Once upon a time in the land of West Kendall, there was a girl named Aimee Carrero who enjoyed watching Disney princesses, especially Sleeping Beauty and Mulan.
Even then, the Dominican-Puerto Rican girl knew that something was amiss. There weren’t any princesses with brown hair and eyes that looked and spoke like her and her friends.
Cue the magic wand and flash forward to 2016. Carrero not only gets to see a Latina princess, she gets to be one.
She’s the voice of Elena Castillo Flores in “Elena of Avalor,” the Disney Channel series that debuted July 22 and airs 7:30 p.m. Fridays. The character is being hailed as Disney’s first Latina princess.
“For me personally, growing up, I always wanted to see my images represented, especially in mainstream media,” says Carrero, who sounds as polite and giddy as the princess she breathes life into.
Carrero said she understands the significance of the role and its potential influence on today’s young audiences.
“I think it’s important because not only will it give thousands and hopefully millions of Latinos out there some representation, but I think also it will invite this princess into people’s homes who may not have any experience with Latin people. And that can only be good for promoting tolerance and unity among our cultures,” said Carrero, 28. “I think it just has a high social significance so I am honored to be the one chosen for it.”
“I would describe Elena as adventurous, self-possessed. She’s bold but she’s compassionate and she has a very strong sense of justice and family,” said Carrero, speaking from Los Angeles where she’s based.
Too young to be queen, Elena learns to rule her port-city kingdom with the help of her grandparents, royal general counsel and friends. As she learns more about her people and their needs, she also discovers what it really takes to be a future queen.
The show incorporates various Latin and Hispanic influences, from the castle’s Spanish and Aztec-like architecture to the music that Elena plays on her guitar. Viewers will hear bits of salsa, banda, reggaeton and merengue in the musical numbers that Carrero sings. Her character, who is pan-Latina, also has flowing dark hair that she styles with an apricot mallow flower, which is found in Southern California and Mexico. Spanish words are sprinkled throughout the show.
Disney is marketing the program with dolls, earrings, dresses, shoes and books inspired by the princess character. And on Aug. 11, Walt Disney World in Orlando will have a royal welcome for a real-life version of the character at the Magic Kingdom where she’ll play a guitar and sing “My Time” from the show. Prince Charming and Snow White will also be in attendance.
The Elena character was introduced on an episode of another princess series “Sofia the First” which has been airing on the Disney Junior channel since 2012. Back then, the Sofia character drew criticism among some Hispanic viewers and advocates on whether she was Latina or not. The little girl character became a princess after her mother, who was said to come from a land inspired by Spain, marries a king.
At least one Hispanic media advocate applauds Disney’s move for adding a new Latina princess to the company’s canon of diverse princesses.
“They are saying that you (Hispanics) are there and we want to welcome and celebrate the fact you are there and very deserving of our efforts to inform and entertain,” said Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group that advocates for the increased presence of Latinos in TV and films.
He watched the show’s pilot and liked what he saw especially because his 4-year-old granddaughter has brown hair, eyes and coloring like the Disney princess. “All of the sudden she has someone who looks like her. She was just so happy about the whole thing.”
Dr. Maribel Del Rio-Roberts, a child psychologist and Nova Southeastern University instructor, agreed, noting that children can be empowered by seeing TV characters who look and sound like them.
“I think it gives young girls the opportunity to see that there are strong, Latin female figures,” said Del Rio-Roberts, assistant professor and program director in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at NSU in Davie. “It also draws little girls into this fantasy world where they can imagine themselves and look up to this princess who serves somewhat of a role model…(Elena) is not only beautiful. She is also strong, confident and independent.”
In Avalor, the princess’s grandparents and other characters speak with a Spanish accent while Elena and her little sister Isabel do not. Carrero can see why.
“I think it speaks to the modern Latino American living in the United States,” said Carrero. “I am second generation. My mom has a little bit of an accent. My grandmother doesn’t speak any English and my brother and I don’t have an accent. I think [Disney] wanted to represent what’s happening now with Latino people living here.”
For Carrero, the Elena role is the latest in a career that started at 14 in musical theater during summer camp programs at the former Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami and the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.
“They really sparked such a huge for passion for live theater which is really what started it all. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be performing in some capacity,” said Carrero who graduated from Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School in 2006. “I am what you would call a ham.”
She later majored in international relations at Florida International University and was a member of the school’s model UN program. Since graduating in 2009, Carrero has been based in Los Angeles. She’s appeared in various TV shows from “Hannah Montana” and “Level Up” to “The Americans.”
But social media fans may best remember Carrero from her viral 2012 videos called “S— Miami Girls and Guys Say,” which poked fun at the exaggerated things that South Florida Latinas might say.
“At the time, I was so surprised but looking back, of course it caught on,” she said. “Especially in Miami and South Florida, we’re a very specific subculture of people. It’s heavily influenced by Latin culture but yet we are also American. Like Elena, it’s been a long time coming and I think people were ready, sort of desperate to see their stories told. I wear that like a badge of honor. I couldn’t be prouder of that.”
She’s also proud of her starring role in Freeform (former ABC Family) channel’s young adult TV series “Young & Hungry.” Since 2014, Carrero has played Sofia, the best friend of the show’s main character. Possibly in the works, a potential spin-off series that will focus on Carrero’s character as an aspiring journalist.
And like the princess she plays on TV who juggles various duties, Carrero will continue balancing her TV role while voicing Elena.
“I always say that I waited a long time and worked very very hard to get this busy. I hope that it just continues,” she said. “If I can just keep things fresh and keep working and stretching my acting muscles, that to me that’s the ultimate ultimate career.”