THE BLOG
10/13/2011 07:38 am ET Updated Dec 13, 2011

How Cartoons Inform Children's Ideas About Race

The first middle-class Hispanic family featured positively on prime-time broadcast commercial television was shown in ABC's short-lived comedy "Condo" back in the spring of 1983. It took 21 more years before another functioning Latino family appeared on television. That came in the animated series "Maya and Miguel," launched in 2004, produced by Scholastic Media, and now seen on Univision and on PBS KIDS in select markets. The first animated Latina child in a positive TV role appeared four years earlier in "Dora the Explorer". And the first time a Hollywood film put a Latina child in a starring role as a hero was super spy Carmen Cortez, played by Alexa Vega, in the adventure-thriller "Spy Kids" (2001).

All those firsts, which met with great audience success, have not led to numerous follow-ups across the audiovisual entertainment industry. To date, when more than 50 million Latinos make up approximately 16% of the national population, Latino families still remain scarce on TV, as do positive Latino characters in all types of entertainment media, especially animated series. This situation merits more attention by Latino parents, educators, and community leaders, and by the image-producers and gatekeepers who decide what show will be produced and promoted, too.

Animated characters directed to children tend to be relatively simple and offer dramatic, colorful images that easily capture the little eyes watching. They are among the first type of mass media images to potentially impress and affect children. In the vast ocean of children's programs on broadcast and cable, there are numerous animated characters available for viewing practically 24 hours a day. Many of those characters are amorphous and without any identifiable ethnicity or race, although some voices can be connected with a particular vernacular heritage. But others do have some type of ethnic/racial connection and can easily influence children's views of their limited world and of themselves, too.

Reviewing the history of Latino animated characters on TV reveals that three of them have been sombrero type bandit (albeit humorous): Speedy Gonzales (1953), Baba Looey (in "Quick Dra McGraw," 1959), and the infamous advertising character Frito Bandito (1967). Other than this last character, four decades went by without any new Latino animated character contributing to the socialization of children. At the turn of the 21st Century, when new Latino characters finally emerge, four are shown representing wrestlers: El Tigre (in "The Adventures of Manny Rivera," 2007), and the three characters in "Mucha Lucha" (2002). Enrique came about in "Dragon Tales" (2005), as did Handy Manny in a series by the same name in2006. It is only in the mid-2000s, with Enrique and Manny joining Dora, her cousin Diego (in "Go, Diego, Go!," 2005), and Maya & Miguel as characters who positively solve problems and can do so on their own, or with their multicultural friends. Of all of these, only "Maya & Miguel" features an authentic, collaborative, supporting and functional Latino family--which in this case includes the ever-so-wise and endearing abuelita. A show like "Maya & Miguel" can encourage children of all ethnicities to have a more positive and realistic image of Latino families and the Latino culture.
Latino parents and educators cannot be passive and ignore the potential impact that negative images repeated at an early age have on their children and non-Latino children alike. The detrimental effects emerge not only from the negative images, but also from the absence of images that include Hispanic children as leaders solving problems, helping others, and "saving the day." When children do not have a context for interpreting negative images (or for understanding the absence of positive characters), there develops a greater probability of affecting their self-concept, self-esteem, and the impressions that others around them develop about the value of Latinos.

Parents and teachers should consider adopting and imparting easy-to-understand lessons that have emerged from the media literacy movement to raise awareness of the impact that media and media images have on children. They should strive to be more alert to the potential influence that characters (animated or real-life) can have on young minds.

Community leaders should also be on the front lines, raising awareness about these issues in their respective circles of influence: their churches, clubs, associations, organizations, and work. Those leaders, working with advocacy organizations dedicated to improving the presence of Latinos in the media (e.g., the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition) can make the needed impact on image-producers and gatekeepers - those who decide which shows will be produced and promoted. By improving the media environment, we significantly enhance what will be absorbed, learned, and modeled by the little eyes that are always watching.