Inside Room 4 at a midtown Phoenix preschool, 4-year-old Grace Bunch sang and shouted in Spanish the names of animals, colors and numbers.
For an hour, she practiced how to introduce herself: "Yo soy Grace." She sang two verses of Old MacDonald Had a Farm in Spanish and recited primary colors: rojo (red), verde (green) and amarillo (yellow).
She did it with the help of Dora the Explorer, the superpopular 7-year-old animated Latina adventurer.
"Dora, she teaches me lots of holas (hellos)," said Grace, sporting pink velour sweatpants. "She teaches me azul (blue), and she teaches me words like uno and dos, and tres, and cuatro, and cinco."
Dora the Explorer is a bilingual, brown-haired, backpack-toting girl who sprinkles Spanish into her 30-minute adventures on cartoon giant Nickelodeon.
She has become one of the most successful TV characters among preschoolers, with 21.9 million people watching her in November 2005, according to Nielsen ratings. Parents with young children know that Dora takes her place next to The Wiggles, that she may even be as big as Sesame Street with her billion-dollar-a-year-retail empire, and that she has a "live" national tour.
Her tremendous popularity comes at a time when many English-speaking parents desire for their children to learn a second language. And like other successful cartoon characters with huge appeal, she is fun, smart and cute. But what sets her apart is language and looks. Dora's Spanish skills have appealed to American parents, but her dark eyes and skin have made her a favorite in places like the Philippines and India.
In the Valley, some parents said the country's exploding Latino population combined with Phoenix's proximity to Mexico almost guarantees Spanish will remain a growing part of their children's lives.
"Our society is very mixed, especially in Arizona, (and) we plan for him to grow up here," Julia Winter said of her 5-year-old son, Will, who watches Dora the Explorer videos and takes Spanish classes at Cross Roads Preschool, Ltd. "We want him to have access to learning Spanish. Just like we want him to learn math and English."
Dora the Explorer
Dora is a bubbly adventurer who wears a pink shirt and lives in an interactive world with her mam and papi and often visits her abuela (grandma). She embarks on a journey in each episode with a band of friends and solves problems based on specific words and phrases.
She speaks almost all English but throws in a few conversational Spanish words, such as "Ãmanos!" for "let's go!" and "lo hicimos!" for "we did it!" She teaches Spanish nouns, adjectives and commands, math, music and physical coordination. She pauses throughout the show, eagerly waiting for her audience to play along by talking back to the TV screen, counting, rowing and clapping.
Dora The Explorer has soared to international fame since Nickelodeon launched it in 2000. Dora was the top-ranked preschool show on commercial TV for five years and now bounces back and forth between the No. 1 and No. 2 spots with her bilingual cousin's show, Go, Diego, Go!, a Dora The Explorer spin-off.
Parents are spending big bucks to bring her home. Licensed Dora merchandise, including gardening gloves, shoes, home videos, bandages, records, underwear, backpacks, books, stickers, dolls and nightlights, have brought in more than $1 billion yearly, Nickelodeon reports. The cable network estimated that one in three preschool girls owned a Dora product as of Christmas 2005. And at some Valley party-planning businesses, Dora is a top requested female character, just behind Cinderella, Elmo and SpongeBob, said Mesa-based Arizona Party Pals and Chandler-based Party Animals.
It's a bit of a surprise to its creators that Dora has become a child icon, said Brown Johnson, executive creative director of the show. They set out to make a Hispanic the lead character, she said, and make the ability to speak a foreign language a "magical power" so children will feel good about it.
Brown and creators worked with many consultants to accurately portray the Hispanic culture without perpetuating stereotypes. For example, in the pilot, Dora's eyes were green. Creators changed them to brown, the more common eye color among Hispanics.
"We found that parents from the Philippines, from Asia, from India also identified heavily with Dora," she said from New York. "They say, 'My kid looks like that.' Parents feel really good about Dora and the fact that she is culturally interesting."
Spanish part of growth
Dora's celebrity coincides with many Anglo and Hispanic parents' eagerness to expose their children to the nation's second-most-spoken language, said Darcy Olsen, president and chief executive of the Goldwater Institute.
"Parents always want to prepare their children for the world around them," she said. "And learning another language, and certainly Spanish in Arizona, is part of that."
Children think she's cool because she speaks English and Spanish, includes them in her problem-solving and has a pink and gray monkey friend named Boots. The Hispanic heroine is a big hit with parents, too. Early fluency, some parents say, could give their kids an edge in high school and college and will make them more marketable when they enter the workforce.
"It's to her advantage to learn as many languages as possible," said Kelli Bunch, Grace's mom. "So many people around here, because of where we live, speak Spanish. To introduce her at such a young age was great. . . . I think she'll learn faster."
The number of Spanish speakers in Maricopa County has almost tripled since 1990, to 614,075 in 2004, up from 227,500 according to census figures. Of the county's Spanish speakers, 5 percent are non-Hispanic.
Those numbers, in part, are influencing the way parents, and perhaps their children, view language and culture. Children more and more are making diverse friends, parents and cultural experts say, spending playtime with Hispanic classmates and downtime at home watching bilingual children's shows, such as Dora the Explorer, her animal-rescuing cousin Diego and the PBS animated series Maya & Miguel.
"People are becoming more aware of the impact (Spanish-themed) shows are having," said Margarita Jimenez-Silva, assistant education professor at Arizona State University West. "That bilingualism is an asset. We're living in a world where our communities are becoming more multicultural and middle-class parents are seeing it might be an asset for their kids to have this skill, whereas before, they may not have been aware, and there weren't as many resources."
Learning more at home
Julia and Matt Winter want their two sons to grow up with Spanish. They pop in Dora videos and read Dora books to Will and Mac, their 23- month-old. And about two years ago, they hired a Latina nanny, who incorporates Spanish into dinnertime, chit-chat and lessons.
About two days a week, while Winter is working on her jewelry-design business, Elva Esquivel goes to the Winter home in downtown Phoenix and helps Will with colors, numbers and words.
"If they're having something yummy to eat, she'll teach them delicioso," Winter said. "If she's making dinner for them, or lunch or something, she'll tell them what it is in Spanish. (Mac) likes to talk about his body parts, and she'll say them back to him in Spanish. Like his nose, his eyes. Whenever she comes and whenever she leaves, we always say everything in Spanish. They don't even know they're learning another language."
And culturally, Dora helps children realize that not every kid looks, sounds or thinks like them, parents said.
Moon Valley mom Susan Zulch wanted her 5-year-old daughter, Rebecca, to help her mingle and talk with Spanish-speaking children during weekend hiking trips in south Phoenix. Even before Rebecca started Spanish classes at Cross Roads, Dora taught her colors, numbers and some verbs.
"Especially in the Phoenix area, there are a lot of other kids that have different languages and cultures," said Susan, who has bought Dora videos and toys. "It's important to introduce kids to anything they can learn from, languages and cultures."