Disney introduced a new princess to its Magic Kingdom this month, but the public’s response was about much more than the style of her dress or what type of animal friends she will have.
Princess Elena of Avalor will arrive to the Disney Junior network in 2016 as the first Latina princess and her character is spurring conversations on what it truly means to represent a Latin American in pop culture.
Throughout history, pop culture has not only set predetermined roles for Latin actors, but it has also constricted any potential for Latin Americans to win awards or hold top positions such as a producer or director.
Dr. Celestino Fernandez, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona, explained the most common Latino stereotypes he sees in pop culture.
“The most current and prevalent stereotype of Latinos is that of “poor immigrant” and someone who speaks English with a Spanish-language accent. For males, the stereotype also includes drug-trafficker and criminal. For females, it includes peasant or a sexy, large bottom figure,” said Fernandez. “Historically, for males we’ve also seen the don Juan image that sports a trimmed mustache and the bandito who sports a large, un-kept mustache. For females, we’ve seen the Spanish Señorita in a white dress with a black shall around her waist, on her shoulders, or on her head.”
The question now rises. Will Princess Elena simply be another Latina stereotype?
In Columbia University’s report, “The Latino Media Gap”, authors compared the types of roles give to Latino actors to the roles played by all actors in the top 10 highest-grossing films from the years 2010 to 2013.
Their findings confirmed that Latin Americans played more roles of criminals, blue collar workers and law enforcement than any other actor. According to the study, Latin Americans were also less likely to hold a role of a white collar, education-based character and within these top 10 films no Latin Americans received a creative role such as a dancer, musician, or writer.
“Stereotypes are usually created by the dominant group and for this group’s benefit,” said Fernandez. “That’s why the stereotypes about dominant groups tend to be positive and they are negative when it involves those lower in the economic, political, legal or cultural stratification system, particularly those at the bottom.”
Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy, Eva Longoria as Gabrielle Solis in Desperate Housewives, Sofia Vergara as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett in Modern Family, George Lopez as himself in The George Lopez Show, and Guillermo Diaz on Weeds are all examples of roles throughout pop culture history that fit within these stereotypical categories.
“The fact is that these roles are found in every racial or ethnic group including whites so the question is why are certain ethnic groups cast in these roles almost exclusively and not in other leading roles?” said Fernandez. “Because the media is controlled by the dominant group and they cast themselves in the central, leading, “good guy or gal” roles and they cast those at the bottom of the stratification system such as Latinos in subservient roles.”
Lydia Camarillo, weekend anchor and reporter for Tucson’s KOLD, explained that her experience with Latina stereotypes often come from her reviews.
“The stereotyping I’ve been confronted with has come from viewer comments. If I mispronounce an English word, they question my education or if I pronounce a word correctly in Spanish, some viewers complain,” said Camarillo. “I feel these predetermined roles have a lot to do with environment. Each Latino grows up in a different way and that has a big influence on what path in life each individual takes, but these roles certainly do not help the perception of our culture for young Latino kids as they grow up.”
With this in mind, the introduction of the first Latina princess is already being critiqued worldwide. Will a darker shade of skin and Latin-inspired dress be all that is needed to properly create an authentic Latina role
According to Disney’s press release, Elena’s kingdom will be “inspired by diverse Latin cultures and folklore.” What will this look like for the Latin American culture?
Gina Rodriguez, who won a Golden Globe this year for the starring role on CW’s Jane The Virgin, has been recognized as a prominent, positive role model for Latinas in pop culture. Rather than play a sex crazed Latina on Lifetime’s Devious Maids, Rodriguez embraces her on-screen role as a normal college student who finds out she has accidentally been artificially inseminated. The show, an instant hit, has allowed Rodriguez to use her fame to help reshape the current Latino stereotypes.
Rodriquez stole headlines for her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes when she addressed the issue and said, “This award is so much more than myself. It represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” View her entire speech below.
She later commented on the issue to Entertainment Weekly saying, “There are two things that important to me: changing the way Latinos are viewed in the industry and in media, because the way I saw my culture was poor. Not poor like economically, but in a poor light. And that’s not true. I’m sitting here with two older sisters who are killing the game in their industry, and I don’t see that on TV. I don’t see them included in what’s in TV, on film. I want to make sure that every role I do contribute to that greater role.”
While Rodriguez’s outspoken passion is breaking the mold, it is important to simply recognize how the media’s portrayal of Latinos is affecting the public’s view on the culture, according to Fernandez.
Latinos are not asking for all the prominent roles or positions in Hollywood. They are simply asking to be cast fairly and away from the stereotypes.
Dr. Fernandez described the ideal Latino role as simply a “professional, hard-working, family man or woman.”
Camarillo said it best when she described the ideal Latino role as a role model.
“A Latino role model would like any other true role model. Successful, passionate, ambitious, and educated,” explained Camarillo.
Jaime Odom is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at email@example.com
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