Scrolling through Instagram the other day, I was taken aback by a quote from Gloria Calderón Kellett, highlighted by a popular Latina-run blog, Poderistas: “Not seeing yourself on TV is like growing up in a house where your pictures are not on the wall.” I paused and thought about the truth of this statement, which was something I didn’t really notice until recently. It reminded me of the last eight years of my career working in predominantly white spaces, where it felt like I had to explain my background and who I was. I could never just be myself. As it turns out, I was having the same experiences of exclusion in television and in the workplace.

But then, Disney’s Encanto came out. Selfishly, I was drawn to the film because its protagonist Mirabel looked just like me, something I had never experienced. I texted my friends and family a screengrab of Mirabel with the message, “I think this is me?” and they wholeheartedly agreed. Brown skin, short curly hair, round, green glasses - this was a description of me. Was this real life? Did I just become a Disney princess?

The Madrigals and Their Gifts

Set in a small village in Colombia, Encanto tells the story of the magical Madrigal family. Every member is entrusted with a special gift meant to benefit the family and the village they support. Every member, that is, except for Mirabel. While this doesn’t seem to bother Mirabel as much as it bothers Abuela (the matriarch of the family and keeper of the candle, the source of the magic), it all comes tumbling down when the candle begins to lose its power, thus putting the family’s livelihood in danger.

Mirabel decides to figure out what’s affecting the candle’s magic. On her quest, she learns that some members of her family are struggling with the power and responsibility of using their gift in service of the family. Isabella and Luisa, her older sisters gifted with beauty and strength respectively, reveal how the pressure of perfection and high expectations is too much for them at times. Mirabel, using what I consider to be her gifts of empathy and listening, becomes a space for her sisters to finally be honest and let go of the impossibly high standards their family holds them to.

The film continues, set to a fun and clever soundtrack written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who effortlessly blends Colombian sounds and rhythms with the classic musical formula. Relationships are tested, chaos ensues, and a family almost crumbles. At the center remains Mirabel. I’ve seen the film five times now and the more I watch it, the more I’m reminded of my own journey, both spiritual and personal.

The Madrigal Daughters’ Lives and My Own

As the eldest daughter of immigrants, the pressure always fell on me to get everything right. This is something I think most eldest daughters can relate to, and something we have in common with both elder Madrigal sisters. They also felt the pressure to not make mistakes and to carry their family on their shoulders. For us in the real world, the familial and societal pressure looks a little different, but feels the same.

For me, it was the pressure to graduate at the top of my class and become a doctor or lawyer (the only two acceptable professions). The pressure to be the “right” kind of Catholic, one who married young and had lots of children. The one who went to Mass each week and was never even late. But no matter how hard I tried - and I tried - I just didn’t make the cut. And it was so easy to feel like a failure. If I didn’t or couldn’t perform what was expected of me, what did that say about me? 

It turns out the answer was - nothing. During my time in spiritual direction, I realized that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It took a while for my spiritual director to convince me that I really could just be myself, and that was perfectly fine. So what if I couldn’t pray for two hours in the morning? I could start with a quick prayer at lunchtime. So what if I’m 30 and not married? I love the people in my life right now, in the only way I can. There is great freedom in admitting that I’m not really sure what I’m doing or even where I’m going. Imagine how the world would be if we all lived free from that pressure.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine. We can look to Isabella, Luisa, and Mirabel, and how they live their lives striving for that same kind of freedom. As the movie’s ending shows, it is possible - and it feels even more attainable to see that journey play out in characters that look just like me.

Vivian Cabrera

Vivian Cabrera is a writer and editor in New York. She attends the Graduate School of Social Service at Fordham University. You can follow her on Twitter @iCabrera05.

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