This article was written by Duaa Haggag, LPC. It was reviewed by Issra Killawi, BA, and Madiha Tahseen, PhD.
Click Here For The FYI’S Meaning Through Movies Series
Our ancestors can pass down to us their eye color, blood type or even certain personality traits. But they can also pass down their trauma – we can inherit the psychological impact of painful events they’ve experienced. This is the story of the Madrigals and their matriarch, Abuela Alma.
After fleeing her home and witnessing her husband’s harrowing murder, Abuela is left to care for her children and create a new home–a casita–that is magically gifted to her by an enchanted candle. She makes it her life’s purpose to keep the family safe, often pushing away the emotions of her traumatic experiences and hiding her pain. But her unrealistic expectations put pressure on each of her family members, pushing them away from the happiness that comes with authenticity.
Mirabel, the only grandchild who has not been gifted by the candle, takes it upon herself to become a cycle-breaker, helping her family see the beauty of vulnerability and discover the “miracle” that keeps a family lovingly connected.
Vulnerability Brings Us Closer Together
Almost every member of the Madrigal family has a secret they cannot share. Mirabel hides her lack of a gift from the townspeople. Her sisters, Luisa and Isabela, wish to be set free from their gifts’ expectations but never express their true sentiments. Tia Pepa insists that she doesn’t want to reminisce about her brother but deep inside, misses him. Bruno hides from gatherings and avoids confrontation although he wishes to join the family. Abuela seems to have created a culture of not “talking about Bruno” – always keeping a mask on – lest showing any emotions be seen as weakness. She is secretive about her fear of losing the casita, so she prays for help only when she thinks no one is looking. This pattern extends itself to the family – everyone feels obligated to keep their masks on, no matter how hard it is to maintain.
It is not until the casita starts to crack that the family is forced to pay attention. The cracking of the casita symbolizes that it is not sustainable for a family to put on a façade of perfection, afraid of sharing their true emotions and feelings. As Mirabel takes steps to actively listen, each family member discovers how freeing it can be to open about their true feelings. They realize that when they let their guard down, it is easier to come closer to one another. And only after the casita falls and the community helps rebuild it does Abuela realize that we must rely on one another – and that being real is so much more valuable than being perfect. With this realization, Abuela admits her detrimental role and apologizes, making the family and community even stronger.
When we hide uncomfortable emotions or avoid being vulnerable with those closest to us, we contribute to a cycle of isolation in our families and communities – the very people who we should be able to rely on for support.
On the other hand, being a listening ear (like Mirabel) and modeling moments of vulnerability teaches those around us that even painful emotions are a natural (and beautiful!) part of life that bring us closer together. When the Prophet (S)’s son Ibrahim died, he weeped publicly in front of his companions. When Abdur Rahman ibn Awf inquired about his tears, the Prophet said, “O Ibn Awf, this is mercy.” Rather than avoiding it, the companions would often ask one another about their crying so they may hold space for one another in their grief.
Let Go of Unrealistic Expectations
Encanto vividly shows us how setting unrealistic expectations for our family is detrimental. Older sister Luisa is expected to help whenever anyone requests her brawn, hardly ever taking a break, lest she be “worthless if [she] can’t be of service.” Signs (eye twitching) show that she is on the brink of burning out, but few notice her need for relief. Isabela is expected to be always agreeable and graceful, beautifying her spaces with perfect flowers. She feels she cannot reject the suitor her Abuela suggests as it does not fit her supposed agreeable nature. While human families are complex and imperfect, the Madrigal family gatherings are expected to run perfectly without any hiccups. Abuela became so preoccupied with the idea of being an exceptionally gifted family that she lost sight of what was most important, “who the miracle was for.” All these expectations make the family resentful, causing rifts between family members.
When we set these unrealistic expectations for our families, we set ourselves up for failure. Younger family members will often rebel or internalize the shame and guilt that comes with disappointing family. Our Islamic tradition guides us to understand that only Allah ﷻ is Perfect. And that we, as humans, are flawed and meant to learn from our mistakes. The Messenger (S) said, “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately and know that your deeds will not make you enter Paradise. And that the most beloved deed to Allah is the most regular and constant even if it were little.”
Our mission is not to be perfect but rather focus on making a committed, consistent effort to be better. We are advised to ask for forgiveness many times in the day because our Lord understands that our life experience is simply a trajectory of falling and getting up again, all the while building our character.
Our Worth isn’t Defined by Gifts, Abilities, Work etc.
In her subconscious desire to protect her family, Abuela makes the mistake of equating everyone’s worth to their Gift. This is a manifestation of her own trauma – she feels indebted to the candle’s magic and seeks to repay its help through the family’s gifts. She favors those with useful gifts; Bruno is shunned and Mirabel is asked to “step aside.”
Mirabel internalizes her grandmother’s favoritism and often feels inadequate, despite the many beautiful qualities she possesses. For much of the movie, she feels the need to do something extraordinary to “make the family proud.” Mirabel does not notice that her empathy, her maturity in seeing the duality of personalities, and her love for her family members as they are, make her the perfect person to break the family’s dysfunctional patterns. Only when Mirabel accepts “all” of herself and the matriarch sees the whole family perfect in their own ways, is the family healed and the casita saved.
Our tradition is rich with examples that show us that love and admiration should not simply be based on career, accomplishments, or what society may deem as important. Julaibib, a companion with disabilities and no known lineage, was rarely acknowledged by others. When he was killed on an expedition and few noticed, the Prophet (S) sought him out, wept over his body, and said, “This man is of me and I am of him,” and placed him in his grave with his own hands. While many did not see the intrinsic value of Jualibib, the Prophet (S) recognized his beautiful qualities and loved him for who he was.
It’s easy to fall in the trap of aligning with those who have gifts/abilities that match ours, or that we see as valuable. But what about those who may be different in some way or another, like Bruno or Julaibib? It may require more mindfulness on our part, but do we seek to include and appreciate those who may be a little different?
Through amazing symbolism and vivid animation, the movie Encanto shows us the power of breaking free from dysfunctional family patterns and healing from generational trauma. By discussing these powerful themes together, we can truly experience the miracle it takes to be a family.