¿Who’s the real Latina?

In recent weeks, Disney has received a wave of scathing criticism for the portrayal of its newest royal. The announcement of Princess Sophia as Disney’s first Latina princess by Jamie Mitchell, Disney’s executive producer, has caused an explosive stir in the Latino community. Intense criticism regarding the princess’ proposed identity, mainly expressed via social media networks, has caused Disney to recant its initial announcement of Sophia as the first Latina princess in favor of her being a “mixed-heritage” princess.

What caused an entertainment giant to change the identity of a fictional character? Short answer: People tweeted and Disney listened. Long version? Sophia doesn’t look like a typical Latina. But what does a “typical” Latina look like and if such a person exists, can she be packaged for an audience in a racially obsessive nation? (Let’s hold off on that one, we’ll come back to it). The Latino community’s frustration with the new princess is largely attributed to her fair complexion, blue eyes, and auburn hair. Individuals have used their tweets and statuses to express their rejection of Princess Sophia’s proposed Latina identity. Below are a few examples of popular tweets:

“Disappointment: Disney unveils first Latina princess who DOESN’T look like the vast majority of Latinas. #fail #latism”

“Is it me, or does Disney’s first Latina princess look… white?”

“She don’t look very Laaatinnnna. She look white.”

“She’s about as Latina as Mitt Romney is Mexican. #Fail”

“Most of us Latinas have tint our skin if you’re going to make a #Latina Disney Princess make her more relatable to our race”

In light of the growing frustration, a few questions come to mind. Did Disney miscalculate their packaging of the world’s first Latina princess? Is this an example of the opposition between globalization and identification as described by Manuel Castells? I submit that the backlash received by the company indicates a gross miscalculation in its packaging of Sophia. Although the world is moving into an era of cultural globalization, the power of individual cultural identity has not waned. Disney has received few—if any—praise for showcasing Sophia’s multicultural heritage. In fact, the lack of overt cultural identification, now identifying Sophia as a “mixed-heritage” princess rather than Latina, has also earned the company sharp criticism. If nothing else, this illustrates the aforementioned case made by Castells as it affirms the difficulty of packaging cultural products due to the opposition between globalization and identification. Whether it’s global or local, individual identity still matters which means packaging does too.

Now let’s go back to the first question: What does a “typical” Latina look like and if she exists, can her identity be packaged for an audience in a racially obsessive nation (yes, racially-obsessive)? It’s important to recognize that America is not a post-racial society and whether we like it or not, race still matters. It’s also crucial to acknowledge the racial and ethnic diversity of minority groups living in this nation (e.g., not all black people are African-Americans) rather than throwing them into one group for the sake of being politically correct.

Most scholars who study race and ethnicity in the Americas would affirm that 1) the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic”, as used by individuals living in the U.S, identify a cultural group rather than a racial or ethnic group, and 2) Latin America’s model of racial categorization is much more expansive than the United States’ binary model of race (i.e. you’re either black, white, or—depending on where you live—somewhere in the middle). With that said, I submit that there is no “typical” Latina. Latinos come in all beautiful shapes, sizes and colors. Given the huge racial and ethnic diversity of Latinos, someone will—unfortunately—get left out when the official Latina princess is presented. Why? Because some Latinas look like Sophia (especially in Argentina, Chile, or Uruguay) and others look like Disney’s Tiana (true in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and even Puerto Rico) and believe it or not, a few even look like Mulan (e.g. the daughter of Peru’s former president, Señor Alberto Fujimori).

¿Entonces, who do you say the real Latina is?

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3 thoughts on “¿Who’s the real Latina?

  1. Thank you for writing this! I had not heard very much about Disney’s revealing a new “Latina” princess, nor about the reaction to her apparent racial heritage. I absolutely agree, Latin America almost across the board is a geo-cultural zone with an extremely complicated attitude toward and relationship with race. I think it is a fascinating cultural complication, with roots in the colonization, mestizaje, and class oppression. Regardless of how it emerged, what we are left with is the simple fact that ‘typical’ looking Latinos or Hispanics are not to be found. Interestingly, a huge percentage of Latin America is of ‘mixed heritage.’ Latin Americans of fair and dark complexions are equally Latin American, but dominant groups have valorized the European influenced to a degree that has subsequently affected the media output from Latin America. The cast of a telenovela often does not provide a representative sample of racial diversity in Latin America, and it seems as though Disney has adopted the same approach. I think it is very encouraging and appropriate to see some consumer pushback, because there is a platform for such expression now and the people are aware that what they are still being sold a limited view of Latin beauty.

    • Thanks for the great insight, Renata! I do agree that it’s both encouraging and appropriate to see some consumer pushback. However, I feel like the pushback should have instead focused on the representation of Latino culture rather than Sophia’s appearance because there’s no such thing as a “typical” looking Latino.
      Since Disney’s announcement of their new princess, Facebook and Twitter subscribers have used their communication channels to vent about issues regarding Sophia’s eye color and skin color rather than the fact that as a “Latina” princess or even a princess of mixed-heritage, there are no cultural cues in the movie that highlight any part of that rich heritage (i.e. music, food, language, etc). In many ways, this issue should go much deeper than a conversation about the racial or ethnic diversity of Latinos in America, although important.
      Consumers should seek to make this conversation with an industry giant like Disney less superficial and much more substantive in content. If Disney really wants to produce a show that highlights Latino culture then it should do so in an instructive manner that will highlight the many treasures of the culture rather than simply coloring an animated character and then labeling her as Latina or mixed-race. In my opinion, there is much more to the story.

  2. This is a great conversation. As usual, Disney is always under scrutiny! And, as usual, race is always a hot topic (especially in the States). I think by now we know that no one will ever be satisfied because the diversity of “expectations” can never be met. However, if we want to venture into the realms of what it means to be Latina/o, as generalized by many Americans, then I am quite proud of Disney. While I understand that a single character cannot represent an entire population (when has this ever been realistic?), I am happy to see that Princess Sofia breaks some of the stereotypes that America may often claim when describing Hispanics/Latinos. Not all Latinos are dark complected or undocumented, in fact, some even look like Jasmine. So, why is Sofia raking in such hype? Well, I think we should examine both the history of Latinos and of race in America. But, I won’t dare venture into such a dense discussion…

    -Gaby

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