Among Disney princesses, as in Hollywood in general, women of color are few and far between. Jasmine was the first Arab princess (1992), Pocahontas was the first Native American princess (1995), Mulan was the first Asian princess (1998), and Tiana was the first African-American princess (2009). This July, Disney will finally introduce its first Latina princess, Elena of Avalor. And while this milestone is long (looooong) overdue, it should still be celebrated. Seeing yourself represented in media, especially for children of color, is so important to the process of becoming comfortable in your own skin.
We're also excited that Elena's storyline, while it does include the typical Disney trope of dead parents, isn't built around marriage or men. Sixteen-year-old Elena, described by Disney as "brave and adventurous," saves her kingdom of Avalor from an evil sorceress. She's too young to be queen, but she rules as princess with the advice of her grandparents, older cousin, and friend. (Very Lady Mormont from Game of Thrones.)
Here’s everything you should know about Disney’s first Latina princess and her upcoming Disney Channel television show, Elena of Avalor.
Elena of Avalor, a spinoff of Sofia the First, will debut on the Disney Channel on July 22. Disney has called Elena their "first princess inspired by diverse Latin cultures."
In 2012, a producer for Sofia the First said that Sofia was Latina, which would have made her the first Latina princess. But fans took issue with her appearance: Sofia (voiced by Modern Family actress Ariel Winter, who is white) has auburn hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. Disney eventually walked back this comment, releasing a statement that clarified that Sofia is actually of mixed heritage, with a Spanish mother and Scandinavian father. "All our characters come from fantasy lands that may reflect elements of various cultures and ethnicities," Disney noted. "But none are meant to specifically represent those real world cultures."
Hmmm. That seems strange, given that all the Disney princesses of color we can think of were inspired by specific people from specific real-world cultures. Mulan was based on the Chinese warrior woman Hua Mulan. Pocahontas was based on the Native American woman of the same name, the daughter of a chief. And Tiana was partly based on New Orleans chef Leah Chase, who also started out as a waitress and later opened her own restaurant.
Unlike the Disney princesses before her, Princess Elena won’t be introduced to the world on the big screen. Instead, she'll make her debut on televisions across America on Friday, July 22, with an hour-long TV movie premiering this fall.
This is both good and bad. A television show allows Princess Elena to have more depth as a character as her story continues to develop over the season, while also reaching a larger audience with viewing in 33 languages in 163 countries.
But TV doesn’t have the prestige or ability to win the same awards as a Disney movie. So far, five of the Disney princess movies (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Aladdin, Brave) have won Oscars while two movies (Mulan and Princess and The Frog) have been nominated. Mandy Valez wrote for Revelist that as a Latina woman she felt robbed that Princess Elena is the only major Disney princess to not have her own film:
TV is great, but all of the major Disney princesses appeared on film, first. So, what does is say when there's no Latina princess with her own movie? It really seems like a shun when Disney is bringing Moana, the first Disney princess of Polynesian descent, to the big screen this year.
While Princess Elena won’t have a movie to star in, she will be readily available in as many forms of merch as you can think of. The first book based on the character, Elena and the Secret of Avalor, was released earlier this week, and more are in the works. In February, the Princess Elena doll was introduced at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. That's not all: Elena will make her debut alongside the other Disney princess at the Magic Kingdom Park in the Walt Disney World Resort this August.
Princess Elena’s ruby red ballgown was designed by Layana Aguilar, a Project Runway alum who was born and raised in Brazil. The gown is inspired by her South American heritage and as Aguilar put it, "The feeling to it is very Peruvian, Inca-like." It is the first Disney princess dress to have a print and is based on Aguilar's grandmother’s embroidered mandala flowers.
A 2014 study showed that less than 5% of actors in top Hollywood films were Hispanic. And some roles written for Latina characters were whitewashed, as non-Hispanic or Latina actors were cast for the roles instead. Even Disney’s first princess of color Jasmine was played by a white woman (Linda Larkin).
Princess Elena will be played by Dominican American actress Aimee Carrero, and her little sister Princess Isabel will be played by Hispanic actress Jenna Ortega.
We finally have a Latina princess based on the appearance of a Latina woman and Latin and Hispanic cultural traditions!
The music on the show will play a key role in showing Latin and Hispanic culture on screen. From the theme song performed by Latin Grammy award-winning Gaby Moreno, to other musical styles like Latin pop, salsa, Chilean hip hop, banda, and mariachi playing in between scenes.
The plot and setting on the series will also be based around staples from Latin and Hispanic traditions from the architecture in the kingdom of Avalor to the food and magical folklore. In the first episode alone there will be influences from Chile ("an elf-like shapeshifting creatures based on a Chilean peuchen myth") and Mexico ("a spiritual guide based on the beliefs from a Mayan tribe).
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.