Disney raised a ruckus in the Latino community when the company debuted its first Latina princess last week, only to backtrack and say “Sofia the First” was never intended to be Hispanic.
The commotion over Sofia the First -- a blue-eyed, pale-skinned girl whose mother was born in a country based on Spain -- raises the question: is Disney ignoring Latinos?
The company is proud of its record of inclusion and points to Latina characters like the ones played by Selena Gomez of "The Wizards of Waverly Place" and Vanessa Hudgens in the "High School Musical," which appear on the Disney Channel. Disney sitcoms have won Alma and Imagen awards for positive portrayals of Latinos. "While quality storytelling is the goal, diversity is the guidepost here," the company said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "For decades, Disney Channel has worked to make sure kids see themselves when they tune in to our channel."
But if we’re judging by number of princesses portrayed, the answer is yes. Disney has rolled out Native American, black and Asian princesses in recent years, but no Latinas. And beyond princesses, it’s tough to find examples of Latinos playing prominent roles in the animated films that made the brand internationally famous.
That may not be a bad thing. From “Dumbo” to “Aladdin” and beyond, Disney has come under fire for decades for the negative stereotypes of African Americans, Native Americans, Arabs and Asians interwoven into the company's characters and story lines. One of the only major Hispanic characters in an animated Disney film is “Tito” from “Oliver and Company.” Voiced by Cheech Marin, who also played one of the hyenas in "The Lion King," Tito is an easily angered but loveable chihuahua with a Chicano accent. The notion of the "hot-blooded," and highly emotional Latino is a persistant stereotype.
Some found Tito objectionable in other ways. The 2001 documentary, "Mickey Mouse Monopoly: Disney, Childhood and Corporate Power," explored the issue of racism and stereotypes in Disney characters. Among those interviewed by the filmmakers was mother and schoolteacher Marisa Peralta:
“It’s almost expected. The character that’s playing a Latino will end up doing one of the things that you shouldn’t do. In this case, Alonzo’s stealing a car … Taco Bell, Disney -- why can’t they not represent us as chihuahuas? What’s this thing with Latinos being dogs?
Another minor Disney character that plays off stereotypes of Latinos is Panchito Pistoles, who first appeared in the 1940s. The gun-crazed bird whose misspelled name means “Panchito Pistols” (in Spanish it should read “Panchito Pistolas”), wears a sombrero and a speaks with a heavy accent.
Disney writers did embrace the Latin American custom of using a first name, middle name and two surnames. Panchito’s full name is “Panchito Romero Miguel Junipero Francisco Quintero González” and Tito’s is “Ignacio Alonzo Julio Federico de Tito.” Princess Sofia does not appear to have been given multiple names, but her first name is spelled the way that many Latin American parents opt for over the more common English-language spelling, Sophia.
Disney took an early stab at reaching Latin Americans in the early 1940s. As part of an effort at cultural diplomacy during World War II, Disney made a series of animated shorts with the company’s characters visiting Latin America. The videos (available in the slideshow above) take the tone of educational documentaries. Donald Duck visited Lake Titicaca, a massive body of water between Peru and Bolivia, and sambas in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro. Goofy visited the gaucho territory in the Argentine Pampas.
Disney has also created programming in Spanish.
But, in 2012 the decision to create a fair-haired Latina princess who lives in a fictional land generated a uproar on social media sites such as Twitter and a lively round of discussion on several blogs. Some pointed out that Latinos do not all look a certain way but rather have a range of complexions and eye colors. Others said the majority of Latinos do, in fact, have dark hair, eyes and skin and that fair-skinned Latinos have, for too long, been featured in roles where they are admirable individuals, heros or victims of darker-skinned vilans and criminals. Others still wondered if Princess Sofia's ethnicity or what Disney does matter at all.
Either way, the discussion proved too much for Disney. This week, days after a person involved with the show created around Princess Sofia acknowledged that she is a Latina, the company said plainly that she is not. Disney also issued the following statement to the Huffington Post:
To clarify, no character is Latina in Sofia the First. The series does not depict "real world" cultures -- it is set in a fairytale world. The producer misspoke when he identified Queen Miranda (Sofia's mother) as Latina.