Elena of Avalor, Disney’s latest cartoon, is receiving much praise for its portrayal of Latino culture. However, as with anything popular, the show is not without its detractors. There is heavy criticism from outraged critics over its supposed misrepresentation of Latino culture, which some argue ignores the history of Latin America and the centuries of colonial conquest and rule that made the region and its cultures what they are today.
Disney has a long history of drawing inspiration from folklore and mythology to create its vibrant worlds and the characters who populate them. For example, Frozen was largely inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, The Snow Queen, with its own unique spin on the classic. Various elements of the movie were drawn from Norwegian culture, architecture, and landscape.
While some of Disney’s stories, like Mulan and Pocahontas, are clearly intended to be based on real places, a lot of the worlds they create are simply fictional. The company’s latest cartoon, a TV series called Elena of Avalor, is set in a fictional kingdom inspired by Latin America during what looks like the colonial period. There are no references to the atrocities that took place during the conquest of the New World, and the characters are, for the most part, simply Latin American in the contemporary sense. In terms of the setting, they’d be Avalorians, not Americans.
Elena, the heroine of the show, is Disney’s first Latina princess. The 16-year-old character is voiced by a Dominican actress, Aimee Carrero. Latino fans have long awaited a princess to call their own, and Elena perfectly fits the bill. Disney said in a statement last year that the show’s creators intend to tell stories influenced by the culture and traditions of Hispanic and Latino families. By most accounts, Disney has succeeded in delivering what it promised.
In the age of social media, nothing popular is without controversy. A writer in the Guardian calls the decision to ignore the realities of the pre-colonial, pre-Columbian world “baffling,” and asks, “how does one understand their Latino identity without acknowledging colonialism?” Another writer criticizes the fact that the characters speak English.
The complaints leveled against the show are nonsensical, especially given who it’s designed for. Making real-world colonialism a backdrop to the setting for the purpose of fleshing out the Latino identity isn’t something Disney or anyone else could do without turning a children’s cartoon into a depressing documentary about the destruction of indigenous people and the horrors of human conquest. Furthermore, it’s impossible to see how would Disney would portray human sacrifice and the enslavement of minor tribes by the empires of the pre-Columbian age while remaining light-hearted and entertaining. No one has any interest in seeing Apocalypto.
Your cultural identity is shaped by your surroundings, made of the current time and place you live in. Simply put, Disney just wants to make a piece of children’s entertainment for its Latino audience using contemporary tropes. Most children watching the show are just going to be happy to have a princess and characters with whom they can identify. In the end, that should be all that matters.