Commentary: Princess Sofia, Disney, and American Latinos

The controversial Princess Sofia (Photo: via Disney)

This Sunday, November 18th, the Disney Channel will unveil a new series called Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess. What makes princess Sofia so special? First, Disney told the world they had created their first Latina princess only to take it back two weeks later.

It started when executive producer Jamie Mitchell announced that Disney was adding a Latina to their ever-growing gang of multi-ethnic princesses. The Latino community had two reactions: glee and anger.

Many Latinos were excited at the prospect of having one of their own join the ranks of Cinderella and Snow White. Over the last 20 years, Disney has tried to diversify their exclusive princess club. The “classic” Disney princesses are all European, a result perhaps of the fact that most of those stories came from European writers like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.

Bowing to criticism and wishing to tell stories from more diverse sources, Disney started adding “ethnic” princesses. Jasmine is Arab, Mulan is Chinese, Pocahontas is Native-American, and Tiana is African-American. The glaring omission was a Latina princess.

But some people are angry that Sofia isn’t “Latina enough”. Sofia has light skin, blue eyes, and auburn hair and is voiced by Modern Family actress Ariel Winter. Twitter in particular exploded with angry comments blasting Disney for creating a Latina princess who is Caucasian.

“Wake me up when Disney’s first #Latina princess looks like me smh,” and “This is Disney’s first Latina princess! She doesn’t even look Spanish! #mad #wth #beenwaitingforaspanishprincess #white,” are good examples.

It is strange especially since Sofia’s mother Miranda has a darker complexion and is voiced by Grey’s Anatomy star Sara Ramirez. Other Latinos were angry that Disney wasn’t making a bigger deal out of the fact that they had a Latina princess. Lisa Navarette, of the Latino advocacy group La Raza said, “But with Sofia, it’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, she’s Latina.’ That just doesn’t make any sense. It really bothers me.” 

Then Disney changed their tune. Disney spokesperson Nancy Kanter made it very clear that Sofia was not Latina and that Mitchell “misspoke.” She added, “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.”

Sofia is the princess of a fake country called Enchancia, that is inspired by Spain but isn’t Spain. It’s a fair point that she is, after all, a fairytale princess and that perhaps we shouldn’t be so upset about it. Except saying that all of their characters are from fantasy lands is untrue. Pocahontas is based on an historical Native American figure, Mulan is explicitly Chinese, Belle is French, and Tiana lives in New Orleans. If Disney wanted to create a Spanish princess they could easily have set her in Spain. But that still wouldn’t have made her Latina.

In order to be Latino one must have Latin American ancestry. Hispanics are from the Spanish-speaking world. If Sofia is from Spain, she is Hispanic, but not Latino.

It’s a common mistake and shows the general lack of understanding that many Americans and large segments of the media have about Latinos. They tend to lump anyone with a Spanish last name into a big blob of brown otherness. For example, in the recent presidential race there was an idea early on that immigration was the main thing that mattered to ALL Latinos. However, to a Cuban, Puerto Rican, or an 8th generation Tejano, immigration doesn’t really affect them. The American media often misses the nuances of our diversity.

Which brings us to the question of race. I have light skin, green eyes, and brown hair. Many people, including other Latinos, tell me the same thing they point out about poor princess Sofia, “You don’t look Latino.” But what does that even mean? I am of primarily Spanish descent and, guess what, Spanish people are mostly white Europeans. So, if Sofia is Spanish then it is perfectly acceptable for her to be light-skinned.

Latinos are not a race and come in all colors – mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry, Afro-Latinos, and Asian-Latinos. There even are Latinos that don’t have a drop of Spanish blood. Ethnically, it’s impossible to put all Latinos in a neat little box.

On the other hand, Disney has plenty of Caucasian princesses. If they really wanted to show diversity and have a Latina princess, she should probably be of a darker complexion and perhaps mixed ancestry. I have a feeling that after this controversy Disney is going back to the drawing board (literally) and will come up with a Latina princess. Perhaps she will be the daughter of a colonial lord or a post-conquest half-Spanish Aztec princess. Disney missed a great opportunity here to reach out to Latinos. We are the largest growing demographic in the country and from a business perspective alone it makes sense to make a Latina princess.

I’m sure there were tons of meetings about Sofia and what she should look like. If you want to figure out how to appeal to little Latina girls, you need to examine American Latino entertainment. Turn on any telenovela on Univision or Telemundo and you will see that most of the stars, particularly if they are wealthy, are Caucasian while the lower-class characters are dark skinned. This has to do with racial prejudice within our own community. Disney probably figured that a white princess would be OK with us given the preference of many Latinos to watch white actors on TV.

In the end, little girls of all colors will continue to pretend to be Snow White and Sleeping Beauty no matter what their heritage. However, there is something to be said for seeing someone that looks like you on the screen. I think of all of the Latinas I know that worry about having “good hair” a/k/a straight European hair. Or what about all my Latina friends who wear blue contacts and dye their hair blond? I sometimes wonder if somewhere in the back of their mind they are still trying to look like Cinderella.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.