We Don’t Talk About Bruno (or Generational Trauma)

Released in November 2021, Disney graced our screens once again with yet another massive box office hit; Encanto. Depicting the story of the enchanting Madrigal family, Encanto is a movie full of magic, memorable songs and artful storytelling.

Off
A screenshot from the movie Encanto

Lin Manuel-Miranda once again utilises his writing abilities to gift us the arguably best song of the film, We Don’t Talk About Bruno. BUT (to the tune of Aunt Pepe), why do we not talk about Bruno? In fact, what else do we not talk about? While watching the movie a very prominent theme was apparent, that being the prevailing presence of generational trauma in the family’s unit and the inability to address the problem directly. While a very close-knit family, the Madrigals are very emotionally distant from one another as well as suffering from some very debilitating mental health problems. I think it is time we talk about Bruno, Aunt Pepe, Abuela Alma and Julieta. In fact, let's talk about them all. 

Disney are not shy to approach serious topic matters in their films. It felt like just yesterday I felt the crushing reality of my mortality as a result of watching Soul (a brilliant movie by the way, absolutely beautiful in its approach - soul-crushing but good). Disney is a huge fan of movies with deeper emotional messages, and it is a theory of mine that Disney purposefully underlie their seemingly lighthearted movies with deeper messages of emotional abuse, trauma and depression as a way to teach children that these emotions are valid and widespread so that they can recognise these concepts while in the presence of the potential abusers in their lives. This might be far-fetched, but because of movies such as Tangled, children can identify the actions of emotionally abusive villains. and in Inside Out they can recognise their tumultuous feelings and do so with the safety that children’s movies provide. Encanto is no different. Under the guise of a magical family whose house is threatened by the dwindling of magic, the real disarray comes from the years of unresolved generational trauma that lies unapproached by the family, which ultimately builds too greatly and threatens to destroy the family altogether. Only by addressing these problems and ‘talking about Bruno', does Mirabel save her family from estrangement. 

The Beginning of it All 

Generational trauma is a topic that is often not addressed. People recognise that a person can be traumatised by the experiences in their lives, but it is not largely addressed how trauma can be passed on in families due to a lack of healing. The suffering of one individual trickles down the family tree, poisoning all the apples and making the bond weak. This is masterfully evidenced in the movies opening scenes. From the get-go, we are informed that the Madrigal family escape their home in Colombia as a result of invaders. Fearing the soldiers would kill everyone, the family’s patriarch Pedro sacrifices his life to save his young family consisting of his wife, Alma, and their infant triplets Bruno, Pepe and Julieta. Pedro’s love and sacrifice for his wife and children encase them in a barrier created by magic and mountains grow to separate them from the outside forces which threaten their lives. With this sacrifice, the family are also gifted a sentient home that bestows the family members' magical gifts upon a special age. And with this sacrifice comes the problem, the family are now indebted to the forces which provided for them by having to provide for the townspeople. Being the only family member to remember the sacrifice, Alma feels the pressure to keep the omnipotent forces happy, which comes at the expense of her family. 

The Source 

Alma, traumatised by the memories of her husband's sacrifice and the weight of obligation to the house, candle and townspeople, puts the emotional needs of her family in the background. This focus on keeping the town happy comes at the expense of her children and her subsequent grandchildren. Abuela… isn't a great person. That’s not to say she is evil or the villain, but her actions make her villainous and attention needs to be paid to the way she treats her family. Abuela created dysfunction in her family and this dysfunction carries its way down the tree, weighing on the occupants until it threatens to destroy the tree entirely. As a mother and grandmother, Alma is controlling, emotionally unavailable and has a victim mentality. Traits both unaddressed and resolved, pollute her relationship with her family and the way she views and treats them. 

From the movie we can surmise that from the moment the member of the Madrigal family is given their powers, Abuela puts them to work as the main pillar of support for the community. And from the ceremony we witness with Antonio, this happens as early as 5 years old. In her attempt to keep the community together, she is emotionally distant and unobservant of the behaviours of her children. And then we get to Bruno, shy, loving and family-oriented, Bruno is cast aside and treated as a fairytale boogieman by the family and townspeople. Bruno reveals the dark side of the family’s magical abilities, the ostracisation it causes, the blame, the isolation... but does Abuela ever acknowledge these struggles? Well... no. She does not seem to care. Once a family member is adorned with magic and useful, she puts them to work in the town and moves on to her next member. But that's the ones who do have a use, what about those who do not? Our poor protagonist, Mirabel, strives for nothing throughout the film but to be loved by this matriarch. Mirabel arguably never wanted to be adorned with magical power, but rather sought the love, attention and respect from Abuela that having such powers brings. At her ceremony, Mirabel looks at Abuela not because she is upset about her lack of powers but rather for confirmation that this does not affect her grandmother’s affection towards her. Sadly it does, and our Mirabel is cast aside. 

The promotional poster for the movie Encanto

The Victims 

With Abuela’s focus on the importance of magic, it would be assumed that those with magical powers would receive the most love, right? Yeah... no. Let’s talk about Bruno. Spoiler alert below if you haven't watched the movie yet!

Bruno. Poor, precious Bruno. The movie’s assumed antagonist is revealed to have never abandoned the family, nor was his power to inflict misfortune upon others. No, Bruno’s only affliction is his status as the family scapegoat. Before we even meet Bruno, his legacy is shrouded in a deep level of antagonism and hatred. The family all sing a song about how much they don’t even like talking about him! Even those who were young when he left sing about his villainy. But the real Bruno is revealed to be kind, compassionate and deeply loyal to his family, despite hearing them sing about how much they hate him from inside the walls. Bruno is blamed for the misfortunes that befall the family by not only his family but the whole town as well. Being one of the only people daring to speak about the cracks in the family foundation, Bruno is shunned and blamed for actions outside of his control. When we first meet Bruno, it is hard to imagine he would have had an easy childhood, he is anxious, shows signs of depression, low self-esteem and social anxiety, even his door villianises him! If he isn’t scapegoated for his power, he would have been for having mental health struggles that are hard to mask or conceal. We don’t talk about Bruno, because if we do, we need to acknowledge the external factors which have affected his mental health. 

But Bruno is not the only victim of the family, all of Alma’s children are emotionally affected by her expectations and pressure. For instance, Tia Pepe is the perfect example of anxiety and panic disorders. The poor woman is responsible for her moods dictating the weather, that is an incredible amount of pressure to have to be constantly stable and happy. Throughout the movie, Pepe is constantly under pressure to control and shut down her emotions for the sake of others. Her right to express anger and sadness is constantly overridden by other people’s desire for a sunny day out. This is a dynamic that is clear to have been enforced throughout her life. The anxiety attacks, mood swings and tendency to panic are all signs of a traumatised and invalidated individual. A little rain never hurt anybody, let the women express her emotions. 

The next child may appear to be the most stable but her power and her actions, or lack of action she takes in the film, are indicative of her issues. Of course, I'm talking about Mirabel’s mother, Julieta. Julieta’s power is the ability to heal all alignments through her cooking, so she is essentially the healer of the town. Julieta’s role as a healer is not restricted to physical injuries; much like many older siblings, Julieta carries the burden of the emotional stability of her family, while repressing any expression of emotions herself. If being a healer wasn’t clue enough, her proclivity to be a people-pleaser and keep the peace, is. This desire to appease everyone around her comes at the detriment of her own nuclear family. When she notices her mother start to turn her daughter into the new family scapegoat, she does nothing to intervene or defend Mirabel. Her inability to stand up for her children allow Isabella, Luisa and Mirabel to be exploited and taken advantage of. 

The Victim’s Victims 

The grandchildren are not doing so well either in casa Madrigal. Mirabel might appear to be the most troubled, being the only one without a special power, but her siblings and cousins aren’t doing so well either. 

Starting off, her sisters Isabella and Luisa have heavy expectations placed upon their shoulders, and in Luisa’s case, literally! Luisa’s song Under the Surface is just one big cry for help. This girl is stressed and in desperate need of a break. Luisa’s super strength burdens her with the duty of doing all the heavy lifting in the village, which she does with no complaining or hesitation. However, once her powers start to fade, the facade slips away. Luisa demonstrates extreme guilt and remorse at the potential of not being useful to her family or community. She feels as though without her strength, she is of no use. With great power comes great responsibility, and Luisa is burdened with too much of it. Much like her mother, she exhibits people-pleasing tendencies as well as the tendency to repress her emotions for the sake of her family. I just want a short of Luisa getting a deep tissue massage, the girl needs some pampering. 

Isabella is the face of the family, but the weight of perfection is stifling. Alma has extreme expectations for all her grandchildren but Isabella experiences them worse than the others. An arranged marriage in a community where there is no real political need is just manipulative and controlling. Isabella is the golden child of the family, but even glorification comes at a cost. Isabella follows in her family’s trend of repressing one's emotions and trying to live up to her Abuela's expectations. Mirabel expresses her jealousy to the attention Isabella receives from Abuela but the grass is never greener on the other side if neither are getting watered. 

Mirabel parallels Bruno in every way except having powers. Mirabel becomes the new scapegoat once she dares to go against the grain and point out the reality of the issues within the house and metaphorically the family. She is treated with uninterested contempt by her family members and neglected by her grandmother. Even the house refuses to give her a door, the resolution the movie gives is that Mirabel is the protector of the house like her grandmother and therefore does not need a special room or door. But that doesn't seem right to me, especially since Abuela gets her own illustrated door in the house. While she does not visibly exhibit any mental health problems, her desire to appease her abuser at the detriment of her sanity demonstrates a slight case of Stockholm syndrome. 

Among the cousins, we witness first-hand what it means to be a bearer of gifts and the burden it places at a young age. By 5 years old, Antonio is told that gaining his gifts means being indebted to his community for the rest of his life. The emotional burden that places on a child is immense. To be told you must be useful from such a young age already places unrealistic expectations upon their young shoulders. 

Healing 

It may seem like I'm placing the blame exclusively on Alma for the family’s dysfunction, but that is what happens when you address issues within families, the one pointing out the faults is accused of targetting one person. That is not my intention. Alma had an incredibly difficult life and, within a matter of seconds, she finds herself to be the single mother to three babies, homeless, without money, and at the mercy of violent conflict. The mountains of the community keep harm away but do not allow for the possibility of knowing if peace is restored in the world. Therefore, she lives with what she knows and what she can do, that being protecting her family and keeping the candle happy. Alma does not seek to harm her family due to malicious purposes but rather inadvertently does so through her inability to recognise that she is a traumatised individual, raising a family without inner peace. Regardless, her actions are her own and she must be held accountable for her actions and words. For me, the end of the movie leaves much to be desired. Alma and Mirabel make peace but real healing fails to take place. Bruno is owed an apology and the family are scheduled for an intervention. Generational trauma can be tackled, but it does not start and end with a hug.


Written by Valentia Adarkwa-Afari, Digital Student Ambassador, on 17 March 2022.

Explore the University

Discover what sets Sheffield apart at our next on-campus open day.