and winner teams including composer Germaine Franco, who also worked in “Encanto, and Eugenio Derbez, who plays the role of a music teacher in “CODA.”
In terms of Latino representation, “Encanto” was probably the most important film last year, as inspiration for the film is based in Colombia, a Latin American country finally different from Mexico. This small detail is actually huge, as often in the United States many confuse “Latinos” and “Mexican” as interchangeable terms; the diversity among Latinos is erased most of the time.
“Encanto” tells the story of the Madrigal family, during the 1950s in rural Colombia, and follows the struggles of a young girl, Mirabel, who lives in a family where everyone, but her, has a special gift. Her mom, Julieta, can heal anyone with food, and her little cousin, Antonio, can communicate with animals.
Mirabel is also a glasses-wearing heroine who is probably the most ‘normal’ of all Disney’s main characters ever. It was certainly refreshing seeing a girl without powers learning to love herself and being respected without the expectation of being magical or exceptional.
Many of the other characters, and the story, are very relatable, as the film tells the story of the expectations, anxieties, and pressures that sometimes families put on the younger generations.
As an immigrant from Colombia, “Encanto” really touched me. I am used to being put under the all-bearing “Latino” umbrella, a category that normally erases our own national identities and our uniqueness as people from very different and sometimes very distant countries. But seeing some very specific aspects of my culture on the screen really and profoundly demonstrated the value and power of representation.
Still, when movies or tv shows mention Colombia, it is almost always related to drug cartels, Pablo Escobar, or some type of drug-related violence. In that sense “Encanto” was a relief.
The research team, cultural advisors, and the involvement of Latino, and specifically Colombian talent in many different levels of the movie production is evident. From the almost imperceptible gestures the characters do to some of the biodiversity the music, the food, the clothes, and the music. The movie is in many ways a celebration of many things truly Colombian.
When I was watching “Encanto” the first time, I recognized a hand gesture I sometimes make, but, at the end of the movie, I was unable to remember what it was.
Finally, when I was able to watch it at home and stop the scene, rewind, and watch again, I realized it was a snap that Camilo, Mirabel’s cousin, makes with his fingers, a gesture many Colombians make or at least recognize. The gesture in itself is just a small thing, but it speaks about the level of attention to the details in the film.
It is also clear that “Encanto” does not represent all of Colombia’s culture, or that the movie represents it better than anything else.
Disney has been going outside the U.S. for movie themes for more than seven decades, but it wasn’t until 2017, with “Coco” that audiences saw for the first time an animated movie with an all-Latino cast.
Often other cultures and peoples in these movies have been merely used as background to tell very similar stories. That’s not the case with “Encanto” or “Coco.” In these movies, it seems there is a genuine devotion to accurately describing parts of Colombian and Mexican cultures.
These facts invite important questions about how to address cultural appropriation in Hollywood, and the commercialization of immaterial cultural objects like traditional costumes, food, and music.
When Disney released “Coco,” they tried to trademark the “Día de los Muertos,” a traditional Mexican holiday. They withdrew the trademark application in 2013 after much pushback, but if that was not stopped, Latin Americans would have paid Disney to wear traditional costumes or to eat traditional food.
In the months since “Encanto” was released, it has helped to change the conversation about Colombia in the Hollywood environment and has even worked as an amazing public relations campaign for the country.
Multiple travel agencies promote trips to the Madrigal casita in the amazing Cocora Valley or the Rainbow River, and some more sites featured in the movie. That has to do with the fact that Hollywood is only one avenue of representation, but possibly the most influential.
Colombian and Latin American culture need more screen space, so pockets of the population are not invisible. Magic and dreams belong to all. More Latinos in Hollywood are not just good for Latinos, they are good for the industry.
Ana María Ferreira, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature and Culture at the University of Indianapolis. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.