We should talk about Bruno — and how families reject their own

Encanto's underdog is a poignant reminder of how mental illness often plays out in families of color.

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Mental Illness
Originally Published: 

I can count Encanto among one of the few Disney movies that made me genuinely choke up. Set in gorgeous rural Colombia and imbued with magical realism, the movie was definitely a win for growing representation for the Latinx community. But in the midst of all the praise, less has been said about the scars Encanto tears open for many people of color. The movie expertly dished several important lessons on perfectionism and family that have continued to resonate over a month after its release: This week, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” one of the songs in the Lin Manuel Miranda-produced soundtrack, is topping Billboard and Spotify charts.

It was Bruno’s subplot in particular that unearthed some unsettling realities about how many families — particularly immigrants and other people of color — have historically dealt with neurodivergent relatives. To me, the song parodies the ways in which Latinx households like my own sometimes have willingly ignored mental illness in favor of upholding more pleasant facades. I’m sure many of us can testify that this ends up creating deep fissures. Ultimately, Bruno’s storyline subverts the notion that neurodivergent people — ​​those whose brains function differently than what’s considered “typical” — don’t deserve a seat at the family table, but there’s a lot that comes before that.

Like many immigrant stories, the events in Encanto are catalyzed by exile. Alma Madrigal escapes her home from armed conflict and loses her husband in the process. She settles into a living and breathing house, which protects her, her three children, and the surrounding village. Decades later, everyone in her bloodline is gifted a magical power except for the protagonist, Mirabel. In her feelings of inadequacy and a search for purpose, she bonds with Bruno.

For much of the movie, the characters in Encanto do little except try and keep a semblance of a perfect family even as the magical house they live in begins to crumble, which I took as a metaphor for how immigrant families collect flashy degrees and job titles to signal to the world that we’re thriving even in moments when we’re actually falling apart. Appearances are everything, after all, after we’ve “come this far.”

Everyone in the family has an essential role to play to uphold the community, whether it’s superhuman strength to help villagers move donkeys around or controlling the weather. Bruno’s superpower, which appears to be a keen intuition and clairvoyance, isn’t really recognized as helpful to anyone so he just ends up being ignored. It seems like having an idyllic, productive, drama-free home is Alma’s way of compensating for having come from a broken one, and everyone plays along. That is, everyone except for Bruno, whose ability to see unpleasant visions of the future disturbs the family so much that he’s forced into exile.

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But what struck me when we finally encountered Bruno, who lives hidden behind the walls of the house, were his mannerisms: He’s infinitely more awkward than any of the other characters, stutters when he speaks, and has difficulty expressing his emotions. Some of his tendencies, like when he knocks on wood three times and exercises other seemingly meaningless rituals, also indicates that he’s dealing with OCD, perhaps in conjunction with anxiety and maybe some depression (hence the withdrawing from society). It’s also possible, after re-watching his parts, that Bruno was somewhere on the spectrum. I’m not here to give a Disney character an armchair diagnosis, but Encanto’s writers were very intentional when they brought Bruno — in his most authentic form — into our lives.

Instead of the scary, evil entity we’re led to believe he is, Bruno is simply different. To me, his character is coded as managing mental illness or neurodivergence, which makes his removal from the family feel not just unfair, but sinister.

And that’s where the importance of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” comes in. When you listen to the song closely, the members of the family aren’t actually complaining about anything that Bruno has done wrong — they simply don’t know what to do with him. “I can always hear him sort of muttering and mumbling,” they sing.

When the villagers complain about Bruno, they’re really just complaining about how blunt he is, e.g.: how he told a man he’s going to grow a gut and another that he’ll lose all his hair, probably not realizing that people don’t like to hear such prickly truths. Bruno isn’t cursed; people just don’t like him. They don’t get him, and seem to not want their family to be “flawed” by his presence. He’s misunderstood, like so many others who deal with any kind of mental illness.

The wildest part of all of this to me is that homeboy Bruno was the only one telling the whole truth, but in doing so, he ruined the narrative of perfection everyone else was struggling to uphold. Ultimately, his exile is a result of people not wanting to deal with his weirdness because that would require acknowledging that imperfection exists. And that’s a hard pill to swallow for many Latinx families like my own, especially if they’ve arrived somewhere that offers them better opportunities than where they came. When we are just one generation removed from poverty, exile or war, things like depression, anxiety or anything short of being okay is read as an ingratitude.

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Of course, mental illness is so much more complicated than that. We eventually learn that Bruno cares deeply about his family — in fact, he originally exiled himself in the first place to protect Mirabel, and he’s fixing the cracks in the house in secret. But what really hit home for me was that Bruno was never allowed to express his love in a way that was natural to him, and he was deemed untouchable by the people who were supposed to protect him.

This made me reflect on the ways in which many of our families run away or shun those who make us uncomfortable — the “crazy” tia we never hear about, the estranged cousin who's in rehab who-knows-where, the gay nephew who moves far from the family to be by himself. Through our stigmatizing narratives, we flatten people with complex struggles and turn them into pariahs. We tell ourselves that they do not reflect our real family values and in their erasure, we lose a bit of our humanity.

The Madrigals’ fear of a broken home creates unhappy marriages, burnout and dissatisfaction among the family. Ultimately, Bruno’s quirks make the family stronger and forces them to confront the truth. And that truth is a comforting one: Imperfection is most certainly not the same as failure.