A few days into my younger sister’s winter break from college, she suggested we put on Disney’s latest animated movie, Encanto. Though my parents had moved to a new house during the COVID-19 pandemic, we settled into the same routine we had often resorted to during previous Christmases in our childhood home. We would grab snacks, slip on baggy sweats and oversized pajama tops, and hole up in my room (never hers) to watch something stupid, corny, or emotional together. In part because of Coco, Disney’s last animated venture into Latin America, we were prepared to finish Encanto in tears.
I was ready to enjoy Encanto even before I knew much about the plot, but what I wasn’t ready for was how much of my own big, wonderful, dysfunctional Mexican family I would see in the Colombian characters on the screen. And judging by the response the film’s breakout songs have gotten, I’m not alone.
Only a handful of Disney songs have made their way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and after a brief, three-year streak from 1993 to 1995 with “A Whole New World,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and “Colors of the Wind,” it took nearly two decades for Disney to crack the top five again with Frozen’s “Let It Go” in 2013. Encanto‘s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” has now surpassed them all except “A Whole New World,” becoming Disney’s second-highest-charting song. Further down on the charts, Encanto’s “Surface Pressure” recently peaked at number ten. And this week, the entire soundtrack returned to number one, climbing higher than Adele’s 30 and the Weeknd’s Dawn FM.
From Hamilton to Moana, Lin-Manuel Miranda has established himself as a soundtrack superstar, so it shouldn’t be a complete shock that his latest songs have gained traction. On Encanto, Miranda leans into the film’s Latin American setting, incorporating salsa, cumbia, reggaeton, and Latin pop and hip-hop influences with traditional Colombian instruments to create a soundtrack full of earworms. But to call the songs infectious or danceable would only get at half the reason they’ve become so popular.
At its core, Encanto is a film about intergenerational trauma, and both “Surface Pressure” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” stand out as songs that address all the emotions the Madrigal family has been avoiding. Disney, which seems not to have expected fans to resonate with these particular songs, only submitted one—the simple, straightforward ballad “Dos Oruguitas”—for the Oscars’ best original song category.
Released on Disney+ in late December, Encanto follows the Madrigals—a seemingly perfect, tight-knit Colombian family with superhuman abilities that make them an asset to their little town. We get to know them through fifteen-year-old Mirabel, voiced by Houston-raised actress Stephanie Beatriz. The only Madrigal without powers, she’s desperate to prove herself to the family’s exacting matriarch, Abuela Alma. So when Mirabel discovers that the family’s magic is in danger of fading, she decides to investigate, convinced it all has to do with an ominous prophecy foretold by her estranged uncle Bruno.
Under the guidance of Abuela, the Madrigals are expected not just to be perfect but to seem perfect, too. She knows that the family’s magic is in danger, but rather than ask for help or tell anyone, she keeps it to herself, seemingly believing that if everyone just does what’s expected of them, everything will be fine. Mirabel takes the opposite approach, immediately seeking out her older sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) to see if she can offer any insight.
What Mirabel quickly realizes is that her sister’s super strength comes at a cost. From fixing leaning houses to rerouting rivers, Luisa is slowly chipping away at herself to help others in the town. Just before “Surface Pressure” began, my sister leaned over with a gentle warning: “This is the song they say makes older sisters cry.” By the second verse, it was easy to see why. Over a steady reggaeton synth beat, Luisa sings about all of the pressure—both physical and emotional—that the family and the town have placed on her, and how she’s expected to shoulder it without complaint. “Under the surface / I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service,” she sings in one heartbreaking line.
In many Latino and first-generation immigrant families, older siblings often step up to fill a number of strenuous roles out of expectation and necessity. From acting as translators for Spanish-speaking parents to shielding their younger siblings from money woes or health issues, these responsibilities take their toll, even if, as in Luisa’s case, older siblings want to help the family.
I’m a second-generation Mexican American, but so much of the pressure Luisa sings about felt familiar. And if we actually talked about it, I’m sure my aunts, uncles, and cousins would say the same thing. In a phone call with my mom a few weeks after Christmas, we spoke about my sister and the pressure she’d been feeling to do well in school. It took me years after graduating from college to admit to my parents how much I struggled with anxiety and impostor syndrome—all things I kept to myself because I wasn’t sure they would understand. It wasn’t until recently that my mom shared that one of my older cousins nearly didn’t finish school because of similar feelings, and that my grandmother actually struggled with anxiety for most of her life.
After watching Encanto, I thought about all of the experiences that feel isolating in our families because they’re left unsaid. For the younger generations in immigrant families, there can be an expectation to not just blend into American society, but to be truly exceptional. To me, my sister, and who knows who else in our family, getting by isn’t good enough, especially if you’re aware of all of the sacrifices your elders made to get you here.
It’s enough pressure to make anyone fold, but once Luisa shares her feelings with her sister, her fading powers begin to improve. But the fix is only temporary, because the Madrigals descend into chaos when they realize Mirabel is looking into their darkest secret in “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”
Sung in alternating and overlapping verses by Mirabel, her aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitán), uncle Félix (Mauro Castillo), cousin Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz), cousin Dolores (Adassa), and sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero), the song paints Bruno as a villain, with Camilo describing him as someone with a “seven-foot frame, rats along his back” who “sees your dreams and feasts on your screams.”
We don’t hear directly from Bruno in the song (though eagle-eyed viewers have spotted him dancing along in the background). Instead, over a repeating syncopated bass line, the family members gossip and whisper about the “forbidden” topic they can’t stop talking about. The closer the Madrigals get to openly addressing their secret, the clearer it becomes that keeping Bruno and his prophecy a secret all these years has taken a huge toll. As the chisme travels around the dinner table, the family’s magical house starts to crumble. By the time we meet Bruno a few scenes later, he’s almost unrecognizable as the person described in those cruel lyrics. The catchy song says much more about the Madrigals than him.
Voiced by John Leguizamo, the real Bruno is shy, neurotic, and desperately missing his family. Even from his hideout, he’s been working hard to repair the literal cracks in the walls of the house in the hopes that it might fix the family’s emotional scars too.
As Dolores says in the song, Bruno’s psychic abilities “always left Abuela and the family fumbling.” Because the Madrigals aren’t able to talk about their trauma, they close ranks and isolate Bruno, to their own detriment. It’s no coincidence that, as Mirabel tries to get everyone to talk about what’s wrong with the family magic, they begin to treat her like Bruno, too.
Not unlike Abuela, my grandfather’s pride was often wrapped up in the hardship he faced as an immigrant. I adored him endlessly, but I sometimes watched him dole out tough criticisms to his sons, reminding them that he came to the U.S. with only a grade school education and no knowledge of English. Compared to what he had been through, he wasn’t able to recognize his sons’ problems. Though I wish that’s something we could’ve talked about while my grandfather was alive, in the years since his death, we’re learning how to talk about those wounds as a family.
Encanto’s best songs are more than catchy—they’re cathartic. The Madrigals might be fictional, but to the Latinos who see their own families reflected in them, it’s a relief to see characters like Luisa, Bruno, and Mirabel say what we wish we could: that the pressure is too much, that we often avoid the things that scare us, and that we finally want to talk about what’s wrong.