If you were a kid in the late 90s and early aughts, you probably grew up watching Disney Channel Original Movies (DCOMs) – arguably the best TV movies the House of Mouse has ever produced. Disney Channel actually began airing television movies in 1983 (known then as Disney Channel Premiere Films), but by 1997 had rebranded them as Disney Channel Original Movies. While this era saw classics like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, Johnny Tsunami, and Halloweentown, the truth is, we hardly saw ourselves represented on the screen.
By now, Disney Channel has produced more than 100 DCOMs, so we decided to look back and find the Latino characters that played a role in shaping our childhoods. And while we didn’t find that many – we excluded films like Rip Girls because while Camilla Belle is Latina her character isn’t and disqualified some of the newer films (sorry, Camp Rock) – there are a few that we know we could use on our TVs today (Gabriella from Brink!). Below, check out 7 characters (all of whom are women) that inspired us 90s and 00s kids, and yes, all the movies are incredibly cheesy.
Before Christina Vidal starred in Taina – the Nickelodeon show with one of the greatest theme song known to man – she played another empowering female character: Gabriella on Brink!
As the only teenaged girl in her in-line skating crew, Peruvian-American Gabriella constantly showed she was as – and sometimes even more – fearless than her teammates. And though she always had snarky remarks at the ready, which is a plus if you ask me, she was also an awesome friend. When Val steals one of her dweebish friends’ shoes, she lends him hers – even if it means she won’t be able to change out of the girly outfit her mom forced her to wear.
'Ready to Run' (2000)
Ready to Run follows 14-year-old Corrie Ortiz. She dreams of following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a jockey. Given that her dad died in a racing-related accident, her mother is, understandably, hardcore against it.
When Corrie tells her mom that Hector Machado is looking for a new jockey, her mom tells her that she should become a teacher or go into a less dangerous field. But Corrie adamantly tells her, “I can be anything I want to be.”
Corrie is really passionate about riding, and that’s even before she learns she can talk to horses. After the quadrupeds see her freeing a horse in danger of being put down, they begin speaking to her. She earned, as her abuelita said, la confiaza de caballos. (the movie literally translated this to the “confidence of horses,” which is not quite right.) Instead of using her gift to become the queen of the horses, she helps TJ (voiced by Paul Rodriguez), a horse who chokes under pressure. She cleverly figures out that he just needs to block out the noise (the taunts of the kinda bitchy horses), so she puts headphones on him during every race and turns him into a winner.
Ready to Run doesn’t get as much shine as other DCOMs, but the fact that Corrie broke into such a male-dominated sport is reason enough to celebrate.
'The Luck of the Irish' (2001)
There’s no other way to say it: The Luck of the Irish was weird. After losing his lucky talisman – entrusted to him as the youngest member of his family, which seems unwise – Kyle starts transforming into a leprechaun. Unbeknownst to him, his mother is Irish and a leprechaun and his dad is a human. Up until this point, his family refused to tell him anything about his background. When he loses his charm, he begins to struggle at life. He also shrinks and his hair turns orange.
While Kyle was the main focus of this movie, it’s his friend, Bonnie Lopez, who’s the true hero. Kyle cruises his way through life. Bonnie doesn’t. She’s incredibly dedicated to school because she wants to finish at the top of her class. Bonnie has no issues calling him out on it. “Well, everything’s easy for you, isn’t it?” she tells him in one scene, upsetting him as she speaks the truth. 👏🏽 👏🏽 👏🏽
It doesn’t hurt their friendship, and the movie ends with Kyle stating that “Americans come from all over,” before he performs “This Land Is Your Land” with Bonnie.
'Cadet Kelly' (2002)
At the height of Hilary Duff’s Disney takeover, she played the lead character in Cadet Kelly, which follows a middle school girl who’s forced to leave her New York City art school (where math is optional) behind to attend the military school where her stepfather serves as the commandant. Having come from such an unstructured school system, the adjustment is rough. And it’s especially difficult because Cadet Captain Jennifer Stone – described as “the meanest 16 year old in America” – wants her to keep quiet and follow the rules. From the like 20 minutes we’ve known Kelly up to this point, it’s obvious that this isn’t gonna fly with her.
As Kelly and Jennifer butt heads, Gloria Ramos (Aimee Garcia) is dragged into it. On the same day of the school dance, Kelly fails to make it through an obstacle course. As a punishment, Jennifer forces Kelly to complete the course over and over until she completes it. Poor Gloria (who says she doesn’t like to dance, but still, really uncool, Jennifer) misses the dance to ensure that Kelly finishes the course. She even gets down on the mud to show her proper technique. We learn then that Gloria – while strict – doesn’t use fear to motivate the cadets.
Gloria pops up throughout the movie, and let’s face it, graciously saves Kelly several times. When Kelly decides to join the drill team, she turns to Gloria for help.
'Gotta Kick It Up' (2002)
At a time when Disney hardly celebrated our stories, the channel gave us Gotta Kick It Up – an early aughts gem starring America Ferrera (by this point her breakthrough film, Real Women Have Curves, had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival), Camille Guaty, Jhoanna Flores and Suilma Rodriguez.
Inspired by true events, Gotta Kick It Up followed middle school girls who persuade a new teacher to coach the dance team. As the girls figure out what it takes to be dancers, they adopt Dolores Huerta’s “sí se puede” slogan as their motto. They use the phrase whenever they need a boost of motivation, so expect to hear it a lot.
Though the IMDB synopsis is kinda cringeworthy – “a school dance team [gets] a new lease [on] life thanks to a teacher who lets them in on the secret of Latin rhythms for a big competition” – the film was the first time many of us saw ourselves represented in a Disney movie.
And that’s what drew Ramon Menendez (Stand and Deliver) to direct Gotta Kick It Up. The best part, for him, was sending out casting directors and “looking at Latina girls to be pulled into a movie and be part of this process and learn and present an image of Latina girls to all the Latina girls out there,” Menendez told The New York Times. “There won’t be one Jennifer Lopez. There can be many Jennifer Lopezes.”
'The Cheetah Girls' (2003)
By the time The Cheetah Girls debuted on Disney, Adrienne Bailon had risen to stardom as part of the three-member girl group, 3LW. But The Cheetah Girls – which also starred Raven-Symoné, Sabrina Bryan, and Kiely Williams – was an even bigger launching pad for her career. The first movie followed four teen girls living in NYC who impress Jackal Johnson, a villainous man who signs them onto his label.
Adrienne portrayed Chanel Simmons, aka Chuchie. In The Cheetah Girl books, Chuchie’s described as being of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican descent. In the first movie, she’s worried about her mom potentially selling their home and moving to Paris.
The first Cheetah Girls led to two more sequels, one of which was pretty problematic.
'The Proud Family Movie' (2005)
As Solange recently proved when she sang the show’s theme song (unfortunately without Destiny’s Child backing her up) at her concert, people have a soft spot for The Proud Family. And though you’ll see some mixed reviews – some who feel the show relied on stereotypes vs. others who believe the show explored complex themes through an African-American family – it’s true that the show was unlike anything on Disney at the time.
In 2005, the series wrapped up with The Proud Family Movie, which follows Penny and her dad’s complicated relationship. After he catches her kissing 15 Cent, he grounds her and bans her from trying out to become one of 15 Cent’s back-up dancers, which causes tension between father and daughter. But on top of the two of them falling out, there are plenty of other wild storylines over the course of 91 minutes, including the great-great-grandson of George Washington Carver trying to take over the world.
Though the show mostly centers the Prouds, it also explores adolescent female friendship through Penny. The teenager has a tight-knit group of friends, including Dijonay, Zoey, and frenemy LaCienega Boulevardez (voiced by All That‘s Alisa Reyes), who is Latina. They are forced to hang out together because their parents are friends. Though they seem to come from different worlds (LaCienega is rich and super popular; Penny is down to earth) and sometimes outright dislike each other, they respect each other.