What philanthropists can learn from ‘Encanto’

As a movie that makes communities feel seen, the hype over the animated musical Encanto was welcome. It produced a lot of reflection and analysis about mental health in Latinx and immigrant communities, about the roles and multiple burdens that women carry, about holding on to family traditions and legacy, and about family and community expectations framed within shared experiences of fear and trauma. It also dispensed with stereotypes and tropes that either villainize or invisibilize us. In Encanto, we have a beautiful family and home, a gorgeous setting, drama, and song. The magical gifts held by the family members were a bonus, particularly for those of us raised on magical realism and telenovelas. As a Latinx working in philanthropy for many years, I also drew some important lessons from Encanto.

Reading yet another report the other day about the lack of data or familiarity with Latinx donors, especially high net worth individuals and ultra high net worth individuals, I thought a lot about the Madrigal family’s casita in Encanto, with its beautiful façade, rich interior, lush surroundings, and curious neighbors.

The casita is a lot like traditional philanthropy, with its lovely offices, abundance of good food, and confusing relationship with local communities. The casita was built by magic, and sacrifice, which is sometimes how I see wealth accumulation: some are sacrificed, or made to sacrifice, and others benefit from this sacrifice to build empires but make it seem like it happened magically (not through extraction or even through the luck of inherited wealth).

And when the casita begins to crack under the realities of Abuela’s unwillingness to change—out of fear of loss—and how this impacts the family members, well that’s when the movie hit home for me in multiple ways.

The world of the Madrigal family is one of women with power, but whose power is in service of others. It is also a place where appearances matter and there is a strong sense of obligation to the family and the community. But obligation becomes sacrifice in many ways, where family members subsume their needs to those of the façade and a notion that others cannot see any weakness in the family or its surroundings. They see weakness, or vulnerability, as a failure to the community.

Like philanthropy, change and ambiguity are not tolerated among the Madrigals, and the future is only understood by its reliance on the past. At one point in the movie, a neighborhood child speculates that perhaps main character Mirabel’s special gift is denial.

So where can Latinx in philanthropy see ourselves in this movie, beyond our family experiences? Actually, it’s because of those family and community experiences that our role in philanthropy at all levels is so important.

Luis Miranda, Jr. (father of Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote an op-ed last year in the Los Angeles Times about the power and potential of Latinx giving, which is an unseen but significant force keeping our communities together and moving us forward. Miranda, like many in the Latinx community, centers generosity in family and community, broadly defined. He also points to data that despite our communities lagging in financial wealth, we nonetheless contribute 5-7% of our incomes to philanthropic causes—second only to Black individuals surveyed.

As Miranda notes in his op-ed, Latinx are generous in ways that go unseen by others, such as supporting family and community members, sending money to countries of origin for the same reasons, and giving through volunteering, systems of mutual aid, and collective well-being. This support does not always happen in the form of money. This ‘informality’ of giving frequently comes up in debates about the definition of generosity, with a dangerous interpretation by some that if giving can’t be counted, then it doesn’t count.

And yet, supporting family and community, not just universities or hospitals, is part of ancestral practices of healing and community balance. Our inherited wealth is not always in the form of trusts and stocks, but is rich in land and communal family property as well as in creating cultures of inter-dependence and collective well-being that ensure that no one else is left alone or impoverished. In fact, it would be a matter of great shame in a family or community if members were not taken care of or were left out of shared wealth. But these definitions do not fit well within traditional Western notions of generosity, which so often take the form of naming gifts to institutions, or massive gifts to the largest and most well-known nonprofits.

I’ve had the privilege to work on organizing a few focus groups on Latinx giving in the past few years, and a thread that continues to come up in these conversations is that giving is about family and community, and a way of honoring the hard work and sacrifice of our ancestors–especially the ones who made sacrifices of family, homeland, time, leisure and often pride to make ends meet and support those who needed it.

In Encanto, the family and especially Abuela begin to learn, through the crumbling of the foundations upon which they made their home, that the only way to move forward and be whole again as a family is by completely rebuilding the house and family in a more inclusive way.

For us to learn from Encanto in our work, we have to be willing to let it all fall apart first. Let go of ego, let go of power, let go of history (sometimes respectfully, but sometimes just saying ‘no more’), let go of expectation. In this way, we strengthen our Latinx families and our homes (personal and professional) in a new understanding of philanthropy.

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