Opinion: Don’t watch ‘Encanto’ for Hispanic Heritage Month

This summer, I caught a ride with a stranger. I didn’t have a car, but that wasn’t going to stop me from catching the fireworks show in celebration of the Wallingford 350+2 jubilee. 

I approached a woman with kind eyes and asked if she was going to the fireworks show at Sheehan High. She was and would be happy to give me a ride. I learned she was from Wallingford. As we drove out from downtown Wallingford, she asked me where I was from.

“Colombia,” I said.

“Is that — no offense — one of those poverty countries?” she asked.

I was offended, but not because she asked me about poverty in Colombia. I know I come from a country with high rates of poverty; 12% of the country lived in extreme poverty in 2021, according to government statistics.

I was offended because she denied the humanity of the people from my country – myself included. Colombia has poor people, but it is not a “poverty country.” We are a resilient country with kind people and delicious food and beautiful landscapes and incredible biodiversity and talented artists.

I don’t think she was trying to be unkind; I think she was trying to understand me. She was told – and believed – that people from majority-world countries are poor and come to America for a better life.

I didn’t know what to say. I changed the subject.

I never know how to handle these situations. Most of the Americans I’ve met don’t know very much about Colombia, so they resort to telling me whatever story they’ve heard about people like me.

I don’t always know how to tell them a more truthful story.

Recently, I noticed that the animated Disney movie “Encanto” has shifted the stories others use to understand me. Strangers don’t ask me about “Narcos” anymore. Now they tell me I look like Mirabel Madrigal, the protagonist of “Encanto.”

“Encanto” was released in November of last year and follows Mirabel as she tries to save their home from mysterious black cracks. A heartfelt adventure movie, the film explores themes of generational trauma through vibrant — if saccharine — musical numbers.

The movie came along with a push for more Latino representation in media. A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office found that Latinos are 18% of the population, 18% of the workforce, but only 12% of the media industry.

Presenting the report to Congress, Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro made a plea for inclusion of Latino voices in media.

“Latinos are mostly invisible in the image-defining and narrative-creating institutions of American society,” he said in a press release. “This has resulted in a void in narrative, where many Americans lack a clear sense of who Latinos are and the countless contributions they’ve made to our nation.”

To highlight the many hidden narratives of Latino people, Congress wrote Hispanic Heritage Month into law in 1988, starting every year on Sept. 15 and ending on Oct. 15.

To celebrate, it is easy to reach for the familiar story, the well-loved story, the Disney story. Nevertheless, being Hispanic is much more complicated than a 102-minute movie. It is also much more complicated than immigrating from a poor country to make a life in the United States.

“Encanto” is a beautiful movie, but it is still a Disnified, American view of Colombian culture. Hispanic Heritage month is a time to celebrate nuance and diversity, not to flatten a whole country — not to mention the 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean — into a single story.

During Hispanic Heritage month, it is high time to listen to stories from other Latino voices — and no, I don’t mean “Coco.”

Despite the lack of representation, Hispanic people have been telling stories for as long as anyone else. Like us, our stories are beautiful and complex and a little strange — they are not worth flattening into a single story.

lguzman@record-journal.com Twitter: @lauguzm_n

Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at  https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.


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