Silvia Olivas is the Emmy-award winning head writer for Elena of Avalor, Disney’s first Latina princess show, but before she was a Hollywood success story, she was a second-generation Mexican-American ‘80s kid who was labeled “at risk.”
“I was ‘at-risk’ because my mom was a first-generation Mexican-American, single-mother raising five kids with only a 7th-grade education,” Olivas said at a fundraiser for at-risk youth a couple of years ago. She grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles but graduated high school at the top of her class and earned a bachelor’s in television from Loyola Marymount University.
Olivas’ first staff writing job was for Moesha—which ran from 1996 to 2001 and is now available on Netflix. It was there where she met her first mentor, show creator Ralph Farquhar. Story breaking sessions were more like therapy sessions, Olivas says. She credits Farquhar with encouraging vulnerability for better storytelling and, in turn, helping her find her voice. She recalls his advice, which she considers the best advice she’s ever received: “Your best pitches happen when your face is red, your eyes are watery, and your voice is shaky. And if you’re not willing to write from that place all the time, why write? Why take up space?”
“Figure out what you’re ‘at-risk’ of doing in your life, then do it.”
After her work on Moesha, Olivas moved on to projects like The Brothers Garcia on Nickelodeon, East Los High on Hulu, The Proud Family on Disney, and Maya & Miguel on PBS. But it was her turn as head writer on the award-winning Elena of Avalor that brought her the opportunity to use her voice to bring to life teenage princess Elena of the fictional Latin American inspired land of Avalor. The series follows 16-year-old princess Elena Castillo Flores as she learns to rule after saving her kingdom from an evil sorceress.
The show launched in July 2016 and its finale airs this Sunday, Aug. 23 on Disney Junior. It will mark a milestone in Elena’s life as she goes from princess to queen—a moment Olivas is proud of. “I am thrilled that we got to put a Latina on a hero’s journey. Those epic adventures are usually reserved for male characters.”
“The Latino community was waiting a long time for a Latina Disney princess, and it was important to me that mi gente knew that I saw them and I was telling our stories,” she says. “We worked extremely hard to ensure the authenticity of Elena’s Latinidad was baked into every episode by drawing from all facets of our beautifully diverse Latino culture and traditions.”
The show has been praised for its authentic portrayal of Latin American traditions thanks in part to the work of cultural consultants alongside the writers. Latin American cultural influences can be seen in elements like The Spirit World Tree (inspired by the Tree of Life), her spirit guide Zuzo, modeled after the Mayan belief of chanul, and the Sonora/Baja California-grown apricot mallow flower in Elena’s hair.
“Silvia played a key role in launching ‘Elena of Avalor,’” Diane Ikemiyashiro, vice president, Current Series, Disney Junior, tells Remezcla. The authentic stories that she inspired during her work on the series and her love for the character helped Elena become a beloved role model for children around the world.”
Olivas says one of her proudest moments on the show is the Dia de Los Muertos episode inspired by her youth, during which an altar was set up in her home year-round. She received some pushback with concerns that the audience was too young but the show honored the significance of the holiday and she says many parents told her it helped them discuss loss with their kids.
That authenticity emphasizes the importance of having the teams behind the scenes reflect the cultures being represented on screen. Now that Elena of Avalor is coming to an end, Olivas is working on other projects in both TV and film that feature Latinx characters.
“I’m tired of Latino stories being filtered through the lens of non-Latinos. No more stories about us, without us,” she says. “Diversity must be baked into the project from the start, and Latinos need to be in every key role. You can’t just throw Latino consultants on a project after the script is written. The financial success of ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is proof that baking in diversity from the start doesn’t just make sense. It makes dollars.”
Olivas shares that all aspects of the job are challenging but encourages aspiring writers of color to keep going in the face of limited access and opportunities. Some of the organizations she recommends following include La Lista, Untitled Latinx Project, The Afro Latinx & Afro Caribbean Film and TV Directory, Latinx Directors, Latinx TV List and the NHMC Writers Program.
Beyond the community she’s leaned on for support through the years, she still holds on to the piece of advice her mom gave her: “It doesn’t matter what people say about you. It only matters what you say about yourself.”
Olivas flipped the script and let her career speak for itself.
“So, as the co-executive producer and head writer of Disney’s first Latina princess series ‘Elena of Avalor,’ Netflix’s ‘Maya and the Three,’ and a recent Emmy Winner,” Olivas expressed that night at the fundraiser, “I say figure out what you’re ‘at-risk’ of doing in your life, then do it.”