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A Toy Story, Too

Ghetto Kids, dolls with a hard-luck background, provoke controversy.

January 23, 2002|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For sale: Ghetto Kids.

One is a brunet darling with chocolate eyes who has nothing in this world except her garbage can. Petra Guadalupe Antonia Perez, a.k.a. East L.A. Lupe, was abandoned by her adolescent mother after her father, a gangster, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

In the streets of Hollywood, Stephanie Flintclaire, a.k.a. Starlet Stephanie, is fending for herself because her mother is busy with her acting career and her father, a well-known movie producer, has lost everything to drugs. Tammy Jo Norman, nicknamed Confederate Tammy, is a homeless girl from Nashville who was sold to a lawyer by her mother, a waitress who became pregnant after a drunken one-night stand with a truck driver.

The green-eyed redhead and brown-eyed blond also come with their own garbage cans--a symbol of the gritty upbringing of all the Ghetto Kids, a new line of dolls suffering from tragic, urban problems.

Dolls these days do almost anything: jump on trampolines, eat and then soil diapers, even tell secrets. But Ghetto Kids (available only on the Internet since October at www.ghettokidshood.com) are, according to their creator, designed to provoke conversation between parents and their children in the hopes of preventing inner-city tragedies.

But the dolls so far seem to have provoked mainly controversy. The Ghetto Kids moniker and the dolls' troubled biographies have been the subject of criticism on ABC's morning program "The View" and its late-night "Politically Incorrect."

Chicago entrepreneur Tommy Perez says he selected the hot-button name because "it's an attention-getter." Indeed, the parental bios received so much negative feedback from Chicago-area shoppers that Perez has stopped including them.

"The word 'ghetto' basically means a place away from the center of town, a place where you kept Jews in the Middle Ages," says Perez, 55, who is of Mexican and Native American descent. "When I first put together the doll, I wasn't referring to the poor people in the U.S. I was referring to all types of ghettos, ghettos in Europe and ghettos in your mind," he says. "The doll is there to open the doors on all these subjects before society closes the doors on children who live like this." If that sounds like a tough bill for a doll to fill, consider the rest of the line: Carmen Lydia Julia Gonzalez, known as San Juan Carmen, was abandoned in a crack house by her drug-dealing father and heroin-addicted prostitute mother; Mary Margaret O'Shannon, called Windy City Mary, whose mother is an Irish immigrant who had an affair with a married politician, was left with a friend of her mother's; biracial Cynthia Kennedy, called Beantown Cynthia, was also abandoned by her rich white Bostonian mother; and the only boy, Sammy Travanti, a.k.a. New York Sammy, whose parents are Italian, is coping with smoking, teen pregnancy and the use of Ecstasy on the streets.

With about 700 dolls sold at $39.99 each, Windy City Mary, the Chicago native, and New York Sammy stand as the most popular. Latinos, says Perez, have been buying San Juan Carmen and East L.A. Lupe. Beantown Cynthia is selling the least. But none of the dolls is a hot seller. Perez recently placed some for sale on the online auction site Ebay. After a 10-day auction, 18 dolls sold for about $500, according to Ghetto Kids spokesman Fred Nawrot Jr.

Even as sales have stalled since the holidays, Perez is designing new dolls. His ghetto, so far, has excluded African Americans but not for long, he says. Hoping to invigorate his first toy line, Perez will take his Ghetto Kids to the American International Toy Fair in New York City next month to seek feedback from industry veterans. There, he intends to introduce the line's first black doll, which he declines to discuss until then.

"The truth is that there are people who are living those lives," said Terri Bartlett, vice president of communications for the Toy Industry Assn. "I'm not defending [Perez's dolls] one way or the other. But if a doll can bring comfort because a child can identify with that story, who is to say that it's bad? If someone doesn't like the doll, they shouldn't buy it, but that doesn't mean the product shouldn't be on the shelf. There are cartoons about ghetto pets that live on the street. There's been diversity in toys forever. It could give people some understanding of certain hardships some people are living. That's a great way of using toys."

Indeed, Ghetto Kids are not the first set of diverse toys on the market nor are they the first dolls to come with personal histories. In the '90s, Cabbage Patch Dolls came with their adoption papers, but no doll has included such explicit urban tales of woe.

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