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The Real History Behind Disney's 'Encanto'

Disney's Encanto is a magical, sweet animated musical. But the film also springs from dark themes, and the Encanto background story connects to a tragic, very real history that has impacted generations of Colombians.

Much of the discourse surrounding Encanto has centered on blink-and-you'll-miss-them character details, heartbreaking aspects of the story, and spicy hot takes. Many critics and fans alike have praised the film for its loving representation of an everyday Colombian family whose story doesn't rely on tropes about drugs and violence in the South American country.

Nonetheless, violence is part of Encanto, even though the film only hints at it. At the center of the film is the Madrigal family. After fleeing an attack on their village, they move into a magical house in the new village of their encanto, safely hidden away in the mountains of Colombia. Encanto becomes a place of safety for the Madrigals and other Colombians. Encanto history is actually based on Colombian history, and the Madrigals' experience of violence and displacement is shared by generations of Colombians caught up in a seemingly endless civil war. 

The film is essentially a love letter to family and community, themes made all the more poignant in light of the real history of Colombians whose families, communities, and lives have been torn apart by violence. The real events behind Encanto may be darker than the film, but it adds a necessary layer of authenticity to an otherwise feel-good story. 

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  • Colombia Has Been Embroiled In Civil War For Almost 100 Years
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Colombia Has Been Embroiled In Civil War For Almost 100 Years

    There is a long history of political violence and civil conflict in Colombia - but just how long that history stretches back remains up for debate, according to historian Greg Grandin. Some scholars date it to the 1920s, while others push it later to the 1940s or 1960s. They're all correct, in a way - each of these decades were inflection points of civil conflict that has been unfolding on and off for roughly a century. 

    In the 1920s, rural laborers clashed with landowners in regions like Tequendama, Sumapaz, and Tolima. These conflicts became national issues as the Colombian government increasingly involved itself. One consequence of these clashes was that it hastened the rise of the labor activist Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who ultimately led Colombia's Liberal Party.

    In 1948, Gaitán was assassinated, an event that was one of the key moments of La Violencia, a civil war that lasted from 1948 to 1958. Historians estimate that 200,000 Colombians died in this period of violence. Just as agrarian conflicts in the 1920s produced the rise of Gaitán, so too did the upheaval of the 1940s and 1950s have significant consequences that led to more violence: Some rural Colombians embraced communism, according to Grandin.

    As the Cold War intensified, the growth of communism in Colombia became an international issue, and the United States even backed efforts to contain communist-leaning guerrilla groups in the 1960s. This is also the period when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - a group that would continue to play a significant role in violence in Colombia - organized itself.

    So, when exactly did Colombia's civil war start? There is no right answer, nor is there a scholarly consensus. But everyone can agree on one thing: Political violence and civil strife have shaped generations of Colombians.

  • Colombia's Legacy Of Colonialism Has Shaped Its Political Landscape
    Photo: Cristóbal Rojas / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Colombia's Legacy Of Colonialism Has Shaped Its Political Landscape

    From the 16th century, Spain colonized Colombia. Colonialism has always been a violent process, and Colombia's experience was no exception. The Spanish enslaved Indigenous Colombians and killed many of them through warfare and disease.

    Spanish colonizer Sebastián de Belalcázar, for example, didn't hesitate to slaughter the Indigenous communities that he crossed. According to chronicler Pedro de Cieza de Leon, Belalcázar was especially cold-blooded, even in the context of Spain's brutal colonization of the Americas:

    And when they reached a village called Quinche, which is next to Purataco, they say that after finding many women and boys because the men were away with the captains, [Belalcázar] ordered that they should all be killed, although they were guilty of nothing, which was a great cruelty. 

    Colonialism also brought enslaved Africans to Colombia. Like it did everywhere it was practiced in the Atlantic world, slavery only intensified violence in Colombia and reinforced hierarchies between landholding, European elites, peasants, and enslaved workers. 

    Colombian independence in the early 19th century didn't resolve these divisions. In fact, the political landscape preserved divisions. Politics were largely dominated by an elite class. The Conservative Party represented the interests of landowners and wanted to preserve existing hierarchies and create a centralized state; the Liberal Party attracted merchants and sought federalism. They clashed over these issues, as well as the role of the Catholic Church in the state. But even as they clashed, politicians were a Bogotá-based class of elites, detached from Colombia's poorest citizens. 

    Tensions between the Conservatives and Liberals heightened in the final decade of the 19th century, with the outbreak of the Thousand Days' War. Between 1899 and 1902, 100,000 Colombians perished

  • Colombia's Political Parties Were Engaged In Armed Conflict - And A Power-Sharing Agreement That Created An Exclusive, Elite Establishment
    Photo: Periodico El SIGLO / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Colombia's Political Parties Were Engaged In Armed Conflict - And A Power-Sharing Agreement That Created An Exclusive, Elite Establishment

    During its periods of conflict, Colombia's politics were dominated by two political parties: the Liberals and the Conservatives. Their rivalry at times spilled over into armed conflict.

    One of the most notorious instances of this was the era of La Violencia in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1946, Mariano Ospina Pérez became president of Colombia - and used his newfound power to attack and target his Liberal rivals. This state-sanctioned violence only intensified in the wake of the assassination of Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the riots it inspired. Conservatives attacked Liberals, Liberals attacked Conservatives... it went on and on for a decade, and most attempts to quell the violence were unsuccessful.

    But the civil war of the 1940s and 1950s ultimately resulted in a period of cooperation. Between 1958 and 1974, the Liberals and Conservatives entered into a historic power-sharing agreement known as the National Front. Each party would exercise power at different times, thereby ensuring that they didn't have to jockey against one another for authority. Though this brought stability, the Liberal-Conservative domination of Colombian politics also created an exclusive government of elites at the expense of other political ideologies.

    Excluded from national political power by the National Front, some members of the Colombian Communist Party established the FARC. Their goal was to support rural communities and resist the National Front, which made no room for third parties and sometimes relied on violent tactics to suppress resistance. In 1964, the National Front used the military to break up a guerrilla commune at Marquetalia. This attack against a rural commune only radicalized the FARC against the state.

  • Land Ownership Has Been A Major Point Of Contention

    One of the starkest divisions in Colombia is between the haves and the have-nots: landowners and agrarian workers, Bogotá-based political elites and rural peasants. These divisions haven't just shaped the economy of Colombia; they've also shaped the politics and lived experiences of generations of Colombians.

    From the 1850s, land ownership was consolidated into the hands of elite landowners. This disproportionately impacted Indigenous peasants, who lost claims to their land. In the late 19th and early 20th century, coffee and bananas formed an important segment of Colombia's agriculture. But these and other cash crops depended on "abusive" working conditions. 

    By the end of the 20th century, Colombians turned to other cash crops, such as cannabis and coca. As before, poor, rural laborers produced the crop, and elites got wealthy off of it. Drug cartels bought up land in Colombia to control regions, maximize production, and "gain legitimacy among Colombia's traditional landholding oligarchy," as William L. Marcy put it. This only heightened disparities and violence in rural Colombia. The line between landowners and drug traffickers was blurred. 

    The disparity between owners and producers has led to the development of organized crime and violence in Colombia. Most notably, the FARC, a guerrilla organization, formed to combat the disparity between farmers and landowners in the 1960s. As a revolutionary organization, the FARC only increased violence in Colombia.

    They aren't alone. Other guerrilla and paramilitary organizations - including right-wing forces financed by landowners and cartels - commit violence, with everyday Colombians caught in the cross fire. As Human Rights Watch put it, these groups "commit massacres, assassinations, acts of torture, and other grave breeches of international humanitarian law" and they "continue to recruit and use child soldiers." 

    In the 21st century, land in Colombia remains disproportionately in the hands of the few. According to a 2016 Reuters report, "84% of the smallest farms [in Colombia] control less than 4% of productive land."

  • Most Of The Fighting Over The Decades Has Taken Place In The Countryside And Has Caused The Displacement Of Millions Of Civilians
    Photo: Pablo de Tarso Luz Meneghel Sparco / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Most Of The Fighting Over The Decades Has Taken Place In The Countryside And Has Caused The Displacement Of Millions Of Civilians

    Though many Colombians have lost their lives or loved ones to the conflicts that continue to impact regions of the country, others have experienced it in a different way: through the loss of their homes and communities.

    Colombia is home to a significant population of people who have been displaced. According to scholar Gustavo Zafra Roldàn:

    The violence which has characterized the political situation in Colombia since the middle of the twentieth century has been accompanied by a parallel process of internal displacements. Armed conflict, common crime, the struggle for ownership of land, an ineffective judicial system and the absence of efficient mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of disputes between citizens are some of the causes of violence in Colombia, which in turn, lead to internal displacement.

    Fleeing violence, Colombians have left their homes for their own safety. It's been a widespread problem in Colombia, and it remains one. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that 5.6 million Colombians have had to flee their homes, making Colombia second only to Syria in terms of the sheer number of civilians who have been displaced. 

    Specific populations in Colombia remain most at risk for displacement. Since land and territorial disputes are often significant drivers of displacement, rural Colombians are more likely to be displaced than their urban counterparts. Indigenous and Afro-Colombians also comprise a large portion of displaced people.

    As Erin Mooney notes via the Brookings Institute, displacement is especially traumatic for these groups:

    Because [I]ndigenous persons and Afro-Colombians have a special historical attachment to the land they inhabit, displacement is particularly disruptive and traumatic for them, cutting them off from their source of livelihood and undermining their cultural identity. Despite their having been granted collective land title, they are especially vulnerable to being pushed off their land, which is coveted by armed groups for the cultivation of African palm and other lucrative crops, included coca. 

    Without anywhere else to go, displaced Colombians often migrate to cities with little support from the state.

  • Since The 1980s, Narcos Have Had An Increasingly Larger Role In The Violence
    Photo: Colombian National Police / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Since The 1980s, Narcos Have Had An Increasingly Larger Role In The Violence

    Though traffickers are the face of the Colombian drug trade, everyday farmers are its backbone. As historian Lina Brito explained:

    Back in the 1970s, peasant farmers from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - a remote and mountainous region of Colombia's Caribbean coast - began shifting from banana, cotton and coffee production to marijuana cultivation. When this population again pivoted to growing coca leaf for processing into cocaine in the 1980s, they set Colombia on a course to become the illict drug capital of the Americas.

    Why the shift to drugs? It's a consequence of generations of poverty that have defined parts of rural Colombia - it's much more profitable for farmers to sell drug crops to traffickers than it is to grow food.

    Yet, they don't make the same profits that traffickers and cartels net. Since the 1970s, drug networks have shaped Colombia. With a prime international market ready to pay large amounts of money for Colombian drugs, traffickers have gained staggering profits. Cannabis was initially king among Colombian cartels, but they shifted to coca. Cartels soon sought to claim and secure territory that would supply them with drugs. 

    According to drug trafficker Jorge Ochoa, the drug trade became violent with the rise of Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellín cartel:

    Everybody knows that the violence in Colombia was Pablo Escobar [...] Pablo was a big rebel, and he did whatever he wanted. He didn't consult with anyone for what he wanted to do. Frankly, he intimidated us, and many other people in Medellín, Cali, and Bogotà. He intimidated everyone. 

    Violence in the drug trade only begot more violence in rural Colombia, as cartels warred over land claims and armed themselves.

    It wasn't only cartels - guerrilla and paramilitary organizations also became involved. Though rural issues - and the lack of rights and representation among Colombia's agrarian communities - served as the FARC's call to arms, the organization eventually turned to the drug trade as a way to finance its activities. It also kidnapped and ransomed cartel leaders, state officials, landowners, and their family members. 

    In response to the FARC's tactics, landowners and cartels began employing their own armed security forces - often with state support - a move that only escalated violence. Some even joined together to fight the FARC. The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), for example, "was a right-wing umbrella group formed by landowners and drug traffickers in the 1990s to combat Colombia's left-wing guerrillas," according to the BBC. These organizations often threatened, kidnapped, and murdered individuals who were thought to be in league with the FARC or other left-wing activities. 

    As Colombian activist Father Alberto Franco explained to The Guardian in 2018, three things continue to fuel rural violence in his country: 

    The first is control of the land, which used to be controlled by the FARC guerrillas. It is now ELN, who are fighting with the military, the police and paramilitary. The second is the internal armed conflict, and the third is drug trafficking.