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Lessons learned from ‘Encanto’

Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature teaches us about flaws of U.S. immigration policy
Disney image.

Last night, “Encanto” won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The movie has generated buzz beyond the screens. Psychologists are talking about how it depicts generational trauma. Others are discussing how accurately it portrays Colombia.

But surprisingly less attention has been given to what seems to be the key message of the movie: people do not need to be special to deserve love, security, and ultimately, rights. Through song, “Encanto” quietly teaches a powerful lesson about the flaws of U.S. immigration policy.

Encanto tells the migrant story of the Madrigal family. The opening scene shows the matriarch of the family suffering the incredible loss of her husband while seeking refuge for her family. It is in this moment of utmost need that she receives the “gift.”

The magical Casita offers not only a comfortable roof over their heads, but it also gives each member of the Madrigal family a unique ability to serve the community. Pepa controls the weather. Julieta can heal. Luisa is strong. Dolores has super hearing. Camilo shapeshifts. Isabela beautifies places. Bruno has visions of the future. Antonio talks with animals. Mirabel is the only one left without an exceptional ability.

We then see how Mirabel is able to save the family precisely because she is a regular person, devoid of any special powers. Unlike most movie plots we’re used to, we don’t see the hero using any supranatural skills to save the day.

The tale of the Madrigal family resonates with the bigger story of U.S. immigration policy. These policies ask individuals and groups to be “extraordinary” to deserve rights. 

Take the temporary protected status (TPS) program, created under the Immigration Act of 1990. TPS provides people who were already physically present in U.S. territory during the designation window a stay of deportation and authorization to work if their countries of origin are experiencing war, environmental disasters, epidemics and other temporary disruptions. Created in the context of a complicated history of U.S interventions in Latin America related to the Cold War, TPS is usually considered an important humanitarian protection. Similar to the gift in “Encanto,” TPS is justified by an acute situation of vulnerability.

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The tale of the Madrigal family resonates with the bigger story of U.S. immigration policy. These policies ask individuals and groups to be ‘extraordinary’ to deserve rights.”

But TPS requires more than it gives. It asks people to work hard without offering them access to social security by virtue of the status. It requires people to have a squeaky-clean record, making even misdemeanors a ground for termination of the status and eventual deportation. TPS holders receive only temporary protection, between six to 18 months (renewable), without a path to permanent residency or citizenship.

In other words, TPS asks people to be superhuman. They have to be productive members of society — working hard, but they better not need public assistance. They have to be law-abiding citizens — they better not make a mistake. TPS asks people to share and update information about their address and place of work. It also forbids people from visiting their country of origin. The rationale being that if the country is safe enough to travel, it is safe enough to repatriate its people. TPS holders have to espouse all of these qualities while living with the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will be allowed to stay in the U.S.

Like the Madrigal family, TPS recipients have to build their homes out of thin air with the might of their magical powers, secretly knowing that all of this could suddenly be taken away. In “Encanto,” the hit-song “We Don't Talk About Bruno” captures the hesitancy of the characters to admit the harsh possibility that the shelter was only temporary and they would be homeless and stateless once more.

And TPS is not the only immigration policy centered around deservingness — the notion that people who are not citizens need to prove themselves to deserve rights, being exceptional not in spite of but because of their vulnerability. Writing on displaced populations in interwar Europe, political theorist Hannah Arendt said that the famous refugee had more chances of survival. Since the Immigration Act of 1965, U.S. immigration policies have tried to go beyond race and discrimination by selecting people based on their connections and contributions to the country, emphasizing family reunification and skilled workers. In fact, there is a visa category for “Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement,” such as athletes and Nobel laureates. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program also has similar conditions and limitations similar to the TPS. DACA was set up in 2012 to protect the children of undocumented migrants who arrived in the country before the age of 16. It reduces travel, gives temporary protection, connects immigration status with education, and eliminates people who committed three misdemeanors. Despite the stated intentions, access to all of these categories depends on how public authorities interpret the conditions under which individuals are eligible for refugee, TPS, or DACA statuses. And, race, class, and gender constantly play a role.

“Encanto” portrays the complexities of deservingness in that gifts fall from the sky with no explanation while people still need to work hard and be exceptional to continue to deserve them. The gifts need constant exercise for upkeep. Abuela sings: “work and dedication will keep the miracle burning.” And we can see the sadness in Mirabel hearing Abuela say to Antonio when he received his gift: “I knew you could do it.” There is something dangerous or shameful about being not gifted. Mirabel grows frustrated, and painfully wonders why she did not receive a gift. But her outsider position helps her see the cracks in the Casita’s foundation. Although Mirabel tries again and again to do something to fix the miracle to prove herself, it is bringing the family together through their shared humanity that does it. In the end, Abuela realizes that the lack of a gift is a gift in itself. She remembers that the gift was meant to protect the ordinary after all.

Critics of “Encanto” have convincingly explained that the movie is not a sharp tool to tear down the oppressive aspects of immigration policy or to offer alternatives. Yet, “Encanto” provides a powerful punch against making deservingness the foundation of U.S. immigration policy. Many TPS recipients are advocating for comprehensive immigration reform that goes beyond the demoralizing limits of the status. They should not have to be exceptional to receive rights. Mirabel is in good company.

Nathalia Justo is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern. Her research focuses on migration and refugee issues.