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Latino characters commonplace in kids’ TV

From ‘Dora’ to ‘Dragon Tales,’ bilingual shows target growing audience
/ Source: The Associated Press

Each episode of "Dora the Explorer" starts with the animated heroine dashing from her family's hacienda, waving to her Mami and Papi and scooting off into the jungle.

"Ready to explore?" asks the brave and curious 7-year-old. "Vamos arriba!"

Just about everyone in Dora's world speaks fluent English and Spanish, their adventures are punctuated by salsa rhythms — and young TV viewers can't get enough of the mix. Her Nickelodeon show was the top-rated preschool program for four years, and when she was finally dethroned a few months ago it was by a new spin-off featuring her cousin, Diego.

If you're looking for television that spotlights Latino characters and themes, don't bother with prime time — those shows mostly ignore the nation's largest ethnic group.

Hoy, los programas de Latino son los que los ninos estan mirando. (Today, Latino programs are the ones children are watching.)

"These programs are making diversity a natural part of kids' understanding of the world around them," said Phillip C. Serrato, a professor of children's literature at California State University at San Diego.

Multicultural children's TV used to start — and mostly end — with PBS' "Sesame Street." For 37 years, the ensemble show has been a United Nations of characters, including a Puerto Rican family and a Mexican monster named Rosita.

From ‘Dragon Tales’ to ‘Maya & Miguel’
But now PBS Kids' has more Latino offerings. "Dragon Tales" was revamped last year to highlight Latino issues and include Enrique, an immigrant who is Puerto Rican and Colombian. "Jay Jay the Jet Plane" added a new bilingual plane named Lina. PBS Kids Go!, a 24-hour cable station to launch this fall, will include two hours a day of shows in Spanish with English subtitles, said Lesli Rotenberg, a Public Broadcasting System senior vice president.

The Disney Channel will debut "Handy Manny," a preschool cartoon centered on a bilingual Manny Garcia and talking tools, later this year. The Cartoon Network, meanwhile, has "Mucha Lucha," a Mexican wrestling cartoon, while the animated "Maya & Miguel" is produced by Scholastic Entertainment and aimed at Spanish-speaking kids just starting school.

"All the characters are bilingual to varying degrees," said Deborah Forte, Scholastic's president. "Abuela (Grandma) Elena speaks Spanish. The kids speak much more English, especially out in the streets, but they pepper it with Spanish. We studied the way families spoke and this was the way many of them did it."

What's driving the trend? Producers say it's demographics.

Census 2000 showed that Latino communities are the nation's fastest growing — and the biggest five-year Latino age group is infants to preschoolers. (Among non-Hispanics, the biggest group is 40- to 44-year-olds.)

Data has long shown that prime-time TV mostly excludes Latinos — UCLA research found that 4 percent of characters in 2004 were Latino — but few had focused on children's shows. Then studies in the late 1990s showed Latino youth almost never saw themselves on-screen and it made them feel society ignored them. A 1999 Annenberg Public Policy Center report said that "Latino American preschoolers ought to and deserve to see greater representation of their own culture."

Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Television, said the message got through: "It felt like an audience was being underserved."

After reading the studies, her producers revamped a brewing concept for a cartoon (its main character was a rabbit) and "Dora" emerged. The show debuted in 1999 and quickly became a big hit. It's now syndicated in 125 countries.

Every detail of Dora's appearance, family background and speech was carefully considered through the lens of her Latino heritage, said Brown Johnson, Nickelodeon's executive creative director. "In the original Dora pilot she had green eyes, but we changed them to brown eyes and made her skin a little darker," she said. "That was more appropriate."

Experts urged them to make the show's songs more Latino and to incorporate Spanish. "Dora" was the first mainstream show to try to teach Spanish by blending it into dialogue, as opposed to translating vocabulary.

"Here was a show that had a Latina heroine who was young and spoke Spanish in a cartoon," said Clara E. Rodriguez, a sociologist at Fordham University who briefly advised the producers. "If you had taken this to marketing people in most areas of the country that sold TV time, they would have said, 'No way. This just ain't gonna go.'"

Soon, Dora's cousin Diego Marquez, who rescues animals, was a popular guest on her show and in October the spinoff "Go, Diego, Go!" became an instant hit.

Lisa Raymond-Tolan of Brooklyn, who is white, said her preschool-age son adores Diego. "Even though we're not Hispanic, he loves learning the language. ... It teaches him there's a bigger world full of wonderful things."

"His Diego doll is literally in his hand 24 hours a day," she added. That's good news for Nickelodeon but worries some consumer activists.

Nickelodeon hopes the Diego products to be released this fall will rival sales of Dora clothes, DVDs and toy kitchens, among hundreds of other items. With more than $3.6 billion in sales, Dora products outsell those of any other preschool character.

Some fret that the new shows just bring TV's incredible marketing power to a new and impressionable group. Susan Linn, who wrote "Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood," said watching television is "exactly where the media industry wants them (kids) — where they can be marketed to."

Still, others are hopeful that television will grow up with today's preschoolers and make prime-time more diverse.

"I think it's catching on," said Christy Glaubke, associate director of Children Now, which studies media and children. "Kids' programming was kind of a testing ground."