Published May 21, 2010
CHICAGO -- In her police mug shot, the doe-eyed cartoon heroine with the bowl haircut has a black eye, battered lip and bloody nose.
Dora the Explorer's alleged crime? "Illegal Border Crossing Resisting Arrest."
The doctored picture, one of several circulating widely in the aftermath of Arizona's controversial new immigration law, may seem harmless, ridiculous or even tasteless.
But experts say the pictures and the rhetoric surrounding them online, in newspapers and at public rallies, reveal some Americans' attitudes about race, immigrants and where some of immigration reform debate may be headed.
For about a decade, the pint-sized Latina character has taught millions of children the English alphabet, colors and Spanish phrases on a Nickelodeon TV show and through a global empire. Her smiling cherub face is plastered on everything from backpacks to T-shirts to fruit snacks.
But since the passage of the Arizona law -- which requires authorities to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally -- Dora's life and immigration status have been scrutinized and mocked.
"Dora is kind of like a blank screen onto which people can project their thoughts and feelings about Latinos," said Erynn Masi de Casanova, a sociology professor at the University of Cincinnati. "They feel like they can say negative things because she's only a cartoon character."
The depictions, whether through irony or protest, are being used by those who oppose and support Arizona's law. On one hand she's a likable symbol who many can relate to, and at the same time, perceived as an outsider who doesn't belong anywhere.
It's not the first time a children's character has been dragged into a serious debate.
In the late 1990s, Tinky Winky the Teletubby, a purple children's TV character with a triangle antenna -- was called out by Christian leaders for being gay. Sesame Street roommates Bert and Ernie are often involved in statements on same-sex marriage.
Both shows' producers say the characters aren't gay.
In Dora's case, especially because her image is so widely available, she's an easy target as discussion ramps up on how lawmakers should address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Several websites, including The Huffington Post, have narrated Dora's mock capture by immigration authorities. One picture circulating on Facebook shows an ad for a TV show called "Dora the Illegal Immigrant." On the Facebook page "Dora the Explorer is soo an Illegal Immigrant," there are several images showing her sailing through the air over the U.S.-Mexican border.
Many of the Dora images assume the Latina character is an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
But that's where it gets complicated.
Representatives from Nickelodeon declined to comment on Dora's background, and her place of birth or citizenship have never been clear. She has brown skin, dark hair and speaks Spanish with an American accent.
"She's always been ambiguously constructed," said Angharad Valdivia, who teaches media studies at the University of Illinois and has explored the issue. "In the U.S. the way we understand race is about putting people in categories and we're uncomfortable with people we can't put into categories."
Dora lives in an unidentified location with pyramids that suggest Mexico, but also tropical elements such as palm trees and her friends, Isa the iguana and Boots the monkey. Does that mean she's from South America or Florida?
Then there's oak trees and her fox nemesis Swiper, which are more common to the American Midwest.
The show often plays Salsa-like music, which has some roots in Cuba and is popular across Latin America.
Even the voice actresses behind Dora don't provide insight.
The original Dora voice belonged to Kathleen Herles, whose parents are from Peru. Dora is currently voiced by actress Caitlin Sanchez, a New Jersey-born teen who calls herself Cuban American; her grandparents are Cuban.
The images have been used on all sides of the immigration reform debate.
Many immigrant families, particularly Latinos, see Dora as a symbol of freedom, someone to relate to. She's a young girl with brown skin who lives in a borderless world and can travel anywhere she wants without consequence.
"It's symbolic of the way many Latinos live ambiguously in the United States," said Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez who teaches gender studies at the University of Arizona. "It's a shorthand for claiming our lives in the United States, especially for children."
At the same time, Guidotti-Hernandez says the ambiguity and negative imagery makes Dora susceptible to being used by those who support the Arizona law.
As for the mug shot, it's been around since late last year, when Debbie Groben of Florida created it and entered it in a contest for the fake news site FreakingNews.com.
Since debate over the Arizona law heated up America's immigration debate, it's been e-mailed and texted widely and used on signs at rallies.
"My intentions were to do something funny, something and irreverent," said Groben, who said she opposes Arizona's law. "I actually like the little kid."
The issue appears to have resonated little with Dora's biggest fans, the millions of parents and their children who seem mostly unaware of the discussion encircling their beloved cartoon.
Altamise Leach, who has three children, said Dora's ethnicity and citizenship are irrelevant.
The stay-at-home mom credits the cartoon with helping teach her children team work. She even threw her 3-year-old daughter a Dora birthday party, complete with a Dora-like adventure, Dora cake and a woman who dressed up as Dora.
"We have so many diverse cultures, let's try to embrace everybody," Leach said. "She puts a smile on my daughter's face, that's all I want."
Erick Wyatt said he never thought about Dora's origins and his three children never asked.
"I just thought she was a cartoon character that spoke Spanish," the Michigan man said.