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Dora: The pint-sized superstar

The fearless Latina character has helped transform children's TV into a bilingual, multicultural world, spawning a lucrative franchise along the way.

August 07, 2010|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times

The girl who helped change children's TV wasn't originally conceived as a fearless bilingual character. In fact, she wasn't always a girl. In the original concept, she was a rabbit … a male rabbit.

But the creators finally fixed on doe-eyed Dora Marquez, who kicked off the first show with three simple words: "Hi, I'm Dora." Dora began traveling through the jungle — speaking bits of Spanish along the way — and onto the nation's television screens in August 2000. Now, in what seems like a blink of her big eyes, the eternal 7-year-old is preparing to celebrate 10 (¡diez!) years on the air.

Every morning brings a new adventure. At the beginning of each episode of "Dora the Explorer," which airs weekdays at 8 a.m. on Nickelodeon, the Latina heroine and her best friend, Boots the monkey, are presented a problem. The adventurous duo, with the help of dependable Map, embark on a fun-filled journey where they solve simple math and word problems, meet friends and overcome various obstacles. All that shouting kids are doing at their TV screens? That comes when Dora asks her pint-sized viewers to help figure out the solutions with them. Dora also teaches viewers a few new Spanish words or phrases that are used throughout the episode.

The idea was to foster pride among Latino children and familiarity with Latino culture among English speakers, but only indirectly as part of an entertainment show.

"It was just about creating a show we thought kids would love," said Chris Gifford, who created the series along with Valerie Walsh Valdes and Eric Weiner. "We didn't begin to think how long it might go for."

"She doesn't just talk to kids," Walsh Valdes said. "She engages them. She makes them part of her adventure. She's their friend." (Gifford had produced "Clarissa Explains it All," on Nickelodeon and Weiner wrote for Canadian TV before the team came together on "Dora.")

Amid these warm-hearted adventures, Dora became a pop-culture superstar, a lucrative franchise and a force that helped shift the globalized juvenile television landscape that has become increasingly multicultural and bilingual. Dora, in some eyes, also became a poster child for immigration and the target of anti-immigrant sentiment.

The animated series is now broadcast in more than 100 countries — it's the No. 1-rated preschool show in many of them, including France — and dubbed in 30 languages, such as Russian, Mandarin and German, with Dora mostly teaching English (in some cases Spanish).

"What's been innovative about the show is it wasn't conceptualized or presented as a Latino-themed show," said Chon Noriega, director of UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center. "It was an educational series for kids that happened to have a Latino girl as the lead character. And it didn't shy away from having a character that spoke Spanish. That allowed it to do something that was very unique."

"She's not the first or the only Latina character on TV," said Carlos Cortés, professor emeritus in history at UC Riverside and a consultant on the series. "But she's probably the only one to be embraced by the world.... She came at the right time."

As if the sports-loving gal couldn't get any bigger, a Dora balloon debuted in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2005. She has also been featured in a number of YouTube parodies, cranking it out to rapper Soulja Boy's song "Crank That" and subbing as Alec Baldwin's daughter after his infamous voice-mail leak. And a video began circulating recently showing what Leonardo DiCaprio's sci-thriller "Inception" would have looked like had Dora starred in it.

"I had been hearing how big she was becoming during the third season," Walsh Valdes said. "But, you know, we're writing with our heads down. It wasn't until I drove across country and was in very small towns, and I'd see 'Dora the Explorer' tchotchkes, that it began to hit me. It knocked me over when I was in Guatemala; I went to a place that was 100% Mayan and I saw a Dora piñata. It was a knockoff, but it was still pretty amazing to see the reach of her. It's beyond us."

In its first year, "Dora the Explorer," averaged 1.1 million viewers ages 2 to 5 and 2 million total viewers, according the Nielsen Co. These days, "Dora" delivers an average of 1.4 million viewers ages 2 to 5 and 2.9 million total viewers, beating out competitors "Curious George" and "Sid the Science Kid" on PBS and Disney's " Mickey Mouse Clubhouse." Over the years, the show has won a Peabody award for excellence, an NAACP Image award and Parents' Choice awards, among others, and has received 16 Daytime Emmy nominations.

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