Mary Castillo takes a close look at the groundbreaking creators of Latino animated series now appearing on your TV screen.
Once upon a time, nine years to be exact, an adventurous little girl named Dora appeared on Nickelodeon. But her bobbed hair, brown skin, and bilingual patter made her a hard sell up against animated princesses.
"Dora was so unlike what little girls were supposed to be like," recalls Ligiah Villalobos, head writer of Go, Diego, Go! "She wasn't a princess, she never sits still and she's a chubby little girl in shorts."
Steeped in Latin traditions, Dora the Explorer premiered on Nickelodeon in 1999 and spread into 74 countries in 15 languages. Whether their last name was Salas or Smith, parents bought Dora dolls, movies, books and bed sheets, making her one of Nickelodeon's biggest success stories.
How did this little princesa who didn't have a prince or a fairy godmother dazzle preschoolers all over the world?
"The more [kids] watch the show, the smarter they feel," Villalobos said. "It goes beyond race, language and color."
But Dora's success not only spawned her cousin's show, Go Diego Go!, in 2004, it also created a pool of talent where there hadn't been one before. As studies such as The Multicultural Economy, 1990-2009 by the Selig Center for Economic Growth predict that Hispanics will represent nine percent of U.S. buying power in 2009, every company in the U.S. wants to stroll their wares before this diverse and complex group of customers. But to do so, they needed to find the talent who could walk the walk and talk the talk.
In 2004, Scholastic created and produced Maya & Miguel for PBS. Last March, Jorge Gutierrez unveiled his own creation, El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, for Nickelodeon, with his wife and co-creator Sandra Equihua. This year, Cilantro Animation emerged as a player at NAPTE, alluring networks with its Latino-themed shows geared for both Spanish and English-speaking Latino adults. Also in January of this year, Univision imported the wildly successful El Chavo: La Serie Animada, beating out the big networks in the ratings.
The Pre-Dora Days
"Back when I first started in 1986, there were very few Hispanics in the industry," recalls David Concepcion, production designer for Dora and character designer for Maya and Miguel. "In recent years I've seen more kids coming into the field, especially in computer animation."
Ligiah Villalobos, who had originally come to Los Angeles to work in advertising, found herself the head writer for Go Diego Go!, based on an animation script she had written as a favor for a friend. Even though she knew the ropes as a development executive for Disney and Warner Bros., and had written for the network comedy Ed, animation was an unfamiliar playground.
"I wrote an 11-page pilot for a friend who was developing a children's animated show," she said. "A month later, Nickelodeon was looking for a head writer for Diego and sometimes you have to be really open to what life may bring you."
Unlike with Dora, the producers of Diego decided that all the writers had to be Latino. Unfortunately for Villalobos, at that time there were very few Latinos experienced in writing for a preschool animated series.
"I had to train every single writer," she said. "It was very, very challenging when dealing with deadlines and schedules, but it was also the best decision we could've made because there are now Latino writers who didn't have experience before we made the show."
Scholastic had the same policy when they produced Maya & Miguel, a half-hour series about 10-year-old twins.
"Scholastic had it in development and was looking for a story editor who was Hispanic to add cultural authenticity to the feel of the show, as well as meet the educational curriculum requirements for a PBS show, which were largely cultural and language-based," writer Madellaine Paxson said.
With roots in Cuba, Paxson was raised in Miami and was able to draw from her own upbringing in writing Maya & Miguel episodes.
"I got a chance to channel my mixed-culture experience into the show," she said. "The little authentic moments, like a person sighing, 'Ay Chihuahua,' or even calling someone 'mija' add to the enjoyment of the Latino viewer, especially Latino children who can relate to the characters themselves."
Jorge Gutierrez, president of Mexopolis, had a long history of writing and character design, all of which gave him the fuel to wage an epic battle in development for his latest show, El Tigre. For three years, from the initial pitch to the first episode premiering in 2007, Gutierrez's idea about a Latino boy who has to decide if he'll grow up to be like his lucha libre (masked wrestler) super-hero dad, or his sombrero-wearing, super-villain grandfather, underwent many changes. But Gutierrez and his co-creator and wife Sandra Equihua stuck to their guns, so to speak, out of a love for their Mexican and American cultures.
"As a Latino creator, my goal was to create a show that would be authentic to my culture, but still be accessible to kids from all over the world," he said. "It's our love letter to our heritage. It's been my mission to showcase and celebrate everything I love about Mexico in everything I create."
Born in Mexico City, Gutierrez was encouraged by his architect father to pursue his love of art and storytelling. When he moved to Tijuana at age 10 and then later attended high school in the U.S., crossing the border on a daily basis, Gutierrez experienced life from two perspectives. His career ramped upwards when his MFA thesis, Carmelo, created in Cal Arts' experimental animation program, won him a student Emmy.
Influenced by Mayan and Aztec design motifs, lucha libre wrestling, and Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), as well as by his own idolization of his father and grandfather (a general in the Mexican army), Gutierrez has created in El Tigre a show that is popular with children and that is also true to his artistic and familial roots. The artistic integrity of Gutierrez and Equiha has paid off. McDonalds began offering El Tigre Happy Meals in January 2008 and the show has been optioned for two video games. [El Tigre also received the 2008 Annie award for Best Animated Television Production for Children.]
Growing Out of a Fertile Garden
Following in the footsteps of his childhood idol Walt Disney, Salvatore Cavalieri, CEO and president of Cilantro Animation, has opened a studio in Florida to create more Latino animated shows using state-of-the-art digital technology. Stepping out of the executive suites at Motorola and into the vast wilderness of entrepreneurship, Cavalieri and his team made a big impression at this year's NAPTE with Cilantro's original series Johnny the Roofer and La Carta.
With a mission to specifically target the Spanish-speaking Latino as well as the acculturated Latino (i.e., the Latino who may not speak Spanish and/or is first-, second- or even fourth-generation born in the U.S.), Cavalieri is proud that in such a short time his diverse team has created shows that stand up to the content coming out of Hollywood.
But he still faces the challenge of recruiting strong talent that also brings a Latino voice.
"Finding employees that understand both cultures is very hard," he said. "It goes back to the way Latinos are raised. Usually Latino Americans are raised by parents who want you to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. So the arts have not been touched that much."
But once Cavalieri has found the right animators and digital artists, he is adamant that his creative team not only have artistic skill, but also a working knowledge of politics, contemporary culture and world history.
"What I'm trying to do in our company is bridge the gap in animation from what is mostly American-driven," he said. "Our characters and stories bring identity to Hispanics and we want to bring [Hispanics and Americans] closer together."
Birth of an Industry: Anima Estudios
But all the action isn't just happening on the northern side of the border. Univision's success story with El Chavo originates from Anima Estudios, based in Mexico City.
Jose Carlos Garcia de Letona, founder and vice president of production and development of Anima, remembers when animation was a dusty wasteland in Mexico. "Before we founded the studio in 2002, there hadn't been an animated feature film in Mexico in 30 years," he said.
Coming from a career in web design, Garcia de Letona first saw the power of animation from its use in advertising. "Seventy percent of all traffic came from our animated portals," he said. "We thought there was great potential there, and from there we set up Anima Estudios."
But the absence of animated entertainment had left a dearth of experienced animators who could create the movies and TV series that Garcia de Letona imagined. "We brought a few of [our animators] from advertising animation shops, some of them came from film and animation schools, and the rest were people who were self-taught and needed the experience, but never considered animation a career," he said.
Within a year, Anima released their first animated feature, Wizards and Giants, which performed strongly at the box office and on DVD. In six years, they have produced and released two more animated features and the wildly successful El Chavo series.
Developed from the children's show El Chavo de Ocho created by Roberto Gómez Bolaños, the animated version had to emerge from the long shadow of its predecessor. El Chavo is the story of an orphaned, nameless eight-year-old boy who lives in a vecinidad, a low-income apartment building.
"It was a long-running sitcom in Mexico and the biggest success story in Latin America," Garcia de Letona said. "There are one thousand episodes of the [original] sitcom and they're still airing today."
Garcia de Letona and his team faced the challenge of staying true to the spirit of El Chavo and, at the same time, creating new stories that would be relevant to today's viewer. When the project was green-lit by Televisa, Anima Estudios had one year to get the first season in production.
El Chavo initially premiered in October 2006 on television channels all across Latin America. Garcia de Letona estimates that more than 400 million people saw the first episode within 24 hours. When Univision brought the show to the U.S. on January 20, 2008, El Chavo captured the number-one spot among adults aged 18-34, according to the Nielsen fast affiliate ratings.
With the second season of El Chavo almost completed and orders for more episodes expected, Garcia de Letona remains humble about Anima's success.
"We had to do the best with what we had and as fast as possible," he said of their beginnings. "We have learned so much and we pride ourselves in learning from our mistakes."
The Work Speaks for Itself
Even though shows like Dora, Diego and El Tigre have given Latino writers and animators the chance to showcase their cultural roots, they are adamant that, at the end of the day, they want their work to speak for itself.
Silvia Olivas, who has written everything from Maya & Miguel episodes to Ella Enchanted II, once worked on an Australian children's show. The producers weren't looking for a Latina writer, she said. They hired her because of her writing experience.
In spite of the success of Latino-themed entertainment, Olivas hasn't seen a demand for Latino talent. "I don't think [the industry] is specifically looking for Latinos," she said. "They're looking for good writers."
"Talent is talent whether you're Hispanic, black, white it shouldn't matter," Concepcion added. "I would be very disappointed in knowing that I was hired for my ethnic background and not for my experience."
Stepping away from questions of race and culture, Villalobos predicts that Dora and Diego's legacy will reach far beyond merchandising and new episodes. She sees these shows as the Sesame Street and Mister Rogers of the current preschool generation. "I think we'll see more college students pick a minor in a second language," she said. "And there will be more kids interested in science."
At the same time, she doesn't diminish the empowerment that the popularity of these shows has given to Latino children.
"For so many years you had to have English immersion and deny their culture so they'd fit in," she said. "I thought it was really important that Latinos felt empowered by their own language."
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Silvia Olivos wrote for Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go!. Olivos in fact has not worked on either show. Also, the protagonist of El Tigre was identified as Manny Rodriguez instead of Manny Rivera. We regret the errors.]
A lifelong professional writer, including a stint as a reporter for the L.A. Times Community News (second best job in the world), Mary Castillo is now living her dream writing sassy comedies for Avon Trade and Latina lit for St. Martins. Together with her fearless colleagues Francoise and Rascal (aka The Pugs), she is also writing young adult fiction, as well as a mystery series about a cub reporter in a small town. One day, Mary swears that she will write a great American epic.
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