Dora the Explorer, eponymous Latina star of the animated Nickelodeon series, is a bilingual problem solver who confidently traverses unknown territory in every episode. In “City of Lost Toys,” a typical episode, Dora sets out to find her missing teddy bear, Osito, and other toys her friends have lost. She’s helped along the way by her sidekick (a monkey named Boots), her trusty map, and a group of magical stars she and Boots catch. The first landmark Dora reaches on her journey is a Mesoamerican-style pyramid where she must complete basic counting and arithmetic problems. She then makes her way through a jungle, eventually arriving at a neo-Mayan Lost City hidden behind a curtain that lifts only when Dora leads the viewer in, calling “Arriba!”—the Spanish word for “up.” Once inside the Lost City, Dora reclaims Osito and her friends’ missing toys. She and Boots dance and sing “We Did It!/¡Lo hicimos!,” the jubilant song of self-affirmation that ends each episode.
Short, broad, brown-skinned, and Spanish-speaking, Dora is phenotypically and culturally a mestiza (racially mixed) revision of the Spanish conquistadors who invaded and pillaged the Americas. Her name—a shortened form of exploradora—and her cartographic skills tie her to the era of exploration when indigenous people and their multiracial offspring were subject to foreign rule. But Dora isn’t pillaging, she’s only returning toys to their rightful owners. And if she captures a few estrellas along the way, at least they seem happy to aid with her adventure—happier, presumably, than the natives captured by the conquistadors were.
Because Dora’s gender and age never deter her from taking on a challenge, she might seem a far better role model than my generation’s Barbie. Not so, according to Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, assistant professor of women’s studies at the University of Arizona. In an essay titled “Dora the Explorer, Constructing ‘Latinidades’ and the Politics of Global Citizenship,” she argues that the kids’ show creates a monolithic Latino/a identity that appeals to the dominant culture (particularly white parents). Because Dora is not identified as specifically Mexican or Salvadoran, Puerto Rican or Peruvian, she exists outside of historical and political realities—including the debates about undocumented immigrants that have demonized Latino people in the United States. Not only is Dora unthreatening to Anglo audiences because she is a child, her cinnamon complexion and straight hair reflect European ancestry rather than indigenous and African roots. Throughout her adventures, Dora enjoys an unusual geographic mobility, crossing landscapes but never distinct borders, always returning home rather than staying somewhere new. Her animated domain is devoid of references to social class, labor, or a currency-based economy.
But in reality, Dora is less a global citizen than a global commodity, a marketing dream of multicultural merchandise that simultaneously appeals to Anglo and Latino parents and children. Ultimately, Dora is the product of a global television market and serves the transnational capital interests of Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, and Mattel, whose subsidiary Fisher-Price makes Dora toys that are sold worldwide. As the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood documents, the Dora franchise has earned over $3.6 billion dollars in retail sales since debuting in 2000.
Dora’s starring role in the lucrative global television market stands in sharp contrast to the role real Latinas have played in a more literal form of television production, in which maquiladora trumps exploradora. First created in the 1960s, maquiladoras are foreign-owned Mexican factories in which imported raw materials and components are assembled into products that are exported for sale. Women constitute about 80 percent of the maquiladora workforce; according to Maquilapolis, a documentary by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre, women are recruited because factory owners consider them docile low-wage laborers.
The film focuses on the maquiladoras of Tijuana, which have produced so many electronics that the city is known as “la Capital Mundial de la Televisión,” or “World Capital of the Television.” Television assembly became a maquiladora industry in part because the cost of shipping finished components made it advantageous to produce units in close proximity to U.S. consumer markets. When NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, went into effect in January 1994, it initiated a new boom era for electronics maquiladoras. With tariffs lowered or eliminated and new “rules of origin” requiring that certain parts be produced within the three-nation trade region, maquiladora production became more lucrative than ever. In 1994, Mexican President Ernest Zedillo devalued the peso, making Mexican labor even cheaper for foreign companies (and raising the cost of living for Mexican workers). In one three-month period in 1996, 134 new maquiladoras began production, an average of 1.5 new factories opening every day. As a result of NAFTA, the number of Mexicans employed in television manufacturing increased two and a half times, to more than 92,000 workers—the majority female, with an average age of 24.5.
As the number of maquiladoras exploded, so did health problems among workers and their families. And an equally sinster issue—the fact that hundreds of maquiladora workers have been abducted, raped, and murdered in factory-heavy border cities like Juarez, with local authorities often unwilling to investigate such murders—has led workers and onlookers to despair at the treatment of female workers as literally disposable commodities.
But the women working in maquiladoras haven’t proven quite as docile as owners once hoped. As the rate and range of chronic illnesses have mounted, many female workers have organized to focus government attention on the health and environmental damage caused by the maquiladoras—for instance, the huge releases of lead waste and other toxins caused by electronics production.
Unfortunately, multinational owners can avoid the cost of environmental cleanup by simply abandoning their Mexican factories and relocating production to Asian countries that have even less regulation or enforcement. Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, factory production there has increased dramatically, and the country now leads the world in television manufacturing. As in Mexico, young women dominate the electronics factory workforce. They are paid less than their male counterparts and routinely forced to labor in unsafe conditions and to work unpaid overtime. The horrors of factory labor have led to the coining of a new word in Mandarin Chinese—guolaosi—to describe the growing phenomenon of being literally worked to death.
The animated adventures of Dora the Explorer may seem very distant from the harsh realities of factory labor, but the connection between the multibillion-dollar television franchise and imperiled workers in a global industrial economy is both distinct and disturbing. Like Osito in “City of Lost Toys,” Dora herself has appeared on the list of toys gone missing: In 2007, numerous Dora the Explorer playsets were recalled because they contained lead paint.
In 1928, Walter Benjamin decried the effect industrialization had on toy production, arguing that children are inculcated into national and class interests both through the toys themselves and through the often hidden processes by which toys are produced. His critique rings true today: The massive toy recalls laid bare the relationship between children’s entertainment and toxic factories that churn out cheap goods. Although U.S. consumers have usually paid less attention to where goods are made than to how much they cost, as the number of toys recalled in 2007 climbed to more than 25 million, unsafe imports became the focus of scrutiny by watchdog groups, mainstream media, and the public. The specter of lead poisoning suddenly seemed the clear result of both globalization and of a failure by the U.S. to monitor its own borders.
From a U.S. vantage point, the problem might initially seem to stem from deregulation in the face of globalization. In the early ’70s, $427 million worth of games, toys, and sporting goods were imported into the U.S. By 1980, imports had more than quadrupled, to $1.8 billion. By 2005, the level topped a staggering $25 billion in imports, with China producing 75 percent of the total toys purchased worldwide. Even as the levels of imports have risen, the regulation of goods sold in the United States has plummeted.
Staffing and appropriations for the Consumer Product Safety Commission today stand at about half of what they were when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981—so low that even some manufacturers have called for better regulation, if only to improve their own standing with consumers. But pressing the federal government to increase consumer protection is only the first step. Independent American watchdog agencies like the National Labor Committee and China Labor Watch have long challenged unsafe and illegal conditions in foreign factories. Yet their efforts have received only limited attention from the media and the public, even as anxiety about the safety of products being used by Americans has mounted.
With its emphasis on porous borders and foreign threats to the home and homeland, the dialogue surrounding the toy scare has pronounced parallels to anti-immigrant debates. In her incarnation as a lead-contaminated toy, Dora shares something with Latina factory workers after all—albeit not with the women of the maquiladoras so much as with the women (and men) who have been targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on factories in the United States. And, just like unsafe toys, undocumented immigrants have entered our homes, with many U.S. households relying on both foreign-born domestic laborers and foreign-made plastic playthings as inexpensive conveniences. The concurrent toy scare and immigration backlash together imply that there’s a Trojan My Little Pony headed your family’s way, and whether it manifests as their toy or their caretaker, your kids may not be safe.
If it seems far-fetched to connect immigrant domestic laborers with recalled Dora the Explorer toys, consider a page from Audre Lorde’s now-classic critique of the racism and classism within second-wave feminism, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Originally delivered in 1979, “The Master’s Tools” challenged middle-class white feminists to broaden their analysis of gender oppression by addressing “the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of Color.”
Lorde’s own experience made her acutely aware of how race and gender shape employment. In the early 1950s, she operated an X-ray machine in a Stamford, Connecticut, electronics factory—the sort of factory that might be found in China or in post-NAFTA Mexico today. The factory processed quartz crystals for radio and radar machinery, crystals that were washed on-site in vats of carbon tetrachloride. As Lorde recalled in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, “Nobody mentioned that carbon tet destroys the liver and causes cancer of the kidneys. Nobody mentioned that the X-ray machines, when used unshielded, delivered doses of constant low radiation far in excess of what was considered safe even in those days. Keystone Electronics hired Black women and didn’t fire them after three weeks. We even got to join the union.” Aside from the plant supervisors, every worker was African-American or Puerto Rican.
Lorde worked at the factory for a few months when she was 18. She was 44 when she was diagnosed with cancer, 58 when she died from it. It seems an appropriate tribute to Lorde that we remind ourselves that the master’s toys are contaminating a lot more than the master’s house. They are contaminating the health of the factory workers who are exposed to lead and other harmful substances, as well as the health of workers’ families. And they are contaminating cities and villages all over the globe.
It’s understandable that Americans want to protect our kids from lead and other contaminants. But if we really want to live—and teach—multicultural, multiracial feminist values, we can’t focus only on removing suspect goods from our own homes. We need to turn our collective attention to the process by which those goods are produced, the corporations that profit from their creation, and, most important, the workers and families who suffer most from toxic exposure.
Because at the end of this missing-toy episode, it would be nice if the refrain, “We Did It!/¡Lo hicimos!” referred to a collective effort to improve environmental and health protections worldwide, rather than to our culpability as consumers in a global economy that exacts ever-greater tolls on workers from Tijuana to Guangdong.
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