Encanto, Abuela Alma and the Power of Who Tells the Story
So the very first scene we see in the movie is Alma explaining to Mirabel the reason why they have their candle, their miracle, where the encanto came from, etc... Which of course serves as exposition for the audience, but this is also Mirabel learning about Abuela's past and the reason behind her family's magic directly from Abuela. She knows as much as we do – as much as the entire Madrigal family knows. Let's focus on Abuela's past though. She explains-
“[…] When my three babies had just been born, your Abuelo Pedro and I were forced to flee our home. And though many joined us, hoping to find a new home, we could not escape the dangers and your abuelo was lost.”
She doesn't leave Mirabel completely in the dark. She tells her, straight up, that the miracle came from Abuelo Pedro's sacrifice, but doesn't go deeper into it. She focuses on the miracle, on their survival, on the tangible evidence of that night. The gifts, Casita, the candle... But in the memories, we do see a young Abuela living through that moment. This is what I want to focus on.
Let's compare this scene with what we see in the Dos Oruguitas sequence. Specially – SPECIALLY – how Alma looks and reacts in this flashback to the loss of Pedro, versus what we see in Dos Oruguitas. In the first scene, while Abuela narrates, we see a young Alma reaching out for Pedro as he fades, looking distraught. She then proceeds to slowly move down to the floor with her babies in her arms:
Her expression is one of sadness, yes, but a contained one, almost delicate. She slowly moved down to the floor, lightly, as if assuming the situation that's just surrounded her but allowing herself to at least bend down in grief at the loss of her husband. She allows herself to kneel down, keeps her movements in check, almost as if to breathe in and continue with their journey. Her movements are deliberate and gentle.
This is how Abuela chooses to present her past self to Mirabel – sad, hurt, but not shattered. This is how Mirabel sees her Abuela thanks only to Abuela's testimony. Everyone knows that the person that tells the story has all the control over how to tell it, what to omit, what to enhance, how to portray the participants. This is how Abuela wants to be perceived by her granddaughter and, to an extent, her entire family – hurt, but strong. Hurt, sad, but dignified. We see in the clip it only takes her a few moments to stand back up and move on with her family. Tragedy struck, but Abuela kept moving. Abuela presents this version of herself as the true version – the only one Mirabel and the family should know, and the only one she allows herself to admit existed.
But... let's see Abuela's expression in the Dos Oruguitas sequence. It's the same events. It's the opening scene again, but it's not the same Alma. Alma at the end of the movie isn't the same as she was ten years ago when Mirabel was supposed to receive her gift, and this is evident by how she presents her younger self – how she chooses to share the story.
In Dos Oruguitas, Abuelo Pedro dies... and this is what we see:
Alma screams. Alma cries out in tears, reaches out with an outstretched hand, cries at the sky, closes her eyes in horror. She doesn't slowly lean down to the floor. She collapses. Her entire body falls down onto her knees, not in a slow, graceful moment. She doesn't just kneel for a moment. She completely lays on the floor, forehead on her ground, a woman that can't even fathom how she'll manage to find the strength to stand up after this. We see her cry, which she wasn't even doing in the first clip:
And she doesn't move on immediately. In the opening scene we see her smile at Casita. In Dos Oruguitas, in a scene that punched my gut and made me respect Disney for digging into such a harsh subject matter, we see her inside Casita, sitting on the floor, looking absolutely lost. Her eyes are empty. She's in shock. She's traumatized, and scared, and doesn't know what's the next right thing.
The beauty (or the pain) of these two versions of Alma is that now we know about how Alma has been keeping a strict regime over her family due to the trauma she experienced and is now passing down generation through generation. Now we know Abuela never recovered from losing Abuelo. We know she begged for his help and talks to him at night and wasn't even able to return to the river where he died in fifty years. Abuela is the narrator of the trauma everyone is suffering from. Only Abuela knows exactly how the events went down and only she knows exactly how SHE reacted.
She can portray young Alma however she wants. She can say she never cried and only moved forward. She can present herself as the strong, unwavering family matriarch that endured tragedy but moved on, giving everyone solid reasons why to follow her lead and work day and night for the community. If Alma could see her husband be killed in front of her and still move on, what's anyone's discomfort in comparison to what she experienced? What's moving churches every day compared to losing a husband? What's marrying the perfect man compared to raising triplets alone? What's any of their chores compared to what she experienced? If she could continue without a single misstep after what happened, then no one has the right to complain.
But of course... That's only because Abuela is the holder of the memory. She's the one that tells the story. Mirabel didn't know she cried. Julieta or Pepa or Bruno had no idea their mother was on the floor screaming and crying when they were newborns. Abuela has the power of the narrator – and only her admitting to her own pain and how deeply and permanently it's cut her can ever change everyone else's knowledge and understanding of why she's acted the way she's acted. Why she's like this, and why she should change.
Abuela is the narrator of the trauma. Young Alma in shambles is the piece of the story she chose to hide to make herself better fit the role as keeper of the candle and matriarch of the Madrigals. But after losing Casita and the candle and almost losing Mirabel, she has no choice but to admit that after all this time, she wasn't a reliable narrator. And so Young Alma, the one that was cut deeper than anyone knew, is finally allowed to be a part of the story.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Flqrc7fXJrQ&list=PL4-2itgJX1wOmLoWWEYSCWmVbLA_vXIOe (Opening Scene)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkJlg9YZRJI (Dos Oruguitas)
I have several issues and a majority are the comments since at the end he does acknowledge her issues but here we go (sorry, no triplet post yet)
“the younger and older generations don’t get along”
that…that literally never happened- there was never a point where the younger and older generations in the family didn’t get along, the only strained relationships shown prominently were Alma and Mirabel & Isabel and Mirabel none of the triplets had an issue with the kids nor did any of their cousins or siblings.
“she played the victim and never apologized”
that also didn’t happen? Alma apologized, that was a very emotional scene? she revealed the truth of her night and realized what she had been doing all these years.
“she was forgiven too fast”
while i agree she was forgiven quickly, we did not see what life was like after that day, people still may have to correct her because the likelihood of her completely stopping seems unlikely since she had been acting this way since maybe her early 20s.
-separate argument, same point: no family ever genuinely apologizes, at least not from what i have seen. people give gentle “im sorry” in a low tone and keep a grudge silently while moving on. it’s especially unlikely for a poc family to apologize for any sort of abuse, let alone generational trauma or even acknowledge it. so the fact Alma even did that despite it seeming like the bare minimum overjoyed me