Is Elena The Latina Disney Princess We've Been Waiting For?

Earlier this week, Disney announced its first-ever official Latina princesa, Elena of Avalor, a “confident and compassionate” 16-year-old, via a press release. With gold hoops in her ears and flowers peeking out of her dark hair, the “bold, caring, funny, and clever” teen, voiced by Dominican Republican-born actress Aimee Carrero, will make her debut in 2016 via an episode of Sofia the First, Disney Junior’s Emmy-nominated smash.

It’s an enormous step for the Disney Princess roster to begin accurately reflecting the diversity of our nation, and will hopefully cultivate a sense of self-assuredness and confidence in youngsters who watch the show. But, while Disney’s announcement may seem like a victory for Latinas, I fear that Elena’s debut will be overshadowed by a reductive attitude and sweeping generalizations of all the “diverse Latin culture and folklore” she is tasked with embodying.

Perhaps some of your first role models were Disney Princesses. At age six, I became enamored with Meg, of Disney’s film Hercules, even though she technically isn’t a princess. I begged my mom for a purple Grecian robe, which I wore at all times. With her olive skin and dark hair, Meg looked ethnically ambiguous — like me — which subconsciously implied that I, too, could achieve greatness, even if I had neither porcelain skin, nor royal blood running through my veins.

As a young girl growing up in south Texas, I knew I was different. I was disproportionately lanky, a freckled face hidden behind a mountain of frizz-curls, and chapped Bonne Bell strawberry lips. A bookworm, I bore more paper cuts than scraped knees. I didn’t feel quite Latina (my parents were Colombian, but I had grown up in the United States) or like a socially integrated American. Spanish was my first language, but I chose to communicate mostly in English; when I spoke in Spanish, I was reprimanded by my teachers, who told me the other children thought I was bad-mouthing them. Who was I, and who could help me understand that as a six-year-old?
Photo: Courtesy of Disney.
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Typically, it’s fictional characters, Disney Princesses among them, who can help anchor a sense of identity in children, especially first-generation kids. But, I rejected the “classic” Disney Princesses like Cinderella, Aurora, and Snow White — something about their docility didn’t resonate with me, and the guys they were into seemed a little dweeby. Later on I would come to admire Mulan for her tenacity, but China was universes away from my small town. Pocahontas was strong-willed, but she was tied to her roots, while I felt buoyed by my lack of a concrete cultural identity. None of these ladies had curly hair like mine, or cafe con leche-tinted skin. Meg was the best I could find; she was smart, witty before I knew what wittiness meant, and, best of all, she refused to take flaming hot shit from Hades and the other dudes in Hercules.

Given the recent Elena news, I am psyched that Disney has finally decided to include a Latina princess in its lineup (about time, seeing how Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States). But, I worry how Elena will be portrayed on screen, if she will be typecast as “fiesty,” and if the creators will work to actively differentiate the Latin and Hispanic elements of her character.

There has already been some controversy surrounding Sofia, the star of the show Elena will be a part of. Several years ago, the network received flak from viewers and the National Hispanic Media Coalition regarding the opaqueness of Sofia’s identity. At first, executive producer Jamie Mitchell had told Entertainment Weekly that Sofia was Latina, but then backtracked when people began to ask questions: Where is she supposed to be from? What cultural identity does she have? What  traditions? Producer Alex Nogales has since clarified: “Sofia is a fairytale girl who lives in a fairytale world. The writers have wisely chosen to write stories that include elements that will be familiar and relatable to kids from many different backgrounds including Spain and Latin America. For example, Sofia's mom comes from a fictitious land, Galdiz, which was inspired by Spain."

The trepidation to establish a concrete background for Sofia is, from a producer’s perspective, understandable: Likely, Disney wants to try and avoid conflict by being as inclusive and politically correct as possible, and same goes for Elena. But, for youngsters growing up and attempting to make sense of themselves, it’s crucial to entrench these on-screen role models with a firm sense of identity. It’s also troublesome to conflate Hispanic and Latin American cultures, and to combine a hodgepodge of unique traditions into a singular iteration. Elena, who Disney says is “inspired by diverse Latin cultures and folklore” is supposed to, what, have had a quinceanera but also help her parents make paella?
Photo: Courtesy of Disney Jr.
Also troubling is the fact that Elena also seems to be a damsel in distress. In her storyline, Sofia “sets out to restore Elena to her human form and help her return to the kingdom of Avalor” after she was imprisoned by the witchy sorceress Shuriki in an amulet that Sofia wears — somewhat creepily — around her neck. At least Elena will be getting her own eponymous series down the line, but not after “ushering in an exciting story arc” on Sofia the First.

Yet in an era where we need more confident and compassionate role models more than ever, this is a start. Hopefully, she will champion the difference, beauty, and spark that makes us proud to be Latinas and Americans alike. Bienvenida, Elena.
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