Disney’s first Latina princess is empowering — but is she really Latina?

When I was told I would have the opportunity to watch Disney’s newest animated television series Elena of Avalor before its upcoming premiere on July 22, and that the lead character of the show — voiced by Dominican-born actress Aimee Carrero — is being touted as the “first Latina princess” for the channel, I was understandably excited.

As a mixed-ethnicity Latina who is painfully aware of the lack of diversity in mainstream American media (especially shows with female leads), hearing that Disney was on board to bring the richness and beauty of Latin culture to network television left me feeling victorious.

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For years, minorities, including African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and those in the LGBT community (to name but a few) have advocated for more honest representations of characters in movies and television.

Breaking away from the one-size-fits-all stereotype of white-male heroes and evil-female villains in animated shows is kind of a huge deal. It’s helping our children (and hey, even adults watch animated shows) realize that everyone, no matter their culture, their gender or their sexuality, is capable of being the hero.

To get some additional perspective, I invited my son’s girlfriend Julia, who grew up in a traditional Mexican-American home and is an ardent lover of all things animated, to watch the premier episode, titled “First Day of Rule” along with me.

The introduction of the show begins with Elena celebrating her quinceañera, which sadly, Elena doesn’t say. Instead, she calls it her “15th birthday” (in all fairness, that’s what it is) and skips over the importance of this major Latin coming-of-age celebration.

Julia and I both grumbled but were entranced by the beautiful colors of the royal gowns, the palace, the kingdom of Avalor (which looked shockingly similar to the Kingdom of Arendelle featured in Frozen) and the magical flying leopard-things called jaquins that not only spoke but transported Elena through the air like a trio of private chauffeurs.

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During this preamble, we learn that an evil sorceress named Shuriki attacked (and presumably killed) Elena’s parents and would have killed her as well, had a magic amulet given to Elena by her mother on her quinceañera not saved and simultaneously entrapped her for 40 years.

Somehow, Elena, her little sister and grandparents (who had been saved by the royal wizard and hidden in a painting) were freed four decades later, thus bringing us to modern-day Avalor, where Elena, about to turn 16, is set to take the crown and become queen.

Strangely absent was any real mention or emotional investment on the obvious deaths of Elena’s parents. I imagine viewers are astute enough to realize her loving parents were zapped by the sorceress and no longer mentioned in the show, which can be troubling for the younger audience.

As the show carried on, time and time again I wondered “Where’s the Latin influence?” Aside from a possibly sinister cousin with a bad Spanish accent (which is not Latin) and Elena’s grandparents (thankfully called Abuela and Abuelo) who intersperse their speech with the occasional mija and had believable Latin-American accents, little else (besides the character names like Esteban and Armando) felt authentically Latin.

I realize that I’m a tough customer, but when Latin-American culture is so often appropriated for the benefit of the white majority, I grow weary (let’s not even get into Cinco de Mayo celebrations in our country). I suppose my hope watching this show was that it would enrich viewers and empower Latinos, especially Latin girls, to have a voice when so often they don’t.

Still, with all my yearning for more cultural representation, there’s some really great stuff happening in Elena of Avalor that I would be a miserly crow to not recognize. The truth is, Disney is doing something amazing with this show: they’re showing girls that they don’t need a brave prince to rescue them.

In fact, if Elena is anything, she’s a badass hero in her own right. In the first episode we get to see Elena stand up to her abuelo (if you didn’t already know, that’s grandfather in Spanish) who chides her by saying she isn’t ready to be queen. Later, we see her lead an investigation in the kingdom, rescue a guard who was supposed to keep her sister safe, and bravely face the Noblins, magical shape-shifting creatures who’d been stealing ships from the realm.

In the end, Elena is wiser, stronger and more in tune with her eventual duties as queen. This awesome visual of a young woman owning her ability and power is a strong message to girls and boys that gender doesn’t define someone’s capacity for greatness. We definitely need more of this.

While I loved the overall theme of female empowerment, I was still hungry for more cultural depth in the Latin-based story line. What I hope to see in future episodes is that Elena of Avalor will truly embrace the title of Disney’s first Latina princess and give viewers an authentic taste of Latin culture and heritage that does more than just scratch the surface.

Por favor.

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