By Leila Cobo
When I was growing up in Cali, Colombia in the pre-Internet age, my father subscribed to Time magazine. Every week, the shiny, ostensible purveyor of everything that was of import in the world arrived in the mail.
I’d scour Time in search of any news – good, bad, whatever — about Colombia. There never was any. Up until Pablo Escobar became the world’s antihero sometime in the late ’80s — with the exception of Gabriel García Márquez’s Nobel prize for literature in 1982 — Colombia was largely absent from global consciousness, and certainly from U.S. consciousness. When I auditioned to go to Manhattan School of Music, a female professor, considered one of the leading pianists of her generation, said: “You’re Colombian? I have a good friend from Argentina. Perhaps you know her?”
Alas, I did not. But I understood then that even though the distance from Miami to Cartagena is a mere 1,100 miles, while Buenos Aires is four times further away at 4,410 miles, for many in the Northern Hemisphere, anything South of Mexico was one big blob of sameness, unremarkable save for extremes of tragedy and crime.
In the last decade, however, a generation of music artists that includes Carlos Vives, Shakira, Maluma, J Balvin, Juanes and Karol G have transformed the world’s perception of my country and its music. And now, here is Encanto, an animated Disney film remarkable for its sheer visual beauty (which I assure you reflects the beauty of the Colombian countryside near the coffee-growing region where the mythical casita stands), uplifting family themes and joyful music, much of it performed by, Oh My Goodness, real Colombians! This week, that music sits at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
None of this is commonplace. Encanto is the first soundtrack to go to No. 1 since 2019, and only the sixth soundtrack to an animated film ever top the chart. Beyond that, Encanto is a film set in Colombia, with a largely Colombian cast who sing and speak in Spanish and English; animated or not, this degree of exposure and success for my country is unprecedented onscreen.
According to a report released by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative last September, from 2007 through 2019, Latino and Hispanic characters accounted for only 5% of speaking roles in 1,300 popular films. This number was despite the Hispanic and Latino population accounting for almost 20% of the U.S. population and almost 50% of the Los Angeles population where most of the film industry is based, according to the study.
As John Leguizamo (who voices Bruno in Encanto) once told me: It’s more common to see aliens than Latinos in mainstream film and television. And Colombians? Aside from Leguizamo and Sofía Vergara, there are likely no other actors from the country who you can name off the top of your head.
For years, movies filmed in Colombia were actually filmed elsewhere; blockbusters Collateral Damage and Clear and Present Danger, for example, were both shot in Mexico because Colombia was deemed too dangerous. Meanwhile, Colombian characters were often played by Mexicans or Spaniards speaking with the wrong accent. More recently, even our beloved Narcos featured Brazilian Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar, speaking in Portuguese-accented Spanish. Mind you, it’s not an issue of origin; after all, dozens of stars in eminently American-themed films and series are British. But Andrew Lincoln of The Walking Dead does not play the role of a Georgia sheriff with a British accent.
Encanto, on the other hand, really minded its Ps and Qs, from accents to outfits to minute details like the hand-painted tableware, the embroidered dresses (which, contrary to what some writers have said, are not Mexican; Colombia has its own version of embroidery), the food, the many colors of our skin, even the animals – including the ubiquitous toucan and the yellow butterflies that are synonymous with García Márquez.
That a film with such a specific setting and aesthetic would be so successful is surprising, but not shocking; witness Coco, which enchanted by celebrating the very Mexican Day of the Dead. What’s shocking is that Disney, that most mainstream of brands, did this with a country that’s been consistently either vilified onscreen or ignored altogether.
Many years ago, I asked Carlos Vives – who performs two songs on the Encanto soundtrack — if he thought his music was too regional and Colombian root-based to attain international success. “Being local is what allows me to be international,” he replied, way ahead of his time.
Of course, 2021 was a watershed year for Latinos in film, with In the Heights, West Side Story and Encanto featuring Latin lead actors, none of them hugely famous. But the only major commercial success of the bunch so far has been Encanto — arguably the most narrow in scope of the three productions. What made it work?
I want to think Colombia made it work. Yes, the country is indeed that dangerous, with thousands displaced from their homes every year because of violence, as the film superficially shows. But it’s also that beautiful, that exuberant, that passionate, that family-oriented, that hospitable, that delicious, that musical, that magical. As García Márquez modestly said in accepting his Nobel prize for literature in 1982, “Poets, paupers, musicians, prophets, warriors, ne’er-do-wells, all the creatures from that unfettered reality have had to ask very little of our imaginations.”
It’s taken four decades and some family-friendly animation since that speech for the world to turn benevolent eyes on Colombia and its Encanto. But thanks to the movie’s vibrantly detailed presentation of its setting — just as important to its success as the chart-topping soundtrack — we are finally being seen.