Dora the Explorer is one of the most recognized Latinx characters on TV. She debuted on Nickelodeon almost 20 years ago. This past weekend, Dora moved to the big screen, in Dora and the Lost City of Gold.
But before she was an explorer who traversed the world with her backpack and map, she was Stinky.
"It was a skunk," says Chris Gifford, one of the show's creators. In the late 1990s, he and two others were tasked with brainstorming the next hit on Nick Jr. After moving through various animals, they decided on a young girl who would go on adventures and ask the audience of preschoolers at home for help.
Originally, they imagined the girl would be white. But months into developing the show, the creative head at Nickelodeon, Brown Johnson, went to a conference where she learned that of the 80 prime-time characters under the age of 18, not a single one was Latinx. She came back and declared that the show they were working on would now feature a Latina.
Eric Weiner, another creator of the show, says, "At the time, Pat Buchanan was running for president, spewing all this hatred about, 'We don't want Spanish speakers in our country.' So this idea of not building barriers gave extra meaning and heart and urgency to the mission of the show."
The creators behind Dora set out to empower Latinx kids and normalize bilingualism. But they were all white. So they brought in consultants like Carlos Cortes, a professor from the University of California, Riverside. Cortes helped with cultural sensitivity and answered big questions, like where Dora should be from.
"Someone came up with the idea we should make her very embedded in one culture — Mexican or Puerto Rican or Cuban or what have you," says Cortes. But they couldn't agree which culture. "I said look, I think it's important that kids of different Latino backgrounds be able to identify with Dora." So they decided to move forward with a pan-Latina character, not from anywhere in particular.
And so finally, Dora the Explorer, with her signature bob and pink shirt, aired on television screens for the first time on Aug. 14, 2000. Within less than a year, the show became the top commercial hit for preschoolers ages 2 to 5.
Almost 20 years after her creation, Dora is now being re-imagined as a teenager (played by Isabela Moner) in a live action film. In it, she sets off to find treasure in a fictional lost Inca city called Parapata.
"Parapata is a name in Quechua, which means 'the rainy hill,' " says Americo Mendoza-Mori, a consultant on the film, who teaches Quechua at the University of Pennsylvania.
While Dora, the character, continues to be pan-Latina, the film grounds her in an actual geographical location: the Amazon rainforest. "We also want to use the movie as an opportunity to incorporate many aspects of this Andean knowledge," says Mendoza-Mori.
Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, who also served as an executive producer on the film, says, "I think Dora is an icon for kids, especially now that Latinos are being so, let's say, harassed by this administration."
The original team members behind Dora say they never expected anti-immigrant rhetoric to become so central to the American political discourse. "We hope that we had an impact on little kids who saw a character who spoke a different language or had a different skin color than they did," says Gifford. "So hopefully we made a little impact in that way."