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As a minority, finding self-representations on TV or film can be a difficult. While the entertainment industry has made efforts to depict a wider range of ethnicities, colors, sizes, and sexual orientations, it still felt like a momentous event when ABC’s Once Upon a Time announced that the new Cinderella for season 7, played by Dania Ramirez, would not be the classic white damsel in distress, but rather a fierce sword-fighting Latina warrior.
Now famous for her roles on Devious Maids and Entourage, Ramirez always knew she wanted to be an actress, but her early life would make future stardom seem unlikely. In the Dominican Republic, she grew up without water or electricity and was raised by her grandmother after her parents immigrated to the United States when she was 6-months-old. (She would eventually join them in New York City when she was 10.)
She was discovered by a modeling scout first, and went on to study at New York’s Actor’s Workshop before moving to Los Angeles to dedicate herself to acting. In 1998, she got her first major gig in Jay Z’s music video for “Streets is Watching.”
But it wasn’t until 2013, when she landed a starring role on Eva Longoria’s Devious Maids, that she reached breakout stardom.
In a recent interview for Entertainment Weekly, Ramirez gave an overview of the new season of Once Upon A Time and talked about playing Cinderella in the fairytale world and Jacinda–pronounced the Latino way, with an “h” sound instead of the “j“–in the real world. Season 7 keeps up with the parallel universes we’ve seen in seasons 1-6, but Season 7 opens a new storybook with a new curse. Ramirez’s Cinderella, who was previously played by Jessy Schram, is edgier and tougher. She also has a child, so the stakes are higher.
“She’s not waiting to just go and meet the prince and marry him and have this guy come sweep her off her feet. She’s really taking action and really taking things into her own hands and is more of a rebel as the younger version in the fairy-tale world,” she told EW. “There’s a lot of those rebellious moments that she has as Jacinda in the real world, however, she has her daughter to think about. So there’s a different weight to her actions that take place in the real world that doesn’t take place for her in the fairy-tale world. And there’s a different kind of freedom that she has in the fairy tale world because of that, because she’s really just fighting for herself.”
For Ramirez, the opportunity to interpret Cinderella as a Latina is a dream come true: “The thought of even remotely thinking that I could ever, in any realm of possibility, play such an iconic character, that it’s not even written to play for someone that looks like me, that is like me, it was just overwhelming.”
It wasn’t until 1992 that Disney first introduced a princess with a medium skin-tone with Aladdin‘s Jasmine. Since then, they’ve introduced Pocahontas (1992), Mulan (1998), and Tiana (2009). And rumor has it that Once Upon A Time may cast Mekia Cox as Tiana, which would make her the first black Disney princess on T.V. Latina Lana Parrilla, who interprets the Evil Queen on the show, also represents a major stride toward greater diversity.
“All of these emotions are universal and they affect everyone, no matter what country you’re from or what ethnicity you are….,” Ramirez told EW about the popular appeal of the show. “You relate to them because of the universal themes of the characters, not because of how the characters look. So I feel like it’s really groundbreaking.”
Catch Once Upon a Time on Fridays at 8:00 p.m. EST on ABC.