Encanto: You Don't Have to Fight Cerberus. Guest Chapter by Mike Perna
It started with a song. Long before I knew anything about the movie Encanto, the newest in the long, proud lineage of Disney animated musical cinema, I kept seeing friends talk about a song called “Surface Pressure” and how it resonated with so much of their own state of mind. A person can hear something like that once or twice and not pay it much attention, but I was seeing it seemingly dozens of times a day from as many different people. That sort of media force cannot be denied, so I tracked down a clip of the song in order to investigate for myself. One solid cry later and I was firing up my television to watch the entire movie because I had to know what sort of story could have that song in it. Surface Pressure is a song by Luisa Madrigal, a character with strength and superhuman abilities dealing with the persistent pressure that comes with people constantly relying on her to make things right and defend her family — and how it’s killing her inside. Some of this pressure is coming from outside elements, but much of its grip is of her own making because it’s what she does. It’s who she is. If she couldn’t do it anymore, then what value would she bring to the family? What would she be worth at all? It’s the song of someone that has fallen for one of the most deceptive lies the Devil ever tells a person. That you are only worth something because of what you can accomplish and who you do it for. It’s the song of everyone who shared that clip so vehemently after they saw the movie. It’s my song — and I’ve been singing it so very long.
Before I dive into Luisa, though, let’s talk about the Family Madrigal and the miracle at the heart of the story to understand where she’s coming from. Partly to understand Luisa’s mindset, but also because a book the size of this one could probably be collected just around the stories of this family. As soon as the movie opens we hear Abuela Alma recounting the story of the miracle. She and Abuelo Pedro were at the front of a group of refugees running away from violence that threatened their lives and the lives of their triplets. The violence caught up with them, though, and Pedro was lost trying to defend them. As Alma sobbed by the river, the miracle entered the candle she carried. The candle never burned out, never melted, and around it rose the Encanto — a place where her family and the refugees that had joined them would be safe. There was also a house, but not an ordinary house. A living house they called Casita that would take care of the family. The miracle also bestowed on each one of the children a special gift when they came of age that is essentially a superpower unique to them. In the movie’s opening song, Abuela sings about how their family would always strive to serve their community and earn the miracle that they were given so long ago. The problem, though, is that the magic is failing, and the only member of the family who sees it is the one who did not receive a gift from the miracle.
So far, so Disney, right? We’ve hit a number of the classics from the unlikely heroine to a parent that’s dead at the start of the story. We assume there’s going to be a villain or Macguffin they have to find and/or defeat to save the magic just in the nick of time certainly. They even set up the perfect candidate in Tio Bruno who disappeared suddenly under mysterious circumstances — but let’s not talk about Bruno. Instead they take us down a different road. The next morning after Mirabel’s vision, Luisa is the only other member of the family that is showing any sign of concern about the state of the miracle, and even she isn’t talking about it. She won’t let herself talk about it. The only outward expression of her worries is a twitch in her eye — a physical manifestation of exhaustion and anxiety that hit more than a little close to home for me — that pops up any time anybody mentions the miracle or the magic going away. This is when we get “Surface Pressure.”
Luisa’s gift is that she is incredibly strong. In order to give the appropriate scale of her strength, the scenes leading up to the song involve her moving the town’s church to a better location for her sister’s potential upcoming wedding and carrying around a half dozen full grown donkeys on her shoulders among other things. While all the family’s gifts definitely have their place, this is by far the most practical, widely usable gift of all of them. Something needs to be moved? Luisa can handle it. Something is falling and needs to be lifted? Call Luisa. The Donkey’s got out — again!? Yup, Luisa’s got it. I’ve gone back and watched the film a number of times now, and subsequent viewings revealed that every moment Luisa’s on screen before Surface Pressure involved her carrying, moving, or fetching something for somebody else. It paints a picture of constant activity and a never-ending list of responsibilities without a break. Iit wasn’t long before my mind started filling in some of the blank spaces of events happening off screen and in the years before our story begins.
When we see little cousin Antonio go through his ceremony and receive his gift, he is five years old. It’s pretty safe to say that Luisa would have been right around that age as well when she received her gift and could start lifting trucks up over her head. I can imagine Luisa being asked to do any number of jobs even back then; hear her saying she didn’t want to and any of that and she just wanted to play. That’s also when I could hear Abuela’s voice speaking over those moments. The same voice that rang out in the opening song, singing,
“We swear to always help those around us and earn the miracle that somehow found us … work and dedication will keep the miracle burning. And each generation must keep the miracle burning.”
Five year old Luisa might have asked to take a break to play or even just to take a moment that wasn’t doing something for somebody else, but nineteen year old Luisa with fourteen years of being told that her gift came with responsibilities on her shoulders; fourteen years of having Abuela tell her that it was up to her, her sisters, and cousins to keep the miracle going through their hard work has a way of replacing requests with shame for even considering them. I never had super powers, but I remember those speeches. They start off so encouragingly. “You are so good at this. I’m so proud of you. Keep it up.” But as the bar keeps getting higher and higher it can be a race to see how good you can be, and it’s a race you can’t always win — especially when you’re carrying all that weight.
I remember sobbing openly in middle school when I brought home my first C. I felt like I had let my family down. My dad was always talking to me about how important doing well in school was for my future and for just being a well-rounded person. All I wanted to be was somebody Dad could be proud of. As such, I felt that failure far deeper than my parents did. They just wanted me to be the best I could be, but in my mind I was fighting a constant battle to earn the right to really be their son, let alone their firstborn who would set the bar for my brothers behind me. I had made being a good son what defined my worth in their eyes instead of the truth — that merely being their son was more than enough for them.
Like Luisa, I still bear some scars and anxieties of worrying whether I’m good enough. I have a family of my own now, so that same desire to be good enough effects how I see my relationship with my wife and my son. I’m still battling with the fear of not being good enough to handle what we’re going through. I struggle with whether I make enough money, whether my job is respectable enough, whether I can fix what’s broken, or whether I am to my son what my father has been to me. There are times I feel like a complete failure at it. Like Luisa says in Surface Pressure, “Under the surface I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.” But then my son looks up at me and tells me I’m doing a great job and how I’m a great dad. Then I am reminded that all I’ve ever needed to be was daddy, and I know that I will love my son forever regardless of anything he does or doesn’t do.
It reminds me of a parable told by Jesus specifically while surrounded by those who were considered worthless by a portion of his audience; some of them may have even thought it of themselves. Usually it’s cited as a proof that there is no sin too egregious or terrible that God will not embrace us if we turn to him. This is a good and accurate interpretation, but I think it goes beyond that. I specifically want to look at Luke 15: 20.
“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
The love the father had for the son never tired. It never slowed. It never even shook. Whether or not his son would ever crest the horizon he was there waiting for him. Even if the son spent the rest of his father’s life far away both physically and emotionally, the father here is pictured watching the horizon and longing for his child. The son apologizes to his father, but the father barely has a chance to hear it because he’s already getting a party going. This son, who virtually told his father he wants to live as if the father was already dead, has done nothing to prove his apology is anything more than empty words. He hasn’t done anything but show up, and this is the father’s response in verses twenty two to twenty four.
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
Sure joy of the moment and what I’m sure is one amazing party are tied to the act of repentance and return — but the father’s love? That is tied to nothing. It is. It always just is.
Maybe you are one of us belting Surface Pressure because it hits a little too close to home. Maybe you have told yourself a lie that your only value is in what you can accomplish for those around you. Maybe you’ve even framed your relationship with God around what you can accomplish; viewing your worth to Him in terms of your ability to step into a calling or even just choosing to act how He would want you to act. It’s good to step back and remember that God’s love doesn’t require our activity. In fact — everything besides showing up is God’s work anyway. Trying to carry it is beyond even the strongest of us.
In 2 Corinthians 4: 7-10 we are reminded that
“we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
Paul uses a narrative trick that is used a lot in the Bible of listing a bunch of scenarios as short-hand to say that no matter what, things may be hard but we are never done. No matter what, God is at work. No matter what, it’s only God that can make this work, so the outcome isn’t on our shoulders besides being there with Him.
After the song is over, Mirabel grabs her sister in a big hug and says, “I think you’re carrying too much.” I think there are a lot of us carrying more than our share trying to earn a miracle and somehow keep God’s work going, while God is trying to take the burden off of us and say “You are my child. I love you. No matter what.”
Read Luke 15 all the way through — slowly. Take in deep breaths and let it soak into your bones; remember that this collection of parables is a reminder that none of these lost things were special because of what they did or achieved. It was a regular old sheep, an every-day coin, and a son who not only did not achieve greatness, but had wealth and threw it all away. Yet the shepherd searched, the woman tore the house apart, and the father kept his eyes ever on the horizon. Your worth is not defined by your productivity. It is not predicated by whether or not you destroy yourself doing good. Your worth is tied in the fact that you are a work of the Creator – made in his image and deemed worthy of dying for.
It’s ok to cry sometimes.
You are no less worthy of God’s love if you don’t show up to every fight..
You don’t have to carry that weight any more.
Mike Perna is the president of InnRoads Ministries — a nonprofit organization that works with church and community groups to help them demonstrated the love of God through powerful relationships built around board games and pen-and-paper role playing games — a storyteller and a self-proclaimed dwarf bard.