Latina Disney princess shows changing America

Story highlights

  • Raul Reyes: Disney announced new Latina princess, which is laudable, likely profitable in America with growing Hispanic population
  • He says multicultural heroines, like Elena, let Disney fans, like Latina girls, feel more fully part of American society

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes

(CNN)It matters that Disney has chosen to make its newest princess Hispanic.

Princess Elena of Avalor, who will debut next year on Disney Junior's "Sofia the First," according to the company, appears to represent a commitment to diversity -- which also happens to be a smart business strategy in a country with a burgeoning Latino population.
Raul A. Reyes
But most importantly, Elena -- a princess meant to reflect "diverse Latin cultures and folklore," says Disney -- will offer young Latina girls an opportunity to see themselves in the media that they consume. Just like other American girls.
    And they will see a lot of her: Elena will have her own animated series later in 2016, and will be voiced by the Dominican-born actress Aimee Carrero, according to a Disney press release.
    In other words: Move over Cinderella, there is a new princesa in town.
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    From Sleeping Beauty to Snow White, the Disney princesses are a staple of pop culture -- fantasy heroines iconic to generations of young girls. Disney has introduced with great fanfare ethnically diverse princesses before: the Asian princess (Mulan), a Native-American princess (Pocahontas), a Middle Eastern princess (Jasmine), and an African-American princess (Tiana). And they are no longer primarily known for their ethnicity. They are simply seen as Disney princesses
    The same will likely be true of Elena. What's crucial, is that all young Disney fans can feel included, visible, and relevant through a multicultural lineup of heroines. By seeing themselves throughout our culture, the next generation of Latinas will feel more fully part of American society.
    Besides, it couldn't hurt for young Latinas have a positive role model, even if she is a fictional character. A 2012 study by the National Hispanic Media Coalition found that TV shows and films often contributed to the public's negative perception of Latinos. In fact, the Coalition found that the top three ways that non-Latinos viewed Latinos in the media were as criminals, gardeners and maids.
    Elena also reflects an important recognition by Disney of the power of the Latino consumer market. Last year, the Nielsen Company estimated that U.S. Hispanics have a spending power of $1.4 trillion, and companies like Ford, McDonalds, and Wal-Mart have all targeted Hispanic customers.
    Disney already markets a line of quinceñera dresses, so Elena could be seen as a logical extension of their brand. It cannot be lost on Disney that its rival Nickelodeon has enjoyed phenomenal TV and merchandising success with their Latina character Dora the Explorer.
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    Sure, some critics have expressed reservations about Elena, noting that she is not getting her own movie like the other princesses, and that she is on Disney Junior channel, not the more popular Disney Channel. And Disney generated controversy when it debuted "Sofia the First" in 2013. Sofia was initially reported to be the first Latina princess, and then the company walked back on comments by a producer and declared that Sofia was not Latina after all.
    But I think Disney should be applauded for trying again. The enormous reach of the company will ensure that millions of viewers are exposed to an uplifting Latina character. Consider Elena's series will be rolled out in 25 languages on Disney Junior channels, in 154 countries around the world. That's a lot of tiaras.
    It is welcome news that Disney is finally introducing a princess that looks like thousands of little Hispanic girls. Here's hoping that someday Elena will be seen not just as a Latina princess, but as a character as American as Mickey Mouse.