Historia y Guerra en la Niebla: Historical Vagueness in Disney’s Encanto

Miguel Ángel Torres Yunda

Encanto (2021) details the lives of the Madrigal family and the struggle to heal from generational trauma. From the beginning of Encanto, the film focuses on setting the location of Encanto as a Colombian town by displaying items such as arepas, sombreros vueltiaos, mochilas Wayuu, ajiaco soup, or with Colombia written on maps or painted on the side of a house. However, the film’s setting is vague and does not have any single defining marker that places the town of Encanto in a specific geographic location in Colombia. The tall palm trees, the colorful river, and the colorful architecture allow Colombian audiences to place the town in the locations they know the best, creating a bond between Encanto’s characters and the town with the audience. Having Colombia as the setting for Encanto creates the first contextual clue for the unnamed conflict that pushes Abuela Alma, Abuelo Pedro, and their infant triplets from their burning hometown on the day the Madrigal triplets are born. To an audience outside Latin America, the horse-riding machete-wielding figures carry little context, representing a clear act of violence without giving faces to the perpetrators of said violence. To a Colombian and Latin American audience, the violent removal of a town’s population at the hands of the machete armed riders reflects the history of Latin America for the past one hundred years and beyond. 

Colombia is a country scarred many times over by civil wars. The twentieth century began with the La Guerra de Los Mil Días/War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902), a civil war fought between the Liberal and Conservative parties of Colombia with an estimated death toll of 150,000 people. Forty-four years later, another conflict between the Liberal and Conservative parties kicked off with the murder of Liberal political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala in the capital city of Bogotá. La Violencia/The Violence (1948-1958) ended with an estimated death toll of over 200,000, seeing the internal displacement of over a million people from their homes, and the dictatorship of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. Following the end of La Violencia, another still ongoing civil war began. The Colombian Internal Conflict (1964-present) began due to the unresolved political issues over land and the remnant guerrilla forces from La Violencia occupying regions where the national government had little to no authority. The current civil war is the most prolonged internal conflict in the Western Hemisphere, with government, paramilitary, and guerrilla forces clashing over control of land, towns, and people. Through the conflict’s nearly six decades of violence, an estimated 7,000,000 people became internally displaced, and an estimated 300,000 have lost their lives. Encanto’s unnamed conflict makes any of these civil wars the possible conflict that ran the Madrigals from their hometown and claimed the life of Abuelo Pedro. 

Encanto’s historical context is further cemented by Jared Bush, one of the directors and screenwriters of Encanto. Bush, via tweet, confirmed the Madrigal triplet’s birthday, October 17. Without a year, Bush allowed for continuous open interpretation of Encanto’s exact date and conflict within Colombian history. October the 17th, however, does not appear to be an accidental or random date, as that same date marks the beginning of La Guerra de Los Mil Días (October 17, 1899 – November 21, 1902.) By placing the context of La Guerra de Los Mil Días, the violence displayed in Encanto’s opening backstory for Abuela Alma becomes a historical drama, situating the Madrigal’s magical beginning within a bloody civil war fought between Liberal and Conservative elites at the expense of Colombia’s lower classes and rural populations. La Guerra de Los Mil Días kicked off with a Liberal revolt in the western department of Santander to overthrow the Conservative government of Colombia and end the grievances from the previous civil war fought in 1884. The civil war quickly spread throughout Colombia as Liberals, primarily backed by a disaffected and coffee-growing elite, and Conservatives, the then ruling party of Colombia, fought for control of economically important regions and the control of the national government. The Liberal revolt did not threaten to take the capital, Bogotá, and remained a conflict primarily fought within departments and their departmental capitals, such as Bucaramanga, Santander, in northwestern Colombia. 

The Madrigal’s displacement reflects various instances of internal conflicts and civil wars in Colombia through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Encanto’s lack of contextualization and historical vagueness within the film’s storytelling allows the audience to connect their own family and national histories reflected on the silver screen, even for those born and raised outside of Colombia. Representation in mainstream entertainment has been steadily increasing in the last years, with other films such as Coco (2017) and Turning Red (2022) focusing their narratives and characters in underrepresented communities. Encanto is another stepping stone towards displaying a particular culture and people without including ignorant or hateful stereotypes. Beyond the film’s importance regarding representation, Encanto’s discussion of generational trauma is an essential addition to a film about a Colombian family. Colombia’s history of civil war and internal displacement plays the backdrop to the Madrigal’s family and generational trauma, forming the film’s central interpersonal conflict that drives the film forward to a resolution. 

Image: Fernando Botero, Masacre, 2000, Óleo sobre tela, 40 x 32 cm, Museo Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá, Colombia

Miguel Ángel Torres Yunda is from Bogotá, Colombia, and is currently a second-year M.A. student in the Global, International, and Comparative History Program at Georgetown University. He is interested in twentieth-century Amazonian history, particularly the legacy of the rubber boom and Indigenous sociopolitical movements.

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