Why Counselors Are Talking About ‘Encanto’

Spring 2022 CMHC Newsletter

Generational trauma refers to the psychological effects that traumatic experiences have that extends from one generation to the next. Next generations of immigrant families and historically oppressed groups often carry the burden of breaking the cycle of trauma that they were born into. When generational trauma persists, people repeat maladaptive patterns and can also experience issues with hypervigilance, mistrust, anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem or self-worth, and poor boundaries.

Disney’s new movie “Encanto” immediately resonated with many first-generation Latinos across the country due to the themes that hit close to home. The film inspires self-reflection since many can draw parallels between the roles that are portrayed by the Madrigals, a multigenerational family living in a magical house (casita) in Colombia. Each family member, with the exception of Mirabel, has been blessed with a magical power that represents different Latino archetypes. The matriarch of the family is Abuela Alma, whose high expectations of everyone are tearing the family apart. Abuela suffered loss and trauma when she was a young mother and her family was blessed with a magic candle as a result. Her fear of losing the magic she protects for her family causes her to lose sight of what is most important. She is harsh, has expectations of everyone’s role in the family, and misplaces blame on Mirabel when the family magic begins to weaken.

Like Abuela when she relocates to the casita, many Latino immigrants come to the U.S. fleeing war, poverty, violence, and being affected by displacement and colonization. The first-generation children of Latino immigrants often ex-press that there are expectations to fit a certain mold, responsibility to balance assimilation and preserving culture, parentification, and problems with attachment due to authoritarian parenting.

Some of these issues are at the core of the Madrigal family as well. The pressure to continue the toxic family behaviors because that is how it is done in the family is one that first-generation Latinos struggle with. Like Mirabel, first-generation Latinos in the U.S. are also working to break the chains of generational trauma.

Breaking the cycle can sometimes look like it is depicted in the film, where the root of the issue is confronted and there is forgiveness. For many, however, changing transgenerational patterns may not lead to a happy ending like in the movie. Sometimes that different path to overcoming generational trauma involves setting boundaries and breaking ties with toxic family members, and that path is ok too. This film can help counselors explore with their clients what the patterns of transgenerational trauma are in their families and the effects that these patterns play in their present life.

Just like toxic patterns can be passed down to generations, so can the ability to overcome trauma and build resilience. Some ways to help clients do this include:

  • Building skills to facilitate having family conversations about the lived experiences
  • Identifying patterns and narratives that still exist in the family today
  • Gaining new ways to cope and care for self
  • Cultivating empathy for the struggles faced by ancestors and how hard they worked to give their family a better life
  • Rewriting the narrative so that it includes healthy patterns that can be passed down to new generations

Encanto is a powerful film that counselors can use with their clients to facilitate exploring some of the themes. It inspires historically minoritized communities to talk about mental health and explore healing. The film reminds us that we do not need to stay quiet about these issues.

About Dr. Lili Burciaga

Dr. Liliana Burciaga is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Lewis University.

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