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What Luisa from ‘Encanto’ taught me about defining myself by an endless capacity for hard work

If we want to continue to depend on the Luisas who have kept our schools, hospitals, homes and businesses running, we are going to need to do more to support them.

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An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified the character Luisa as the eldest daughter in the Madrigal family. The column has been corrected.

Under the surface, Disney’s 2021 animated musical “Encanto” tackles heavy themes: generational trauma, the suffering of refugees (a.k.a. “immigrants,” as if they had some choice in the matter) and family dynamics. The magically gifted but dysfunctional Madrigal family is rich with archetypes, including Abuela, the matriarch who runs a too-tight family ship; Isabela, the green-thumb golden child; and Tío Bruno, the black sheep no one talks about because they fear the truths he reveals.

Instead let’s talk about Luisa. Fearless and tireless, Luisa Madrigal serves her family and village with superhuman strength, toting donkeys and buildings on her broad shoulders.

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But when Luisa’s little sister Mirabel has a vision of cracks running through the family home, Luisa’s strength falters, sending her into an eye-twitching spiral of self-doubt. Once-routine tasks and easy lifts suddenly overwhelm her.

After a brief breakdown when Luisa confesses her struggle to Mirabel — “Maybe I overdo it,” she sniffles — a villager reminds her of her unfinished work, and she snaps back into superhero mode. “On it,” she calls, re-shouldering her load.

Mirabel is the hero of this movie, but Luisa resonates with overachievers, caretakers, breadwinners hauling figurative donkeys all day long. I’m no exception, a recovering gifted kid who resists asking for help and has been overheard mumbling “uh-huh, no problem, I got it” in my sleep. As Luisa confesses in her song, “Surface Pressure,” “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.”

Disney’s ‘Encanto’ has a simple but powerful message: It’s not what you do, but who you are that counts

And like U.S. workers in general, Luisa’s identity revolves around her accomplishments and productivity. How many of us measure our worth by how hard we work, how much we earn, the kudos we draw? When cracks undermine our strength — a job loss, a health crisis — we wonder, like Luisa, “Who am I if I can’t carry it all?” We’re drained and dispirited but unwilling to let go of any part of our burdens for fear we’ll lose everything.

This mentality is hardly new, but it has hit especially hard in the past two years. While pressure from the coronavirus pandemic threatens foundations everywhere, increasing pressure from the village is threatening workers’ dwindling personal reserves. Services and supply chains have been taken for granted so long that breakdowns are met with complaints — not concern about the causes. (Not that Luisa would expect it, but I can’t recall her ever receiving an audible word of thanks.)

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We all know the sensible short-term fixes: Take frequent breaks, eat and sleep well, be gentle with yourself, set boundaries. But for many, that kind of self-care is out of reach or impractical against the drip, drip, drip of demands from clients, bosses and landlords. And even when the demand comes from inside us, sometimes it takes outside intervention to lighten the load so we can get out from under it. Luisa finally gets her well-earned rest and realizes her true value — but it’s only possible after the village comes together to offer the Madrigals tangible support and assistance.

In the first year of the pandemic, we came close to achieving this kind of miraculous intervention. Bosses offered flexibility. Colleagues comforted and commiserated with one another. Government found the will to lighten financial burdens through emergency unemployment benefits, paid leave, eviction moratoriums, child-care funds and other relief.

Unfortunately, the outside support has mostly expired, and community coherence has dissipated. But the pressure continues. If we’re going to continue depending on the strength of the Luisas carrying our schools, hospitals, homes and businesses, we need to keep the community support coming. And as individuals, we need to show that we value the people — not just the lifting they do for us. Maybe start with a “thank you.”

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