Sofia the First: The Latina Disney Princess That Wasn’t and the Community That Played Along

By CAROL CAIN

Well, it’s official. I mean, officially, official. Sofia The First is not a Latina Princess. Disney released a statement after days of listening to the applause and criticism from the Latino community in reaction to Entertainment Weekly executive producer Jaime Mitchell’s public statement that, in his opinion, this fictional cartoon character was, in fact, Latina.

With the mere words “She is Latina” the Latino community went nuts. Despite the fact that VP of Disney Junior original programming, Joe D’Ambrosia, never admitted nor denied anything: “We never actually call it out….When we go into schools [to talk to young students about the show], what I find fascinating is that every girl thinks that they’re Sofia.” In other words, Sofia the First could’ve been Latina, if you wanted her to be… and man, oh man, did so many of us want her to be.

So much so that many embraced her whole-heartedly, running over to their little girls, dusting off the tiara they had been saving for this very day and placing it on their little princess’ heads because finally, as many proclaimed over and over, the day had come when a major media brand had validated us in the space.

Except, they hadn’t, really. In fact, when confronted with the choice that Sofia the First could be Latina—if I wanted her to be—I realized that no, I actually don’t. I don’t want her to be Latina at all because if she is, she would simply be an extension of the Latina image that’s already so prevalent in both the Latino and American media. She would look like every single other Latina I grew up seeing on the news, in magazines, in novelas (unless they were the help), and in movies. If she were, in fact, the image that Disney had chosen to be their Latina princess, then she would’ve been a representation of a lesser effort made to truly represent the diversity in our community so very rarely celebrated in the media.

I picture Mulan, and Pocohantas, of Merida, and even Tiana, Disney’s first African-American princess, and wonder why they would be an obvious representation of their ancestral roots, but “our” princess would look more like our European counterparts. I can’t imagine that with all the time and research and attention to detail that went into creating these characters with such strong, obvious cultural ties, that Disney would create another where her culture isn’t immediately identified as being our own.

It is true that the Latino community is incredibly diverse. My own mother looked very much like Sofia the First, where as I am the complete opposite. Within my family the shades of skin tones can go from the darkest black to the milkiest white, reflecting the influences of our European, Caribbean and African ancestry. Thus race doesn’t define who is or is not Latino.

Speaking Spanish, dancing merengue and eating rice and beans, or not, doesn’t define our “Latino-ness” either, as many new generations haven’t always fully embraced their Latino culture or soaked in its influences, particularly if they were invested in adopting the culture of the countries their parents immigrated to.

This is to say that it’s not enough to look at someone and determine whether or not they are Latino. But that doesn’t mean that being Latino doesn’t have its definitions. It was clear from Disney’s initial statements around this character, where they explain that Sofia’s mother comes from a fictional land similar to Spain, that Sofia was not Latina at all, by definition of what being Latino is (i.e. from Latin American roots, which Spaniards are not). It seems that the lack of understanding between the difference of what being Hispanic and being Latino is eventually led to this whole mess in the first place.

But we didn’t care. We wanted this so badly, and honestly, even I am shocked at how badly, that we just ran without question and then proceeded to publically display the racial problems that stigmatize our community.

Cries of she doesn’t look Latina “enough” against cries of discrimination and rejection due to being too white, or too black, or too Americanized, or too Africanized were intermingled with the jubilee of having a princess “our daughters could finally call their own.”

So despite my disappointment with how Disney handled this situation, my greatest disappointment is reserved for my own Latino community. I am disappointed, and somewhat embarrassed, that they would take whatever bone was thrown at them without question just to be able to say we’ve been noticed.

Very few of us questioned anything about the statements made by Disney, and instead went on to attack each other for not agreeing.

People who celebrated having a princess “that finally looked like them” surprised me the most because those representations of the fair-skinned, light-haired Latina aren’t missing in this space. Turn on any Spanish television station and that Latina image is what you will find. How are they not represented in the media? Even worse was the incredible denial over this fact. Responses like, “So, would it had been better if she had a bad NYC accent or rolled her Rs?” (As if her being brown had to equate her to “sounding brown,” which I assume is what that counter argument means.)

In witnessing the success of other ethnic princesses in the Disney collection, I have faith that when the Latina princess does come along, there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind who she is. I hope my own community learned a little bit more about themselves, and starts to question their own values, their own prejudices, and their own self worth and priorities from this experience.

In the meantime, we are left with the choice of a Latina princess “if we want her to be.” Personally, I choose Tiana from The Princess and The Frog, because at least she has more physical traits that I can relate to, not to mention how great it feels to see the African cultural heritage finally on display—even if so very few of us Latinos would ever willingly call it our own.

Carol Cain is a Brooklyn native and first generation American from a Dominican/Puerto Rican family. When not writing about travel, food and adventure on her blog GirlGoneTravel.com,  she is sharing her perspective as a mom, woman of color and more at Lifetime Moms. She lives in New Jersey with her Irish/Scot husband and their three handsome boys. Follow her on Twitter @CarolACain.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for this very honest piece. Being Haitian, I am all too familiar with with the role intentional segregation of skin color plays in the Haitian and Hispanic community. Speaking for princess Tiana however, personally I didn’t appreciate her arrival coinciding with the election of the first AA president (maybe I’m being nitpicky but it came across a bit too opportunistic and insincere)

    It seems in a lot of ways we’ve taken a step back in terms of representation of non-American cultures in the media. All the strides that were made in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s seems to have vanished in favor of hegemony.

    • Thanks Val. Till this day my own family will deny that my grandfather has Haitian roots (his mother whom we never met). This incident, for all the drama around it, served to remind me of how much in denial we are about these issues. Watching the conversations was difficult to say the least.

  2. Bravo, Carol. I didn’t know whether to be stunned by Disney or hurt by our community that so willingly embraced this little princess as “our” own. Although Sofia looks nothing like me or my daughter, who is half Cuban, I was more confused (and defensive) by why Disney wasn’t repping her as Latino.

    In any case, I am proud of you for speaking out. And I have to agree – watching Tiana on the big screen for the first time made me so emotional (even if we only got to enjoy her human presence for a mere 25% of the film).

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