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Daring duo of Latino animators

A married couple gives it one last shot and scores with the kids' cartoon series `El Tigre.'

March 24, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

This is the tale of "El Tigre," a new animated TV series about Latinos that was actually created by Latinos. It's a story, like so many in Los Angeles, of immigration, ambition, defeat, triumph and, of course, romance.

It starts at the border town of Tijuana, where the show's creators, Jorge R. Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua, met in high school 13 years ago and fell in love, initially against the wishes of her family, who are all doctors.

Gutierrez studied at CalArts on a student visa, graduating in 2000 with a master's in experimental animation. That's when the clock started ticking. If he didn't get a job and a work visa within one year, he'd be forced to go back to Mexico.

"It's the greatest motivator of all time to be told, 'If you don't find a job, we'll deport you,' " says Gutierrez, 32.

So the artist started schlepping from studio to studio with his portfolio, filled with fanciful drawings of colorful characters steeped in his cultural roots.

"A lot of studios would tell me, 'This stuff is too Mexican. It's too Latino. We really don't want to do stuff like that. There's no market for it. There's no audience for it.' I kept pitching and pitching."

Once he was even dismissed with: "The day Scooby-Doo goes to Mexico, we'll give you a call."

During this process, Gutierrez, who worked briefly for shows such as PBS Kids' "Maya and Miguel" and the Cartoon Network's "Mucha Lucha," was surprised to learn that "Mucha Lucha," about a Mexican wrestler, was created by two Australians. Even Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer" and "Go Diego Go," perhaps the best-known Latino-themed animated shows for youngsters, were not created by Latinos, according to the network.

"I wanted to talk to all the other Latino creators to hear about their experiences, but I couldn't find any," he says.

In 2001, Gutierrez married Equihua, 31, who had studied graphic design and illustration in Mexico before joining her husband in Los Angeles. They figured they had one last shot.

"Why don't we try to pitch a cartoon about our lives?" they asked themselves. "Let's look at everything we love in movies and art and literature, everything we really like from Latin America, specifically from Mexico ... where it's about their families and where they're from, with really personal stories."

Thus was born "El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera," the couple's visually dazzling cartoon series on Nickelodeon. The story is about a teenager, Manny, and his conflicted superhero alter ego, El Tigre, who knows the difference between right and wrong but has a hard time choosing. His best friend, Frida, who has a band called the Atomic Sombreros, is not the best influence, but she's a lot of fun.

Unlike Dora and Diego, "El Tigre" is aimed at older kids, 8 to 11, and is entirely in English, except for a few L.A.-inspired exclamations such as "Ay Cahuenga!" Mexican culture is the context, the stories universal.

The formula seems to be working. "El Tigre's" March 3 premiere was Nickelodeon's best for a Saturday morning series, beating the July 1999 debut of "SpongeBob SquarePants," currently cable's No. 1 show for kids 2 to 11.

"Latino content seems to be not just for Latinos anymore," concludes Gutierrez. "It's sort of reaching this whole new acceptance by the American audience."

J.Lo as you've never heard her

Jennifer Lopez will tell you that, as an aspiring singer looking for her first recording contract, she let herself be talked out of singing in Spanish.

Though her first demo tape was "Vivir Sin Ti" (To Live Without You), star maker Tommy Mottola, the former Sony executive instrumental in the crossover careers of Latin pop singers Shakira and Ricky Martin, persuaded her to do her first album in English.

"I thought that my career was going to be in Spanish music, honestly," Lopez said during a recent phone call. "My life took a different turn, which was great for me. But my heart was always kind of on the Spanish side."

What's odd about those beginnings is that Lopez, like many other U.S.-born Latinos, grew up speaking primarily English. She had to learn Spanish as an adult, "an act of will" that prepared her to reconnect with her roots.

The result is the singer's first Spanish-language album, a lush collection mostly of romantic ballads, titled "Como Ama Una Mujer" (How a Woman Loves), co-produced by her husband, singer Marc Anthony, and due in stores Tuesday. The first single, "Que Hiciste" (What Have You Done?), one of two up-tempo tracks on the album, is bristling with the wounded pride of a spurned woman.

"I know it's not maybe what people would expect from me," she says. "But this is a beautiful opportunity for me to show a side of myself that is such a big part of who I am."

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