Dora's Lasting Magic : Code Switch Nickelodeon's Dora The Explorer helped usher in a wave of multicultural children's programming in the U.S. Our friends at Latino USA tell the story of how the show pushed back against anti-immigrant rhetoric — and why Dora's character still matters.

Dora's Lasting Magic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You are listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen is out this week. This week the Trump administration announced new rules that would fundamentally change who can immigrate to and stay in the United States. Under these new guidelines, immigrants who are here legally but need or might need government aid for things like food and housing, they will no longer be eligible for permanent resident status or green cards; in other words, poor immigrants need not apply.

Our colleague, Morning Edition's Rachel Martin, interviewed Ken Cuccinelli, the Trump administration's acting head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.


RACHEL MARTIN: Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus' words etched on the Statue of Liberty - give me your tired, your poor - are also part of the American ethos?

KEN CUCCINELLI: They certainly are. Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.

DEMBY: Of course this comes on the heels of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, right along the Mexico border. The alleged gunman in that massacre targeted Latinx shoppers at a Walmart, and in his hate-filled screed, he made clear that he felt that the U.S. was being overrun by, quote, "invaders," unquote, from the southern border.

President Trump has himself used the term invaders to describe immigrants coming across that same border, and the new immigration rules he put in place are the latest in a parade of policies and rhetoric from his White House that target migrants from Mexico and Latin America; that includes the ongoing detention of migrants and the separation of children from those migrant families and the recent raids on workplaces believed to be employing unauthorized immigrants.

But please, let us not get this twisted. This is not just the domain of the fevered radical fringes or a president inclined to racial demagoguery. Just last year, the Public Religion Research Institute conducted a survey which found that nearly 75% of Republicans say that immigrants burden local communities by using more than their share of social services, and that's the problem these immigration rules are supposed to be speaking to, right?

About two-thirds of Republicans said that immigrants threaten American values. More than 6 in 10 Republicans say they are bothered by immigrants who do not speak English. And while strong majorities of Democrats disagreed, most of the black and white and Latinx respondents to that survey said they favored creating an immigration system based on applicant's skills, their education and their proficiency with English, all of which is the context of what we're talking about this week. It's not nearly as heavy as all this news, but it's related, y'all.

Our play cousins at Latino USA took a look back on an attempt two decades ago to confront this growing unease with Latinx immigrants and bilingualism and implicitly with Latinx people more broadly. It's the surprising origin story of a plucky 7-year-old and a monkey who is bedeviled by this annoying ass fox and how she became a generational touchstone. Yes, y'all, I'm talking of course about "Dora The Explorer."

ANTONIA CEREIJIDO, BYLINE: One day in 1998, Chris Gifford and his colleague Valerie Walsh were singled out by their boss. They were working at Nick Jr., Nickelodeon's preschool programming, and they were about to get a very exciting opportunity.

VALERIE WALSH VALDES: We were given an assignment - come up with the next hit show.


CEREIJIDO: They brought on another writer, Eric Weiner, and the three of them started to brainstorm potential ideas.

CHRIS GIFFORD: The Bunny and the Mommy would go on an adventure together, and they'd go to the post office, and then you had a treasure hunt with kitty cats

WALSH VALDES: Right. Like, a group of rodents.

GIFFORD: Stinky, I think, was a skunk?

CEREIJIDO: They brainstormed a lot of options. But finally, they decided to keep it simple.

GIFFORD: We went to a girl pretty quickly.


CEREIJIDO: They were going to make a show about a young girl who would ask the audience of preschoolers at home to help her solve a problem in every episode.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dora) Hi, I'm Dora. What's your name?


CEREIJIDO: From NPR and Futuro Media, it's Latino USA. I'm Antonia Cereijido, and today, the breakdown - a Latina icon, "Dora The Explorer."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dora) It's storytime - storytime, storytime, storytime.

CEREIJIDO: So today I'm joined in the studio by fellow producer Janice Llamoca.


CEREIJIDO: Hi, Janice. And so you and I actually both independently pitched doing something about "Dora The Explorer," and that's obviously because there's a new film that just came out, "Dora And The Lost City Of Gold."


EVA LONGORIA: (As Elena) And you can track our coordinates on your map.

ISABELA MONER: (As Dora) But it's not the same. I'm an explorer, like you.

CEREIJIDO: But also because you and I both have very specific questions about Dora and the Dora franchise. So what sort of intrigued you about her?

LLAMOCA: I'm Peruvian, and when I realized that there was an indigenous angle to the film that was set in Peru, for me, I was kind of just like, how are they going to execute it? And with the history of how indigenous people are treated in films, I was curious to see, where was it going to go? What made you curious about the film?

CEREIJIDO: So I am actually interested in just Dora. Both you and I are, like, a little too old to have watched "Dora," so we didn't grow up with her. But I have this theory that Dora is the most recognizable Latinx icon in the U.S. And actually, I'm curious if anyone would fight me on this. I mean, try to name somebody more famous than Dora.


CEREIJIDO: I don't know.

LLAMOCA: I don't know.

CEREIJIDO: I think Dora is more famous.


CEREIJIDO: I do. I think it's probably a close tie between J-Lo and Dora.


CEREIJIDO: Either way, clearly she's become a really recognizable Latina symbol. So why did she become so big and what does that mean for how we, as a country, think about Latinidad? So later in the show, Janice, you're going to tell us about the new film "Dora And The Lost City Of Gold."

But first, I'm going to tell you how this all started. I went on a journey to find out who is Dora and where did she come from? At the top of the show, we heard from writer and producer Chris Gifford. In the late 1990s, when he and his fellow writers were tasked with coming up with the next hit TV show, there was another show that was the king of preschool programming.


STEVE BURNS: (As Steve) Have you seen Blue, my puppy?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (As characters) There she is.

CEREIJIDO: So "Blue's Clues" was this show on Nick Jr. It starred a man named Steve and his dog Blue, who was animated. And in every episode, they would try and solve a mystery.


BURNS: (As Steve) We'll play Blue's Clues to figure out who set up the whole treasure hunt. Cool.

CEREIJIDO: Our co-worker Maggie Freleng calls "Blue's Clues" a true crime show for kids, which is hilarious and also completely true. Like, the reason why adults like true crime is the same reason why kids like "Blue's Clues" because it asks the kids to participate in sort of solving the mystery. And Steve would do this in a very particular way. He would look into the camera and directly ask the viewer questions.


BURNS: (As Steve) What letter does kangaroo start with?

CEREIJIDO: And wait for the kids to answer.



CEREIJIDO: Which they did.


BURNS: (As Steve) A K, right.

CEREIJIDO: And this strategy of asking kids a question and then looking directly to camera and then pausing for what feels like a really ridiculous amount of time is appropriately called, in the world of children's programming, the pause.

GIFFORD: And studies were done that resulted in kids learning more vocabulary words when they would watch "Blue's Clues" because they were not passively sitting.

CEREIJIDO: Because of how successful "Blue's Clues" was, Chris and the other TV writers, they wanted to use the same strategy. They were going to use this, like, revolutionary pause. And at the time, they actually imagined that the character would be this young white girl. And so they knew that those were sort of the basics of the show. And then they started to come up with the other elements that would make up this white girl's world.

GIFFORD: We had the backpack.

CEREIJIDO: To carry all her tools.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Backpack, singing) Backpack, backpack. Backpack, backpack.

GIFFORD: We had the map.

CEREIJIDO: Obviously, to help navigate.


MARC WEINER: (As Map, singing) I'm the map. I'm the map. I'm the map.

CEREIJIDO: Quite the lyrics in these songs.

GIFFORD: We had the three locations.

CEREIJIDO: She would visit three places in every episode.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Then you go across Crocodile Lake.


GIFFORD: We had Swiper the fox.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Swiper, no swiping.

CEREIJIDO: Your traditional bad boy.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Swiper, no swiping.

WEINER: (As Swiper) Oh, man.


LLAMOCA: So these elements, they stayed. But when did the main character become Latina?

CEREIJIDO: So they had been working on the show for months, and their boss went to a conference where she learned that of the 80 prime-time youth characters under the age of 18, not a single one was Latinx. And then the head of programming at Nick Jr. came back from this conference, and she just announced - she was like, OK, the character that we're working on, she's going to be Latina, and she's going to be bilingual.

LLAMOCA: Were any of the creators Latinx?

CEREIJIDO: OK, so no, definitely not. And so obviously I had to ask them about this.

Were you at all hesitant about that? I mean, you know, were you like, oh, we are not Latinos?

WALSH VALDES: Of course we were. I mean, we had - all of us had kind of grown up with "Sesame Street" and a very multicultural view on TV of, you know, what the world looked like, and that was influential on us. But to come to us and ask us to make a show about a Latina heroine was, you know, it...

GIFFORD: But that's not how it worked, though, because if they were going to develop a show about a Latina heroine, I don't think they would have come to us.

WALSH VALDES: They probably wouldn't, no.

GIFFORD: But we had a show that would really work.

WALSH VALDES: We had a show they believed in, yes.

GIFFORD: And they came to us, and they said, we'd like to develop this character into a Latina. So how do we go about doing that?


CEREIJIDO: What they did is go and look for a little help.

CARLOS CORTES: Well, at one point, there were about, oh, eight or 10 or 12 consultants.

CEREIJIDO: One of those many consultants was Dr. Carlos Cortes, whose voice you just heard. He's a professor at UC Riverside. Once the new Nick Jr. show was going to be a Latina show, there were some big questions he and his fellow consultants had to address.

GIFFORD: How would you use Spanish in a way where kids feel engaged? What will the world look like? Where is Dora from?

CEREIJIDO: All right, so let's start there - where is Dora from? So this was a very important question because it would dictate the rest of the show.

CORTES: There was a disagreement among consultants. And some wanted her to be - we've got to - came up with the idea, we should make her very embedded in one culture, Mexican or Puerto Rican or Cuban or what have you.

CEREIJIDO: Chris, the creator, was partial to Costa Rica.

GIFFORD: Well, maybe we'll make her from Costa Rica because I had been to Costa Rica. I loved it. I thought it was really nice.

CEREIJIDO: But this is not what Carlos wanted.

CORTES: I took the opposite position. I said, look - there are Latinos in the United States of all kinds of backgrounds, and I think it's important that kids of different Latino backgrounds be able to identify with Dora.

CEREIJIDO: And as soon as Carlos suggested this, Chris and the other creators loved the idea.

GIFFORD: And Carlos came in and said, absolutely, she is Pan-Latino. We are building bridges, not erecting barriers.

CEREIJIDO: And in general, this idea of not erecting barriers was important. They wanted to empower Latinx kids in the U.S. This is Eric Weiner again, one of the creators.

ERIC WEINER: At the time, Pat Buchanan was running for president, spewing all this hatred about, we don't want Spanish speakers in our country.


PAT BUCHANAN: And our Western heritage is going to be handed down to future generations and not dumped onto some landfill called multiculturalism.

WEINER: So this idea of not building barriers gave extra meaning and heart and urgency to the mission of the show.

CEREIJIDO: So in the late 1990s, Pat Buchanan was starting his campaign to run for president. He would later release this ad where there's a man at home eating spaghetti and meatballs and listening to the radio.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Has signed an executive order saying that English is no longer America's national language.

CEREIJIDO: Then this man starts to choke. And he rushes over to the phone and starts to dial 911.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you for calling 911. Please listen for your language. For Spanish, press one. For Korean, press two.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Do you ever miss English? Immigration is out of control. Bush and Gore are writing off English for good. What can you do? Vote for the third party that puts Americans first. Vote Buchanan for president.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: For Swahili, press 12.

LLAMOCA: Wow, I can feel the xenophobia.

CEREIJIDO: Pat Buchanan's campaign came off the heels of a strong anti-immigrant movement in California. In 1994, Prop 187, a ballot initiative that tried to limit undocumented immigration to the state, was introduced. And at the same time, John Tanton, a prominent anti-immigrant activist, founded a group called ProEnglish, which advocated for English to be the only official language of the U.S.


CEREIJIDO: So with these developments as a backdrop, this question of how to incorporate Spanish was a really important one. Carlos, the consultant, he had a very specific idea of how he thought both Spanish and English should be treated on the show.

CORTES: I suggested that they frame Dora as a cross-cultural problem-solver. And because Dora was able to speak both English and Spanish, she was able to bridge and build a team with monolinguals of two different languages.

CEREIJIDO: The idea was that bilingualism was going to be Dora's superpower, and the fact that she spoke two languages was something to be celebrated. The creators also figured out Dora's last name. So Janice, I don't know if you knew this, but it's not Explorer.

LLAMOCA: It's not?

CEREIJIDO: (Laughter) No, it's not Explorer; it's Marquez. And they also decided her age, which was 7.

LLAMOCA: Ok, so we have Dora. Her last name is Marquez, and she's a 7-year-old girl living her best life.


LLAMOCA: All right.

CEREIJIDO: And then they had to figure out, what is this girl going to look like? They gave her that signature bob, which actually was very controversial on Nickelodeon.

WEINER: Nickelodeon products people said from the beginning is, guys, the No. 1 thing that kids like with dolls is hair play. You've created the anti-doll. You've created (laughter) - and Chris had to really do battle to preserve that, which was essential to her character.

CEREIJIDO: Valerie Walsh, one of the creators, found an image that she just felt really captured sort of the vision of who Dora the Explorer was.

WALSH VALDES: I want to say, like, Ms. magazine or some magazine back in 1999, where there was a girl - I think her name was Zizi (ph). And to go to school every day, she would have to zip-cord across the Rio Negro. I think it's in Colombia. And she had a brother with her in a bag, like a sack she would have to put him in, and zip-cord him across, like, 30 feet - this river. And she had all - like, her little backpack, too. She was in her uniform, her school uniform. So it was like, oh, my - talk about being prepared.

LLAMOCA: There seems to be a little romanticizing here.

CEREIJIDO: Yeah, I feel that. In any case, this is how Dora came to be. And on August 14, 2000, "Dora The Explorer" aired on Nick Jr. for the first time.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Dora, Dora, Dora, the explorer - Dora. Who's that super cool exploradora?

CEREIJIDO: And the show was immediately popular. Within less than a year, the show became the top commercial hit for preschoolers aged 2 to 5. And part of the show's success was the truly insane amount of research that went into every single episode.

GIFFORD: Each show would be seen by 200 kids before we ever...

CEREIJIDO: OK, so I'm fascinated by that process. How do you even get 200 kids? Like, what...


GIFFORD: We had a wonderful research department who worked very hard.

CEREIJIDO: The way it worked is that the creators would read a storybook version of the episode to a smaller focus group of kids, and then researchers would come and ask the kids questions.

GIFFORD: Did the story make you feel very happy, happy, OK, sad or angry?


CEREIJIDO: When would the kids get angry?

WEINER: I remember, well, there was one time...

WALSH VALDES: Oh, no, you're going to tell my story.

CEREIJIDO: There were two kinds of stories that the kids really didn't like.

WEINER: Cases where our adult consciousness unconsciously had seeped into the story. Like, we were working on a story about an old firetruck. Could he do one last mission?


WEINER: And tires were falling off the old firetruck, and very angry, you know, was the result. And we realized we were doing a story that is the opposite of something that is the way a preschooler's thinking.

CEREIJIDO: Yeah, little kids are not thinking about the...


CEREIJIDO: Right (laughter).


WEINER: So that turned into a young firetruck doing his very first mission.

GIFFORD: His first mission, right.

WEINER: I mean, we flipped it completely.

CEREIJIDO: The second kind of story was one in which the kids felt like a character was in real danger because Dora was asking for their help, and so they felt responsible.

WEINER: We had a story where the three little pigs get out, and Swiper was chasing them. And kids would seem like they were so into it, like a rock concert. They were screaming out the answers. And they were all picking - not just picking angry, but telling the researchers things they were scared about. Like, I need to go home and lock the door. And the researchers came back and said, guys, you can't have an interactive show where the preschooler viewer feels like he's responsible for saving these pigs' lives.


CEREIJIDO: So we know how kids impacted the making of the show; they were unofficial editors of each episode. But how did Dora impact kids or society in general? To understand Dora's cultural significance, I spoke to Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez.

NICOLE GUIDOTTI-HERNANDEZ: Dora first piqued my interest actually when I saw an article about the series in Latina magazine in 2005, and I started watching as a late-20-something (laughter).

CEREIJIDO: She's a professor at The University of Texas in Austin, and her article, "Dora The Explorer Constructing Latinidades And The Politics Of Global Citizenship," was actually one of the most downloaded articles in The Journal of Latino Studies of all time. And she says that because of Dora's huge popularity, her representation has had implications on how people understand the Latinx identity.

GUIDOTTI-HERNANDEZ: You are presented with a kind of generic Latinidad from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc.

LLAMOCA: Yeah, and I agree with the professor. I mean, I also understand why the creators wanted to make Dora Pan-Latina. It may be more inclusive, and other kids feel like they can relate to her. But then we're kind of erasing the differences between Latin American countries; you know, culture, identity - all those things that make us unique.

CEREIJIDO: Just the way that Dora presents, with her skin tone and her straight hair and her brown eyes, it sort of reinforces this, like, standard look of a Latina, specifically that all Latinos are mestizos - this mix of Hispanic and indigenous descent.

GUIDOTTI-HERNANDEZ: All of the recent scholarship and research that's come out in the last five to seven years, especially in Afro Latino Studies, has really been invested in trying to look at the ways that blackness and indigeneity have been erased. When in reality, if we look at especially new waves of Latinx migration to the United States - predominantly black and indigenous people.

CEREIJIDO: Professor Guidotti-Hernandez obviously has critiques for the way that Dora represents Latinidad, but there's actually one aspect of the show that she thinks is pretty radical.

GUIDOTTI-HERNANDEZ: I think it's a very powerful message for young people and for young girls of color in particular. She's sort of taking command of the narrative about where she's going to go and move in space.

CEREIJIDO: So Professor Guidotti-Hernandez argues that there's an anti-colonial reading of Dora. You know, whereas once conquistadors or colonists used maps to plunder and ravage communities, specifically in Latin America, here's a young Latina brown girl using maps to help her friends and just, like, live her life. And there's a last thing to remember about Dora that is beyond identity - the show centered kids in a way that hadn't really happened before in children's programming, and that's because of that pause that we were talking about.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dora) I call my grandma abuela. Can you say abuela? Say abuela.

CEREIJIDO: Dora had a very special connection with kids, and she used that connection to try and teach them to keep an open mind. Here's creator Chris Gifford again.

GIFFORD: We hope that we had an impact on the way kids felt about people who spoke a different language or had a different skin color than they did - hopefully, that we made a little impact in that way.


CEREIJIDO: Coming up on Latino USA, as Dora grows up and her audience does, too, how has the world changed with them? Stay with us. (Speaking Spanish).


CEREIJIDO: We're back. And when we left off, we learned about how "Dora The Explorer" rose as an animated star in children's television. Now we're going to take a look at the next phase of Dora and her impact today. Producer Janice Llamoca and I continue the story.

LLAMOCA: As we know, "Dora The Explorer" became the top-rated commercial show for preschoolers, which led to Dora toys, clothes and merchandise.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dora) We did it. We did it. Yay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: She dances, plays games and speaks Spanish.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Dora, speaking Spanish).

LLAMOCA: And the Dora craze didn't stop there. The show was adapted into over 25 languages...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing in French).


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, singing in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-Dora.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Dora) Excellent.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-Dora.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Dora, laughter).

LLAMOCA: ...Including Spanish. It was called "Dora La Exploradora."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Dora, speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Spanish).

LLAMOCA: Get it?

CEREIJIDO: (Laughter). Yeah. It's so funny 'cause obviously, it works in Spanish in a way it doesn't work in English. There's exploradora, and then explorer, which doesn't rhyme with Dora.

LLAMOCA: Her new name, Er Marquez?

CEREIJIDO: (Laughter).

LLAMOCA: "Dora The Explorer" became one of the longest-running shows on Nick Jr.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Dora. Swiper, no swiping. Swiper, no swiping.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Swiper) Oh, man.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Dora the explorer.

LLAMOCA: Now it's 2019, and the kids who have watched "Dora" are all grown up. Right now, they're about early 20s to late teens.

CEREIJIDO: Yeah. A lot of them are in college. Some of them are starting to pay rent, probably getting ready to vote in their first election.

LLAMOCA: Yeah. And I talked to someone who fits that age range.

So did you ever watch "Dora" growing up?

MONER: Yeah. I watched "Dora" pretty much every morning before school.

LLAMOCA: That's Isabela Moner. She's an actress. She's 18 - so right around that original target audience age.

MONER: I would always get called Dora because I had the bangs and the haircut and, pretty much, I looked like her. And so it's funny. It's all coming full circle.

LLAMOCA: Can you imagine how many brown girls with short hair got called Dora in the last 19 years?


MONER: Are we doing the pause?


MONER: No. I'm sure it's so many girls.

LLAMOCA: Anyways, it worked for Isabela because she's also currently starring in a little film called "Dora And The Lost City Of Gold."

MONER: And I am actually getting to play her. It felt right, you know, when they told me that I got the part.


MICHAEL PENA: (As Dora's father) But exploring is not a game. And you don't look before you leap.

MONER: (As Dora, yelling) No. I'm OK, Boots.


LLAMOCA: Dora's no longer 7. In the movie, she's a teen, and she's searching for Parapata, a lost city of gold of the Incas. And Parapata follows the same formula as El Dorado.

CEREIJIDO: For those who don't know, of course, it's the legend of an ancient, mythical place filled with gold that treasure hunters are always looking for.


LLAMOCA: And, of course, Dora is looking to explore it, not conquer it.

CEREIJIDO: The other thing that I noticed is that there's this huge push for these live-action films, the ones that adapt shows or movies that were once cartoons and makes them into 3D or as close to real as possible. Most recently, there was "Aladdin" and "The Lion King."

LLAMOCA: Your favorite - CGI lions.

CEREIJIDO: Don't even get me started about how, like, it's not live-action...

LLAMOCA: (Laughter).

CEREIJIDO: ...Or not real lions.

LLAMOCA: In the "Dora" movie, Swiper the fox, the traditional bad boy, and Dora's best friend, Boots the monkey, are computer-generated characters. And aside from effects, Dora in many ways is more real than in the animated series mostly because she's an actual human being.


LONGORIA: (As Elena) Just be yourself, Dora, OK? Come on. You're going to miss your flight.

MONER: (As Dora, speaking in Spanish).

LLAMOCA: But one thing hasn't changed.

CEREIJIDO: She still wears a backpack.

LLAMOCA: OK, fine - two things. Here's Isabela again describing her character, Dora.

MONER: They didn't want to claim her to, like, a specific place. I think it's meant to be broad and mythical so that people can really just put themselves in the story.

CEREIJIDO: Ah - so Dora's still pan-Latina.

MONER: And I would like to think that everyone, no matter where they come from, could relate to Dora, whether they're from Ecuador or Peru or the states but they have Hispanic parents. They can all say that they have some Dora in them.


LLAMOCA: But some things are more authentic in the film. The places are real or at least inspired by real places. Dora grows up in the Amazon jungle, and when she leaves and goes to high school, she moves to Los Angeles. And her big adventure - that takes place in Peru, a place that Isabela is very familiar with.

MONER: I go back, like, every year, so I feel like there's so much to explore. And then (laughter) - no pun intended.

LLAMOCA: As it happens, Isabela, the actor playing Dora, also has a connection to Peru. She's Peruvian American.

MONER: My family and I are very close, and a lot of my really, really, like, close relatives have already immigrated to the states. But I've got a huge majority of my family who, like, only speak Spanish who live in Peru. And some of them speak Quechua.

LLAMOCA: Once she got the role of Dora, Isabela really learned that she would have to learn Quechua, an indigenous language that's spoken in the Andes.


MONER: (As Dora, speaking in Quechua).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) What was that?

EUGENIO DERBEZ: (As Alejandro) Quechua - ancient Inca. Impressive.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) What does it mean?

EUGENIO: (As Alejandro) All those that seek Parapata shall surely perish.

LLAMOCA: She started by listening to an audio recording of her lines in Quechua and then repeated it word for word over and over again. She said she had to learn about three paragraphs in total. And sometimes, in between scenes, Isabela would call her aunt for help.

MONER: One time, she was, like, cooking, and she was, like, what do you need? She kind of was annoyed. And I'm, like, I know you don't understand right now what this is for, but I just need your help right now, please (laughter). She's, like, yeah. OK, (speaking in Spanish) That's what she calls me every time.

CEREIJIDO: What's a family for if it's not to help you figure out how to pronounce specific words in your ancestors' language?

LLAMOCA: Hello...

CEREIJIDO: (Laughter).

LLAMOCA: ...Right? Shout-out to my grandparents, who taught me how to say a few words in Quechua and count.

CEREIJIDO: Oh, my god. What are they?

LLAMOCA: (Speaking in Quechua) - one, two, three, four. Look, I don't want to show off too much.

CEREIJIDO: Wow, Janice - that's so cool.

LLAMOCA: But counting is so much different than saying actual sentences. Isabela and the crew wanted to make sure that Quechua speakers would be able to understand clearly, so words had to be corrected even after the movie was done.

MONER: A fluent Quechua speaker would know, like, hey, that's not right. So we fixed it (laughter). And it's crazy, like, the amount of detail that's put into movies like these.

LLAMOCA: And those details are important to get right because of how wrong Hollywood has gotten it in the past. Here's a clip from the 2008 movie "Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull." In this scene, Indiana Jones is in Peru.


SHIA LABEOUF: (As Mutt Williams) I took Spanish, and I didn't understand a word of that. What was it?

HARRISON FORD: (As Indiana Jones) Quechua - local Incan dialect. I rode with Pancho Villa - couple of his guys spoke it.

LABEOUF: (As Mutt Williams) Pancho Villa.

CEREIJIDO: This clip blows my mind. I can't believe it. He says he learned Quechua from Pancho Villa's men. Pancho Villa was a Mexican revolutionary. Also, this is only 10 years ago. Like, all of this is wild.

LLAMOCA: Right? The film has other inaccuracies, like placing Mesoamerican pyramids that look like they belong in Chichen Itza in the middle of Peru somewhere.

AMERICO MENDOZA-MORI: And unfortunately, that could give the impression that - the idea that everything that is below the Rio Grande is pretty much the same thing. And we know that's not true.

LLAMOCA: That's Americo Mendoza-Mori. He's a professor of Quechuan Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the only programs that promote the Quechua language in the U.S. Americo is from Peru, and he identifies as Indigenous.

MENDOZA-MORI: There's a legacy of industrialization (ph) of Indigenous groups and Indigenous cultures. And even today, we still have to, quote-unquote, "prove" the value and relevance and knowledge of Indigenous cultures and peoples. So when these representations unintentionally misrepresent, then we are reinforcing those stereotypes.


LLAMOCA: Just like the "Dora" cartoon brought on consultants, Americo was brought on to consult on the "Dora" film.

MENDOZA-MORI: To represent Andean culture in a major film that many people who maybe will learn for the very first time about the Andes and Quechua - I saw it as a unique opportunity.


LLAMOCA: Americo helped make sure that the Quechua dialogue was accurate. And side note - there are many different dialects in the Quechua language. The one used in the film is called Cusco Collao. Aside from language, Americo also worked on incorporating fantasy with reality and building a lost city of the Incas in the Peruvian Amazon.

MENDOZA-MORI: The movie's about a city called Parapata. Parapata is a name in Quechua which means the rainy place, the rainy colina.

LLAMOCA: Colina means hill in Spanish. And there's also a nod to Inca mythology with the incorporation of Kawillaka, an Inca princess played by Q'orianka Kilcher, who is of Peruvian Indigenous descent. There's also a part where Dora interprets a set of Inca constellations, which was a real tool that Incas used to tell time. Even in an action scene, the writers were able to add information about the Incas' irrigation systems.


MONER: (As Dora) I don't think this is a jungle puzzle. This is (foreign language spoken).

MADELEINE MADDEN: (As Sammy) What the flip is a (foreign language spoken)?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) It's an ancient underground aqueduct. Inca engineers built some of the most elaborate irrigation systems ever devised - water from above using gravity...

EUGENIO: I have a 4-year-old baby girl. She hasn't seen the film, so I'm excited to show her. It's going to be the - probably the first movie that I've done that she's going to be able to watch.

LLAMOCA: That's Eugenio Derbez. He's part of the cast. He plays the guide that leads Dora through the jungle. And if you recognize his voice, it's because he's also a very famous Mexican comedian, and he was also an executive producer on the film.

CEREIJIDO: So did you ask him why now? Why would they make a "Dora" film in this very moment?

LLAMOCA: That's a great question. And yes, I did ask Eugenio.

Why do we have a "Dora" film coming out in 2019?

EUGENIO: Right now, there's a fever for doing live action. And I think Dora is an icon for kids. And now that - especially now that Latinos are being so - I'd say harassed by this administration...

LLAMOCA: Eugenio is, of course, talking about the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has come from President Trump and members of his administration.

CEREIJIDO: It's such similar rhetoric to what Pat Buchanan was saying when the creators first envisioned "Dora." I think it's important to emphasize that Pat Buchanan was a third-party candidate when he was running for president. Now those ideas are coming from the White House.


LLAMOCA: It's interesting to think about Dora and her place in our society today versus when "Dora" first came out.

CEREIJIDO: Yeah. Like, in the face of today's anti-immigrant rhetoric, what does "Dora" represent? And I asked Carlos Cortes, a cultural consultant, about this, and he says that to understand her impact and her legacy, you need to look at what's happening in the generation that grew up watching "Dora." Most of those are college-aged kids, Gen Zers.

CORTES: What we're finding is that college kids today, when asked the question, which is more important, free speech or inclusivity, which is the "Dora" message of being inclusive, they lean to inclusivity as a larger value than free speech.

CEREIJIDO: A 2018 Knight Foundation survey found that over 50% of college students value diversity and inclusively over free speech. And according to Carlos, even 20 years ago, people wouldn't have even thought about asking that question. That's how radically people have changed their opinions, specifically young people.

CORTES: But I think "Dora" was part of the process of affecting the values of young people to make inclusivity a more important value. And I think - to that degree, I think it's fabulous.

LLAMOCA: This is an interesting example. But even if more college-age students value inclusivity, that's not reflected in our wider political reality.

CEREIJIDO: Yeah. People are divided - super-divided. And Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez, the academic that we spoke to earlier who wrote that paper about "Dora" - she said that there's a contrast between the sort of world that was presented in "Dora" to kids - so this sort of, like, borderless, open place where a young brown girl feels really safe and welcome - and the reality of what the U.S. is right now. And she says that for her students who grew up watching "Dora," it's actually kind of hard to stomach that contrast.

GUIDOTTI-HERNANDEZ: And so on the one hand, as you mentioned, "Dora" represents this tremendous amount of freedom for young Latina girls. And then you turn around, and you sort of look at, you know, the rise of the carceral state via immigration and anti-Latino sentiment in the United States, and it is confusing. I think it's very confusing. And we have a young generation of Latinx, as they're calling themselves now, kind of shaking their heads and saying, wait; like, there was this world that I imagined as a young person that was about freedom, articulated in things like "Dora The Explorer." And then I'm confronted instead with this highly policed existence on the basis of my skin color or my accent.

LLAMOCA: As we've been reporting this story, we've learned that cultural sensitivity - it's something that's growing. And it's something that's becoming more and more important in mass media - in films and TV shows.

CEREIJIDO: Yeah. Clearly, we heard from the creators it was important to them then. But now, just, like, the conversation's gone a step further.

LLAMOCA: But at the same time, people are openly showing their hate towards people of color, immigrant communities.

CEREIJIDO: Latinos specifically.

LLAMOCA: And that's the question. Nobody really knows what that means for us.

CEREIJIDO: Yeah. Like, why is it that at the same time that there's sort of, like, a progression in representation, there's also a progression in disdain for those communities that are being represented? And I think that that just goes to show that the values that "Dora" first tried to teach kids - those are still really relevant.


CEREIJIDO: It's 20 years later, and her message hasn't changed.


LLAMOCA: On a final note, Antonia?


LLAMOCA: We did it.

CEREIJIDO: (Speaking in Spanish).


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) We did it.


CEREIJIDO: This episode was produced by Janice Llamoca and me, Antonia Cereijido, and edited by Sophia Paliza-Carre. Additional editing by Marlon Bishop. The Latino USA team includes Fernanda Camarena, Miguel Macias, Maggie Freleng, Sayre Quevedo, with help from Jeanne Montalvo. Fact-checking by Lila Cherneff (ph). Special thanks to Sami Yenigun. Our engineers were Stephanie Lebow and Julia Caruso. Our production manager is Natalia Fidelholtz. Our New York Women's Foundation IGNITE fellows are Jess Alvarenga and Fernanda Odiegas (ph). Our interns are Lukas Southard and Jonathan Gaudani (ph). Our theme music was composed by Sena Ruenos (ph). If you like the music you heard on this episode, stop by and check out our weekly Spotify playlist. I'm your host today, Antonia Cereijido. Our executive producer is Maria Hinojosa. Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find us on your social media. Adios.


DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please be sure to check out other episodes of Latino USA. They do really dope work over there - seriously. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. And you should sign up for our newsletter. We're at And on behalf of the rest of the CODE SWITCH Squadron, I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.