A role in a major Disney movie, a walk down the red carpet, a performance at the Academy Awards—so many dreams could become a reality over the next few years if this callback audition goes well.
But as Adassa waits for the Zoom call to begin, she isn’t thinking about any of that. In her hands she clutches photos of her mother, her father, and her grandparents. Sure, she’s prepared to rap as the directors have requested and plans to give this audition everything she’s got, but Adassa feels compelled to share a story first.
As the faces of Encanto directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard and codirector Charise Castro Smith appear on the computer screen, Adassa waits only until basic pleasantries have been exchanged before asking if she can share part of her family’s history. The directors are surprised but tell her to go ahead.
She holds up a photo of her father, Ernesto Diaz, and explains that when he was only 9 years old, his own father died, leaving him to care for his sisters and his mother, who suffered from serious health issues. As man of the house, Ernesto began selling his mother’s homemade arepas door to door in the rich neighborhoods near their home in Colombia to keep the family afloat. Years passed, until one day the local Seventh-day Adventist Church the family attended provided Ernesto with a life-changing plane ticket to New York City. He took nothing with him but a dream of creating a better life for his family. In the US, he set to work as a welder and took other odd jobs until, one by one, he brought his sisters and mother to New York, reuniting their family.
Next, Adassa shows photos of her grandmother and mother, both beautiful women who had grand dreams of being singers but who felt stifled in an age when the entertainment industry had no place for Afro-Latinas on center stage. Adassa tells the directors she is determined to do what they had been prevented from achieving.
After Adassa finishes her story, she performs “Satisfied” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton. She also reads a few lines of the movie script provided. As quickly as that, the audition of a lifetime is over, the Zoom call ends, and all Adassa can do is wait and pray.
“It was very important to me for the directors to know where my dream of singing came from, and who I owe everything to,” she explains. “I wouldn’t be standing in front of them or have anything if it wasn’t for the sacrifices of my family.”
A few weeks later, she receives the phone call that changes her life forever. She is offered a role in Encanto as Dolores, a member of the magical Madrigal family who is endowed with super-sensitive hearing. The movie was released in November 2021 and has since won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, giving Adassa her dazzling moment on the red carpet. Dolores quickly became a fan-favorite character, in part for her low, smooth rap in the movie’s No. 1 Billboard hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” The Washington Post even called her the song’s “most memorable voice.” The attention she’s received causes her husband, Gabriel Candiani, to marvel: “Somehow people have just caught this fire for her, and I can only think of the scripture that teaches that God does big things through little things.”
In all the limelight, Adassa has shown dedication to her family and strives to be an example of her faith. But just as inspiring as where she is today is the story of how the Lord prepared her spiritually for this opportunity: Years before Encanto, she made major sacrifices in her musical career in order to embrace a more Christ-centered life, including becoming a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And while that decision may have seemed like stepping down from a glittering stage to follow a much more ordinary dream, Adassa would later see that God was always planning to pull back the curtain and reveal a scene more beautiful than she ever could have imagined.
Part of That World
Ever since she was a little girl, Adassa wanted to be a singer. She deeply admired Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. She remembers watching Ariel sing “Part of Your World” on TV and longing to be part of the world of Disney magic, even if it was just working the grounds at a Disney theme park. Her father made a point of frequently taking Adassa to Disney World, pivotal experiences during her childhood spent traveling among Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Houston, Texas; and the Virgin Islands, where her parents ran various medical offices as missionaries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
When she was 17, Adassa began to chase her musical dream by joining a girl group associated with Sony Music. It was there that she met her future husband, Gabriel, who was working on the production of the group’s album. Gabe had been born into a Latter-day Saint family in Monterrey, Mexico, and then moved to the US after serving a mission, but his involvement with the Church had waned over the years. He and Adassa were immediately drawn to each other, and as they worked together they began to have deep conversations about their religious beliefs.
“He answered a lot of questions that I had, even from growing up Seventh-day Adventist, to the point that he was like, ‘I think that you should contact the missionaries,’” Adassa recalls.
Adassa and Gabe began taking turns visiting each other’s churches, and she started developing a testimony of the restored gospel.
“It wasn’t just the people and the warmth of the Church, because you could find that in a lot of places. It was the truthfulness of the gospel,” she says.
Adassa reached a point where she wanted to join the Church, but her touring schedule made it difficult to find the right time to be baptized. Over several months she went through six sets of missionaries until she was baptized on Halloween in 2000. But it was actually several weeks after her baptism that her testimony really took root.
“I went and I prayed in my bathroom—it was the quietest place I could find—about the Book of Mormon, and I asked to feel if this was the Church of Jesus Christ and if this was the church I should belong to. I felt this light fill the room, and my heart started beating, and my chest was filled with heat,” Adassa says. “That amazing moment was huge for me because its impact has resonated throughout my life.”
The Abraham Moment
For the next few years, Adassa and Gabe found their way closer to God, but it wasn’t always a smooth journey for the young couple. Gabe remembers, “We were in a moment of life where we were willing to do whatever [we had to] for success.”
Then in 2005, Adassa took a big step, signing with Universal Music Latin Entertainment, a division of Universal Music Group. Over the next five years, she landed singing roles in commercials with brands like Toyota, Procter & Gamble, and McDonald’s. In fact, she sang the tagline for the Spanish version of McDonald’s popular “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign, Me Encanta, which could be translated to mean ‘It enchants me’—almost seeming to hint at her future role in a fictional enchanted family.
Ever ambitious, Adassa also released three solo albums, went on tour, and performed at Madison Square Garden. As a lyricist, she was sought after by Warner, Universal, and Sony. Her impressive four-and-a-half-octave vocal range and dynamic artistry gave her opportunities to tour and collaborate on songs with famous rap and hip-hop artists such as Pitbull, Flo Rida, Daddy Yankee, Luis Fonsi, and Snoop Dogg. But around 2008, she began to question if her lifestyle and the image she portrayed were truly living up to her family’s sacrifices and the commitment she had made to her new faith.
“When I started making music, my ‘why’ was because I wanted to be famous, I wanted to entertain people all over the world, and I wanted money,” she says. “When your decisions are based on that, then as a businessperson you look at anything you do as a product, [and] I didn’t understand the impact that it would have on the people around me. … I had to sit back and look at, Why do I really do music? Do I just do it for the money? Do I do it for the fame? Or am I doing this to leave a legacy to my family?”
Adassa grew increasingly sure that her and Gabe’s lifestyle wasn’t compatible with the focus on Christ and family that she wanted—and Gabe could see that she was right.
“We did a lot of songs … and [tried to live] that side of life but without going too [far] into the deep end. We were trying to play with a gray concept. But there’s no such thing. Eventually you find out there’s black and white,” Gabe says. “So after doing the music business for a while, we realized that we had to choose a side: we had to make some decisions.”
At this point, Adassa felt her career was at its height, and Gabe had left his work as a producer to be her manager. If she stepped away now, their income would disappear—and with two children, they didn’t know what they would do to survive financially. Still, something inside whispered it was time to change.
“I think that most people in their lives will [have a] little Abraham moment where they have to ‘kill’ their first son. We had that moment that what we loved the most, which was music, had to be let go, completely and absolutely,” Gabe says.
So they made the leap and left Universal Music Group in Florida in 2009 before moving to Arizona, which they hoped would be a better atmosphere for their family. In the following years of turning their hearts and lives more fully over to God, Adassa and Gabe were sealed in the Mesa Arizona Temple and welcomed five more children into their family, for a total of seven. Gabe found work with Warner Chappell Music, where he would produce thousands of songs for brands like the Today Show, ESPN, CNN, and NBC. Adassa retired from full-time music to dedicate herself to their family, but she still prioritized time for singing and songwriting so her voice and artistic mind would stay fresh. She occasionally worked with Gabe on projects—but this time her music had a different ring.
“When I started focusing my ‘why’ on ‘I’m doing this for my family, I’m doing this to have fun, I’m doing this to be able to leave a good message in the world,’ then my music started changing. My image started changing because I realized that I don’t need to attract people with the image I’m portraying—I want to attract them by my message. And whoever likes the message can follow. Whoever doesn’t … well, I don’t need to try to make everybody like me,” she says.
Separated from some of the more worldly influences of their past life, both she and Gabe were now prepared for the next opportunity life was about to bring their way.
“The interesting thing is that it took many years to completely get the [past] out of our hearts, like completely gone,” Gabe says. “And it just so happens that when we were at our best moment spiritually, and truly, truly happy, and had completely abandoned any idea of ever doing anything big artistically, that’s when this whole Disney thing happened.”
A Stolen Voice
Despite having retired from singing, Adassa still loved to create music with Gabe. On one occasion, they posted a video on YouTube of Adassa performing a rap song they’d written in a unique style that was quieter and more intimate. The video only received about 300 views, but included among that number was a casting assistant from Disney who was on the hunt for Encanto voice actors. The casting department reached out to Adassa directly and said that if she could submit a video audition in the next 24 hours, she would be considered for a role in a not-yet-disclosed Disney movie.
Adassa’s mind was racing, but almost immediately she felt this was an opportunity she should take. Throughout the previous 10 years of full-time mothering, she’d always felt impressed to keep refining her musical abilities, to not lose that part of who she was—and maybe this was why. She recorded Celine Dion’s version of “All by Myself” and sent the video off, hardly letting herself believe it could lead to anything.
But it did.
The casting director contacted her again to set up a callback audition, which would take place over Zoom, as the process was unfolding during the COVID-19 pandemic. The casting director also told Adassa the premise of Encanto—a Colombian family’s journey of being forced to leave home and their efforts to create a beautiful life for future generations. The similarities between the movie and her own Colombian family’s journey intensified Adassa’s desire to be part of the film. That’s when she decided she’d show photos of her ancestors and share their stories at the callback audition.
After the audition went smoothly, Adassa was on cloud nine as she began to truly believe that the dream she’d had as a child might actually come true. But the adrenaline rush didn’t last long: just one day later Adassa grew extremely ill. Stricken with symptoms including crippling stomach pains, she rushed to the emergency room.
In her hospital room, Adassa’s speech grew slurred, and she lost feeling in her legs; eventually she was unable to stand at all. Doctors did a CT scan, MRIs, and bloodwork, but all they could offer as an explanation was that Adassa was possibly experiencing second-wave COVID-19 symptoms, since she had contracted the virus a few months earlier. With the doctors not able to do anything else, Gabe carried Adassa to the car, and they drove home.
“I spent the next several hours waiting for death,” Adassa says. She passed out frequently and would feel paralyzed for minutes to hours at a time. After she had experienced several days of terrifying symptoms, the family and their entire ward held a fast for Adassa; on the same day as the fast, she began to throw up, which helped her feel better almost immediately.
That same week, casting director Jamie Sparer Roberts called to deliver a magical message: “Congratulations,” she said, “You got the part.” But at that, Gabe covered up the phone and told Adassa, who could still barely speak or walk, that she might need to turn down the offer.
“I told Gabe, ‘You call them if I’m dead. I’m taking this role. ’Then I took the phone and said, ‘Thank you so much. When do I start?’ And that was all I had the strength to say,” Adassa says. Gabe took over the phone call and learned that Adassa would only have three weeks to prepare before recording would begin. The days that followed were very difficult physically for Adassa, but after facing the possibility of death she found a sense of calm assurance.
“The one thing that gave me peace was knowing that our family was sealed for time and all eternity. As long as we were faithful, we were good. And [if] we did what the Lord wanted us to do, we would be together for all eternity,” Adassa says.
After a lot of hard work and prayers, Adassa felt strong enough to record when the time arrived. She sat down via Zoom with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the movie directors, and they told her that they wanted her character, Dolores, to speak low and very softly, which was exactly how Adassa’s still-recovering voice sounded. The recording session went so well that Lin-Manuel Miranda sent a text to director Jared Bush that Bush later shared a screenshot of on Twitter: “She came TO SLAY,” Miranda said in one text bubble. “Accurate,” Bush replied.
A Light on the Red Carpet
Encanto premiered in November 2021, and since then Adassa has walked the red carpet, performed at the 2022 Oscars, and cheered with her fellow cast members as Encanto won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature. She’s performed as a guest artist on an episode of American Idol, created a music video with BYU Vocal Point that has been viewed over 15 million times, and shared her positivity and dedication to faith and family in numerous interviews across the country. As the adventure continues, her bishop, John Morgan, says Adassa and her family are rooted in the gospel—and that having her health restored helped bring some valuable perspective to their lives.
“Adassa’s illness was a very faith-promoting experience for her that really grounded her prior to having some of these opportunities,” Morgan says. “It’s very cool seeing the family make their faith a priority amongst all the things that are going on.”
Adassa is not only prioritizing her faith—she’s also sharing it.
“I’ve always shared my beliefs, but not necessarily flat-out, like, ‘Hi, I’m from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’m going on stage right after you! Here’s a Book of Mormon. OK, bye!’” she says. “[But] I always share my principles with my way of dress and my behavior.” For instance, when she and Gabe attended the Oscars, the conversation at their table turned to juggling family life while being public music figures. Adassa and Gabe took the opportunity to stand up for their belief that the family is central to God’s plan—which is something Adassa seeks to do anytime she’s asked about Encanto.
“The message behind the movie is that we can be flawed, we can be broken, we can feel lost, yet in a family setting, we can find peace. We can find ourselves and we can find the support system that we need to become who we will eventually become,” Adassa says.
Alyssa Bella (far right) also had a part in Encanto as a town child.
Alyssa Bella (far right) also had a part in Encanto as a town child.
Longtime family friend Bryan Hofheins, who was the chief creative officer at Warner Chappell Music, believes it is the combination of Adassa’s values and her talent that makes her such an engaging artist.
“She’s a natural-born performer; she just exudes energy. And I think it all comes from the fact that at her core she’s pure. … I love to see what is transpiring in their lives and the different twists and turns and how things have come around,” Hofheins says.
Adassa and Gabe look back with gratitude on those twists and turns, and especially on the sacrifices they made to put faith first in their lives.
“We know how this industry is and how the vanities of the world can take you down. And the truth of the matter is that [earlier in life] we were not ready for success, because sometimes success can destroy you,” Gabe says. “Right now, we’re feeling very happy because success has become a completely different thing to us. Our new definition of success is living a modest life that brings us joy and that allows us to spend time with our kids.”
Adassa spends her weekdays with her seven children in their home near Nashville and travels to pursue musical opportunities only on certain weekends. For date nights, she and Gabe love to collaborate with local artists and continue to share their music for fun on YouTube. They also encourage their children to pursue their dreams, even helping their daughter Alyssa Bella earn a role as the voice of one of the town children in Encanto—the movie that will forever remind Adassa that God is aware of her dreams.
“This was a dream that I never thought would happen. But I never, ever thought it couldn’t,” she says. “It took over 20 years to come true, but I never stopped hoping, and I never stopped taking the actions that would lead me to be ready when an opportunity like this would arise.”
She continues: “Never doubt that the Lord has the power to move mountains. There is nobody else that can make things happen in a positive light more than Him. He wants all of us to be an influence for good. So have trust in His hand—He can make anything possible for you.”
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as the cover story in the September/October issue of LDS Living magazine.