The real story behind the Disney hit movie ‘Encanto’

Local guide Alejandra Espinosa was hired as a cultural consultant for the animated movie which takes inspiration from the Colombian town of Barichara. The film has won an Oscar (best animated feature)

Inés Santaeulalia
Encanto Alejandra Uribe asesora en Barichara
Alejandra Espinosa, Disney’s cultural consultant on ‘Encanto,’ in Barichara, ColombiaCamilo Rozo

When Alejandra Espinosa read the script for the first time her hands trembled when she saw her name written in a watermark. The plot told the story of a Colombian girl and her grandfather. “No,” she said to herself as she reading, “this story should be about women.” Espinosa was at the Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles, sitting in front of Jared Bush, the co-director and writer of Disney hits Zootopia and Moana. Now Encanto, the latest production from the famous animation stable set in Colombia, has won an Oscar (best animated feature). Alejandra’s say-so removed that awkward grandfather and gave life to Alma Madrigal, Mirabel’s grandmother and a key character in the movie. There would be many more differences of opinion, but let’s start at the beginning, where the story really began, in a Colombian village where the locals are known as “yellow feet” because of the hue the soil turns the soles of their feet. The story was born in Barichara.

Espinosa was tired of Bogotá. It was 2016, she had recently finished a Literature degree and she wanted to write and paint watercolors far from the vast city in which she had grown up. A trip to Barichara, in Santander Department, seven hours from the capital, had been on her to-do list for several years. “I can paint and you can open a hostel,” she said to her partner at the time. A year later Espinosa, who was born in 1992, had made watercolors of all of the houses in Barichara, as well as every corner of this earth-colored, cobble-stoned town, which has escaped the advance of neon, cement and noise that covers much of the rest of Colombia’s urbanizations. Day trippers, lured by its tag of the “most beautiful town in Colombia,” can buy one of Espinosa’s postcards as a souvenir for a few pesos.

History runs through Espinosa’s veins. Daughter of the historian Diana Uribe, she decided to immerse herself in the culture and tradition of Barichara and Santander, from which she had gained so much. “I was quite shy, I had a kind of incapacity for social skills, and here I felt very confident. I blossomed when I arrived.” Soon she had become the most respected tour guide in the area. And that was what she was doing in 2017 when a phone call changed her life.

Several Disney employees wanted to do a four-day tour of Barichara and were looking for a local guide versed in history and culture. Espinosa signed a confidentiality agreement that said something along the lines of she should forget everything she heard during the visit. She didn’t even Google their names to keep her nerves under wraps and so as not to appear starstruck. But when they arrived, they were the ones who were blown away. There were five of them, among them Bush and Byron Howard, who directed Bolt and Tangled and worked alongside Bush on Zootopia. They asked Espinosa a thousand questions and an instant connection was forged. Her passion for the subject was overwhelming and she steeped them in the kitchens of the townsfolk’s houses, alongside the stonecutters who crafted the streets and among the women of Vélez who for six months of the year sew the colorful skirts whose “Made in China” replicas are now sold in toyshops across the world under the Disney trademark. It was love at first sight.

“I told them: ‘Don’t ruin all of this,’” says Espinosa. “It needed to be treated with a lot of respect, it’s very important because there is a huge stigma attached to Colombia, it is viewed as of little worth, like Mirabel [the movie’s hero]. We don’t know who we are, we are always looking for foreign cultural models to define ourselves. I always placed identity at the center of the debate.”

Espinosa also told them to forget it when they started talking about magical realism, asking them instead to consider Cuban author Alejo Carpentier’s lo real maravilloso (the wonderful real). “Magical realism does not consist of taking gratuitous magic and putting it in the context of a jungle,” she told them. As Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez once said: “I don’t invent anything, I’ve seen it all or I’ve been told about it.” It is about understanding the cosmovision of the Afro and indigenous worlds. She told them water is sacred for indigenous people. She told them that the miracle that forms the basis of the movie should come from the river.

Espinosa took the Disney tour to a small forest enveloping a few houses, to see the bougainvillea on the balconies and to photograph the best view. When they left, she was exhausted. They promised they would speak to her again soon. She thought it was simply a nice way of saying goodbye. She went back to her happy life in Barichara, proud to have added a small contribution to what was about to be developed by the animation giant, which has given so many generations of children blond princesses to imitate.

Alejandra Uribe, asesora de la película de Disney Encanto
Alejandra Espinosa in front of the door that inspired the family home in the movie.Camilo Rozo

Disney contract

A month later, a contract arrived in Barichara from Disney in Los Angeles, in which Espinosa was described as Encanto’s cultural consultant.

“Sometimes I was nervous after taking their calls, thinking to myself: ‘They’re not going to call me again.’ I think that was my value to them. I wasn’t afraid to tell them: I don’t like this, it doesn’t work, it has to be changed. It was important what message the movie was going to transmit to Colombians, which is to see yourself as you are. Mirabel’s search [in the movie] is our own search for self-worth and self-acceptance,” she says.

Espinosa was not on her own. A team of around 10 people, as well as a group known as La familia (the family), which included all of Disney’s Latin American employees, contributed to the making of Encanto. It was an open, collective process with “very receptive” directors. The original idea had already been based on a large family taking center stage, a metaphor for the wider Colombian family that would create a story of diversity and represent Afro-Colombians through the characters of Antonio, Dolores and Félix, and the country’s indigenous peoples through Mirabel’s uncle, Bruno. “The indigenous people are there, they have been made invisible and nobody talks about them, but they are the sacred part of Colombia. It has become fundamental to understand this, and it is very well-represented in Bruno,” says Espinosa.

In the middle of her four years of work for Disney, for which Espinosa does not reveal her salary – “It didn’t make me a millionaire” – in 2019, she opened the first bookstore in Barichara, called Aljibe. As such, she became the town’s bookseller, but her secret remained safe. While she continued to receive new books, the plot started to take shape. Encanto is not set in a specific time, but is based more or less at the beginning of the 20th century. The movie opens with Mirabel’s grandparents fleeing a conflict, during which her grandfather, Pedro, dies. From there, and from the river of course, comes the miracle that forms the basis of the story. “The grandmother’s journey is that of recognizing her own trauma and letting it go. We are a traumatized society that is still moving forward. Sometimes it is necessary to stop, think and accept the trauma in order to let it go,” says Espinosa. Her imprint on the move is almost all-encompassing. She even asked that the idea of the famous Disney Castle, seen in so many other movies, be eschewed, as it is so far-removed from ordinary people. In Encanto, the castle is a small house that forms part of the community, the doors to which are always open.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted work on the movie and prevented the Disney animators from traveling to Colombia, at which point Espinosa became a YouTuber, heading to a kitchen or a traditional home with her cellphone and relaying the images of every nook and cranny back to Los Angeles, with English commentary for the animators. Those who witnessed her progress through Barichara thought she was mad. She held the camera close to her face to show every muscle movement and every gesture of her hands. “They said the characters had to be expressive, not with wooden faces.” She even sent Disney a skirt from Vélez so they could feel the texture, the weight and its movement. She also asked that an already finished scene in which a wedding takes place in the house be amended: “No,” she said again. “Here people get married in churches.”

When Espinosa had already seen over a thousand images of Mirabel, her boyfriend (not the same one with whom she arrived in Barichara, but that’s a different story) told her: “They’ve made a doll out of you.” She couldn’t see it, but the likeness is amazing. “I identify with Mirabel not because of the hair and the glasses, but because of her attitude; frank, honest, determined but at the same time excited. Mirabel has a little piece of my spirit,” she says. Espinosa asked several times that we did not say that the character is based on her, although the directors of the movie confirmed in a Zoom meeting that she was part of the inspiration for Mirabel.

“I felt that this association with her was something intimate, internal, but everybody calls me Mirabel anyway. People ask to take pictures with me. I feel proud of my cultural contribution, but I don’t think it’s valuable to be told that I’m Mirabel,” Espinosa says.

When she finally saw the finished movie for the first time, alone at home in Barichara, Espinosa could not stop crying. She applauded when she saw Mirabel gesticulating with her hands in conversation with Bruno, when the children ran around making a racket at a party or when the main character points to a gift with a movement of her lips. “I did it!”

Espinosa went to the premiere of the movie wearing a skirt made by the women of Vélez, like the one worn by Mirabel. “I had this dream of going to Hollywood like that, to turn a peasant’s skirt into a princess’s dress.”

Encanto película
A still from ‘Encanto.’DISNEY

Life goes on in Barichara

At 10am on any given weekday, Espinosa opens the doors of Aljibe. Immediately the bookstore is filled with people sitting at its tables, surrounded by coffee and books. She nips to a store across the street and orders an arepa with cheese and avocado. She proudly walks every stone of the streets of the town that is she is even more a part of now. It is a pride shared by the residents of Barichara, who see their homes, their doors, and the flowers that adorn them reflected in the huge US movie. And not only them: Encanto reflects many other places in Colombia.

Many visitors to the bookstore are hoping to catch a glimpse of the person who isn’t Mirabel, but who carries a little of her. She always responds – although she doesn’t like the attention that much – with the huge smile that captivated the Disney executives four years ago. A few days ago, a family was visiting Barichara. “Look, it’s her,” they pointed. A small girl approached Espinosa to say hello. “See? Princesses do exist,” her mother whispered.

“I have never been particularly pretty. I am a literary person. I have a bookstore. That this could provide the material for a princess, that really touched me.”

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