There was a great deal of excitement, understandably so, around Disney’s announcement of a new princess, Elena of Avalor, this week. An olive-skinned, gorgeous babe who looks like she goes to Jasmine’s same hair salon to get blow-outs, Elena was widely celebrated in the media because, well, it’s crazy that there still hasn’t been a Latina royal in the Disney family.
We came close about a year ago with Sofia The First, whom many also assumed was Latina. But it wasn’t long before the backlash started, mostly consisting of “She’s too white!” comments. All of which caused Disney to clarify — or perhaps backpedal — and state that Sofia was “a mixed-heritage princess in a fairy-tale world. Her mother is originally from an enchanted kingdom inspired by Spain (Galdiz) and her birth father hailed from an enchanted kingdom inspired by Scandinavia.”
Disney Junior’s VP Nancy Kanter further clarified: “What’s important to know is that Sofia is a fairytale girl who lives in a fairytale world. All our characters come from fantasy lands that may reflect elements of various cultures and ethnicities but none are meant to specifically represent those real world cultures. 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.”
Following that uncomfortable PR moment for Disney, Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, had a direct conversation with Kanter in which he apparently pressed, “When are we going to have a real Latina, not a counterfeit?’”
Which brings us to Princess Elena, a 16-year-old described as “the bold, caring, funny and clever ascendant to the throne in the fairytale kingdom of Avalor,” a place “inspired by diverse Latin cultures and folklore.”
Cue the collective gasp at the fact that she is another “counterfeit” Latina.
As someone living in 2015, I know a lot of Latinas “of mixed heritage.” Some of them look like Christina Aguilera. Some of them look like Zoe Saldana, and some of them look like Elena of Avalor.
My point is that this notion of a fully legitimate vs counterfeit Latina is flawed, just like trying to be all things to all Latinos is, at best, an illusion, and at worst, and impossibility.
Unlike Disney’s first black princess, Tiana from “Princess and the Frog,” (whom I love), when it comes to a Latina princess, we are not just talking about race, we are also talking about ethnicity and nationality and all the idiosyncrasies therein. You can’t tell me that a Mexican princess would be 100% relatable to a Puerto Rican girl in the Bronx. And she shouldn’t have to be.
So inevitably you run into trouble when attempting to group this wide spectrum under the same umbrella, when really the only clear, tangible, unequivocal unifier is language. And even then you have Latinos who are Spanish-dominant, bilingual, and English-only.
So what does unify the Latino sub-cultures, besides language? It’s the intangibles, things that can’t easily be depicted in a literal way, such as work ethic, nostalgia for where you came from, the importance of family, a sense of community, the appreciation for rhythm, the passion for life, to name a few. Those, too, are generalizations, but in my thirty-some years on this earth, having traveled a bit and met Latinos from all walks of life, there’s something of a common denominator there.
So what am I saying here? The need for diverse images of beauty and regality is unquestionable; when I was growing up, all I had to play with were thin, fair-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed Barbies and Kens. But my parents also instilled imagination in me, so I made those dolls whatever I wanted them to be, I made them relatable. I made a few of them speak Spanish. Thankfully, my kids will have more options.
But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that a single princess — Sofia, Elena, or the next one they come up with — can represent the full complexity and range of being a Latina.
In Elena’s case, the way she looks or whether she is technically from a land inspired by Spain, or South America, is less important to me than her backstory and what she teaches young girls about character.
A bit about Elena’s backstory, which I actually like:
“Princess Elena’s journey began long ago when her parents and kingdom were taken from her by the evil sorceress, Shuriki. Elena bravely faced the sorceress to protect her little sister, Princess Isabel, and grandparents but in the process, her magical amulet pulled her inside its enchanted jewel, saving her life but imprisoning her at the same time. Decades later, Princess Sofia of Enchancia discovers the truth about the amulet she has worn since joining her royal family and sets out to restore Elena to her human form and help her return to the kingdom of Avalor. While Elena is the rightful heir to the throne, she is only age 16 so she will rule Avalor with the help of a Grand Council comprised of her Grandfather Tito, Grandmother Cici and Royal Advisor, Duke Esteban. With some magical friends by her side – Mateo, a wizard-in-training, and Skylar, a magical flying creature – Princess Elena’s further adventures will lead her to understand that her new role requires thoughtfulness, resilience and compassion, the traits of all truly great leaders.”
Still, as great as it is to have these depictions, that can’t be all we offer our kids. If you expect a corporation — however child-oriented that corporation may be — to define the way your child looks at herself and her place in the world, you will be repeatedly let down. We should, to the extent that we can, hold the people making these decisions responsible, but I also think that that accountability starts at home.
I love something that Zoe Saldana once said to me, about how her mother raised her. “I grew up in Queens and the Dominican Republic, it wasn’t easy, sh*t was going on, but the kind of world that we had indoors that my mom created for us makes more sense still to this day to me than what is out there. I would come home from school and go, ‘Mami, what am I? I’m getting all kinds of things and people are mean.’ And Mami would look at me and go, ‘You’re Zoe.’ And I’d go, ‘I know, Mami, but what am I?’ And she would look at me and say, ‘You’re my daughter, your grandma’s granddaughter, you’re Zoe.’ My mom wouldn’t go, ‘tu eres una mujer de color and always remember it, this world is going to be rough.’ My mom never f**king told us that, why would she? Why would she stop my flight before I even take off? When it comes to life and perspectives of people, life can really be that simple that you’re just Angie and I’m just Zoe. I can spend all day talking about this the same way that I don’t want to talk about it at all because it’s not something you talk about, it’s something that you are, you live it.”
This coming from a woman who played a strong, intelligent, fiercely loyal blue princess in a fictional world in the highest grossing movie of all time.
This story was originally published in Variety Latino.