By Ariadna Sandoval
Boston University News Service
Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. The list of popular Disney princesses goes on: Ariel, Mulan, Pocahontas, Belle, Jasmine. Maricielo Moncada’s 9-year-old eyes skimmed the list, searching for a princess that looked like her.
The end of the list dashed Moncada’s hopes of dressing up as a Disney princess for her elementary school’s 2009 Halloween “Disney Day.”
“I could never relate to any Princess,” said now 21-year-old Moncada, a Peruvian student studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I used to look at the princesses and think ‘I want to be blonde, I want that skin color, I want blue eyes.’” As a child, Moncada looked for ways to resemble famous princesses by mimicking their dress style, while her white friends could rely on their natural features.
For Latin communities, the movie “Encanto” is a big step toward cultural representation. The film is set in Colombia and introduces cultural customs and characters Latin children can relate to.
“A lack of representation of a certain race can cause young children to deem themselves less worthy of getting a character in a movie,” said Vanessa Olivos, a first-grade teacher at McLaurin Elementary School. “When you aren’t represented in films it makes you think you need to be like what you see most or that your culture isn’t as important.”
Studies have shown that when children see themselves on a screen, it helps them decide how they feel about their identity, as they feel secure in knowing others around them share a similar lifestyle.
As time went on, audiences’ hope for Latin representation faded away. With stereotypical portrayals about Peruvian emperors that turn into alpacas (“The Emperor’s New Groove”), some students like Moncada say that Disney failed to tastefully portray Latin American culture.
“I once had someone ask me if I used an alpaca to go to school because they had seen ‘The Emperor’s New Groove,’” said Moncada. “They were shocked to find out I live in the city and travel by car.”
Despite Disney’s history of colorism, the brand has recently taken steps to diversify its characters. With princesses like Tiana and Moana, Disney has expanded its cultural repertoire.
Not only do Latin characters only make about 6% of characters in films, their portrayal is usually guided by stereotypes, according to a 2019 report by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
But in “Encanto,” Latin culture is accurately represented. The film illustrates Colombia as a culturally rich country, with depictions of traditional gastronomical plates and distinct similar architectural styles.
“Encanto” challenges the idea that South American countries are dangerous and violent. Instead of depicting South America as the host of drug-dealing characters, “Encanto” focuses on a core Latin value: family.
“Family is everything for me, that’s why I love ‘Encanto’s’ focus on it,” said Bella Ferreira, a Colombian student and member of Alianza Latina at Boston University. “The [Madrigal] family’s strength to keep their house in place is something I admire, I can relate to their struggle, my family did a lot to reach where we are today.”
With a cast of unique characters connoting the diversity found within the Colombian community, “Encanto” provides the viewer with a true sense of what Colombia is: a culturally rich and strong country.
“I would have loved to have seen a film like ‘Encanto’ when I was younger, see my skin color, my hair, and my Latin heritage in those Disney characters,” said Moncada.
Not only is “Encanto” nominated for two Oscars, but the film has also earned social media recognition on TikTok for its viral soundtrack. With “Encanto’s” popularity growing, Latin children can feel secure in knowing their culture is recognized.
“Everything we hear, see and watch as children build our opinions on how we view the world and ourselves,” said Olivos. “When you are represented, it shows your culture is valued just the same as every other culture and that you can accomplish all of the same things that others do.”