NEW YORK — Don't underestimate her just because she's a little girl. "Dora The Explorer" is a multibillion-dollar franchise that may be creating a more enlightened generation, more open to different people and cultures not their own.
Ten years have passed since the Latina Dora became the first bilingual heroine of children's TV and conquered the hearts of kids around the world. Nickelodeon has celebrated the anniversary with a one-hour special that features the voices of Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo and Hector Elizondo, and a documentary with comments from Dora herself, the series' creators, experts from the industry, real-life kids and celebrities such as Salma Hayek and Shakira.
"I think that the fact that kids are identifying with a kid with darker color skin that speaks another language (shows they are more open)," said Chris Gifford, one of the show's creators and executive producers. "Kids want their parents to read them the books and watch Dora with them. ... That's what it's about."
"Dora The Explorer" is seen today in 151 markets and is translated to 30 languages. In English-speaking countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland, Dora teaches Spanish; in other markets – including the Hispanic U.S. markets – the adventurous little girl teaches English.
According to Nickelodeon, "Dora" has generated over $11 billion in worldwide sales since 2002, having sold 65 million units of Fisher Price Dora the Explorer toys, 50 million books and over 20 million DVDs worldwide. In France, publishing house Albin Michel has sold more than 12 million educational Dora books since its launch – or one Dora book for every child in France, the network points out.
Yet, the original idea for the show had nothing to do with a bilingual girl.
"She didn't start as a Latina or a heroine – she was a forest animal," said co-creator and executive producer Valerie Walsh Valdes. "Nickelodeon actually asked us to consider making her a Latina because a recent study said that there were no positive bilingual characters on children's television."
So producers turned to such experts as historian Carlos E. Cortes, author of "The Children Are Watching" and "The Making – and Remaking – of a Multiculturalist."
"He was absolutely instrumental in helping us find the best way to put Dora forward in terms of culture," said Gifford. Cortes advised that Dora should always be inclusive, so producers decided not to give her a particular country of origin.
"I am delighted with the way 'Dora' has come out, particularly the impact it seems to be having in young people," said Cortes, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Riverside. "The Latino kids take pride having Dora as a lead character and non-Latino kids can embrace someone different."
"I think that Dora has a very specific special relationship with kids at home, not necessarily for being bilingual but as a powerful character who invites kids on adventures," says Brown Johnson, president, Animation, Nickelodeon and MTVN Kids and Family Group. "Here, Spanish words open doors."
In "Dora The Explorer," the Latin flavor is present not only in the language and Dora's features but also in characters such as Isa the Iguana and Tico the Squirrel, scenes, themes and family values. The little star invites her young, preschool viewers to come with her on an adventure, where she usually faces a problem that she cannot resolve by herself.
Dora asks her audience to answer questions in an interactive show that includes silences that are long enough for viewers to suggest an answer.
"The kids are feeling good about putting together the puzzle bridge (that will solve the problem). ... Dora needs THEIR help!" says Walsh Valdes.
Each episode relies on the advice of educators and cultural experts, and can take more than a year to produce, in part because not one gets into the air without first being screened in front of the most honest and feared jury: at least 75 children. "Just the heartbreak to see those kids disappointed! We really take it personally. ... These 3 year olds," Gifford said. They really listen to the children, said Walsh Valdes.
Dora's voice has been portrayed the last three years by Caitlin Sanchez. The 14-year-old succeeded the original voice of Dora, Kathleen Herles, when she left to go to college.
"It's really an honor to play an icon," said Sanchez, who enjoys making the voice of the Latina idol in front of her little fans, who immediately recognize it: "It's Dora!" "She's got Dora inside her mouth!"
"Dora is like the most helping person in the world," the young actress said. "I have learned a lot from her, too. ... She's a great role model."
Stars such as Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek have spoken about the relationship of Dora with their families.
"There's a 'Dora The Explorer' (episode) where Dora's mom has twins – a boy and a girl," Jolie told People magazine in 2008, noting how her older children got ready for the arrival of her own twins. "They watched that a lot."
"I love Dora! She's been such a part of my relationship with my child," said Hayek at the show's 10th anniversary press conference in March. "I love that it's bilingual and that she's a heroine who has Latin roots."
Meanwhile, a Dora balloon made its debut in Macy's 2005 Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, the first time for a Latino character.
"It's flattering, but it also speaks about how Dora has transcended from just being a preschool show. There's something really amazing in her ability to cross over," said Walsh Valdes.
"Dora" has aired against the backdrop of the immigration debate. When the new Arizona law was announced, a photo of Dora behind bars as a suspected illegal immigrant made the rounds on the Internet.
Such is the influence of Dora, Cortes said, that future fans could affect the political future of America. A 5-year-old viewer in 2000 is now 15.
"It will be another three years until they go to college and be able to vote, and I think we may see a difference. You can't be certain, but our hope is that young people of all backgrounds will be more open," he said. "If Dora can do that, her impact is unimaginable."