From the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s Writers Program to Head Writer of Disney’s First Latina Princess Series

Silvia Olivas
Jun 9, 2016 · 5 min read

Going from being the only Latina in many writers’ rooms to leading the diverse writing team for Elena of Avalor, which tells the story of Disney’s first princess inspired by diverse Latin cultures, I can tell you that our combined experiences create the multi-faceted characters and world that will resonate with and delight audiences. Every part of this new show is enriched by a team of skilled TV writers lending their unique opinions, sensibilities and upbringings to the stories.

Elena of Avalor

When I’m in the writers’ room, I often reflect back on my own path and how I got here. I think about how many Latino writers could be sharing their own voices if they had the benefit of the mentorship and collaboration that I had. One of my first jobs was as a writers’ assistant on The Nanny, which is where I learned about the process in the writers’ room and knew I had found my career. My next job was as a writers’ trainee on Moesha, where I learned a great deal from showrunner Ralph Farquhar, who took me under his wing, meeting with me on every script and advising me on how to fine tune my work, just as his mentor, Garry Marshall, had done for him when he was a young writer starting out on Happy Days.

When I decided to put my career on hold after the birth of my son, I was leaving behind a successful career in live action TV. Three years later, when I decided it was time to go back to work, I was taken aback by how difficult it had become to secure a job as a writer, even with all of the credits that I had under my belt before becoming a parent.

I dusted off my scripts and submitted them. I called my friends and colleagues in the industry to no avail. It was then that I decided to apply to the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s TV writers program, but I was not prepared for the first interview call from their president and CEO Alex Nogales when I was selected as a finalist.

When Alex called me, my son was crying, I was stressed out and suddenly lost my confidence in my decision to go back to work. I told Alex that I wasn’t sure anymore, that maybe it was a terrible idea after all, and I apologized for wasting his time. Then something unexpected happened, Alex told me, ‘I’m calling you tomorrow at the same time and asking you the same question again — we need you writing and you will write again.’ He was right. I got into the program that year. It was exactly what I needed to relaunch my career.

Now, as the head writer for Elena of Avalor, I’m excited about how far we’ve come. Diversity in the writers’ room is mandatory, whether telling the story of a Latina princess, a modern day family or a plot for How to Get Away with Murder. When Elena makes her debut this summer, it will be the work of a diverse group bringing her stories to life.

Growing up, there weren’t positive Latina animated characters and now Disney has created this wonderfully strong protagonist who is on a hero’s journey to become a better ruler, negotiate treaties and be a good sister, granddaughter and friend. My hope is that this show will influence how young Latinos view themselves and how other people view Latinos, while exposing all audiences to a young female leader and role model.

Creator/executive producer, Craig Gerber, myself and the entire creative team have drawn from many of our own personal stories to inspire the characters and the world of Avalor. This would not have been possible without the collaboration and unique perspectives that each individual brings to the project.

In the Elena of Avalor writers’ room with creator/executive producer, Craig Gerber

As a Latina, I couldn’t help but bring some of my own experiences to the characters. Elena’s grandparents are as vibrant as my own abuelos. My grandmother watched telenovelas, and my grandfather played guitar and serenaded her well into the night. It was obvious that they had this whole life before we were even born and we learn from their victories, their failures and their wisdom from it all. In the series, Elena’s grandparents are an integral part of her life — serving on the royal family’s Grand Council.

Elena’s grandparents Luisa and Francisco

One Afro-Latina writer on our team spurred a rethink of our portrayal of the sea captain when, after reading the character description, she brought in a picture of her brother who has dreadlocks and looks nothing like the traditional storybook red-haired captain. Suddenly, the sea captain became a different character with a different point of view entirely.

When our team went in to test some of our early episodes with young schoolchildren, it was clear that they were all excited about Elena and connected with her regardless of their own background. The students gravitated towards Elena’s caring heart, strong mind and adventurous spirit.

Even my son, Maximus, who is now 8 years old, has taken to suggesting his own storylines. I’m proud that I can be a voice in bringing to life a show that he can be inspired by. Who knows, maybe in 15 years he’ll find himself as one of many diverse voices in another writers’ room. I hope this show encourages more Latino voices, like my son, to join the industry because it’s important.

NHMC TV writers program participants working on draft scripts

NHMC’s TV writers program is accepting applications again, now through August 7. I would encourage all aspiring writers to join the program, learn from your peers, tackle your fears and bring the richness of your experience to stories for audiences all over the world.

Latinx Mic

Amplifying diverse voices in media.

Silvia Olivas

Written by

Humanitas Award nominated writer and alumna of the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s TV writers program. Currently head writer on Disney’s “Elena of Avalor.”

Latinx Mic

Amplifying diverse voices in media.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade