How The ‘Dora the Explorer’ Effect Helped Usher in a New Wave of Inclusive Animation

Manuel Betancourt

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Close to two decades after “Dora the Explorer” premiered on Nickelodeon, a wave of animated projects that put Latinx characters front and center has made its way to the small screen. From Disney Jr.’s Latina princess show “Elena of Avalor” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia” trilogy at Netflix, to Nickelodeon’s family sitcom “The Casagrandes” and Cartoon Network’s adventure show “Victor and Valentino,” there is a growing roster of projects that explore the diversity of Latin American cultures.

These shows are driven, in part, by what “The Book of Life” director Jorge Gutiérrez calls the “Dora” generation, an entire swath of creators who grew up seeing a Latina central character as a normal thing. Gutiérrez, who’s working on an ambitious Mesoamerican fantasy epic limited series entitled “Maya and the Three” for Netflix, believes these strides are indicative of a belated shift in the industry at large.

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“I think that generation grew up, and a lot of them joined the industry and a lot of them started going, ‘Well, if “Dora the Explorer” exists, why can’t I pitch my story about where I grew up?’” he says. “Enough of those things started blossoming. And as the world and the gatekeepers changed, I think they started to allow these shows to happen. What we’re seeing is years and years and years of people trying to fight to get this stuff made.”

That was definitely the case for Niki López, who’s developing “Santiago of the Seas” for Nickelodeon. After several failed attempts at submitting a successful pitch to Nick Jr., López was encouraged by Mary Harrington, an executive at the network, to lean into what she knew.

“I guess I was trying to pitch stuff that I thought they were looking for,” López says. “And when she told me, ‘You should just have fun and really strive to bring stuff that that resonated with you when you were young,’ that’s when the passion shone through.”

What emerged was an ode to her childhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as well as a celebration of Latino-Caribbean culture filtered through the story of Santiago, a brave and kind-hearted 8-year-old pirate. López’s experience is an example not of a network pursuing any kind of diversity push, but one committed to bringing out the best in its creators.

“In general, there’s been a recent realization by the studios that their audiences are craving and asking for authenticity and honest diversity in their content,” says Pilar Flynn, a producer on “Elena of Avalor,” who’s also been involved in outreach programs to get more Latinos involved in animation. “I think it’s great that studios are starting to pay attention to that and hearing that to the point where they’re consciously trying to put that into their shows.”

For Gutiérrez, that is a far cry from the reception he received a decade ago when he pitched what would become Nickelodeon’s 2007-08 series “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.” He walked into various meetings and saw executives taken aback by a show that was unabashed in its Latinx culture. He felt networks wanted a “de-saturated version.” “We came in with mariachis, and everything was spicy and salsa, and I think we definitely scared people,” he says.

But times have changed. When Diego Molano pitched “Victor and Valentino,” which follows two brothers who live in Monte Macabre with their abuela and get into hijinks involving mythic creatures rooted in Mesoamerican folktales, Rob Sorcher, executive vice president and chief content officer at Cartoon Network, let him know those touches made his colorful stories unique. “Victor and Valentino” was born out of the Cartoon Network shorts department and officially launched its first season in spring.

“That program came to be designed to find ways to reach a wider array of voices,” Sorcher says, “and to really find ways to allow more people to build bridges into becoming showrunners — to actually be on the top of the pyramid with their vision driving the show, even though they may not be the most experienced person in the making of a show. They have a vision and it’s coming from a really personal, authentic place.”

“I feel like in 2019, and even last year, there’s kind of been a revolution in this industry for Latinos,” says Miguel Puga, a director of “The Casagrandes.” “But I feel like we should have been on the mainstream like 20 years ago.”

In this, the animation landscape looks not too different from the entertainment industry at large, where decades of unequal treatment need to be redressed with active attempts to build an infrastructure that’s welcoming to those who have been kept to the margins. The leaps of faith that helped López and Molano are similar to those that have made “Vida’s” Tanya Saracho and “One Day at a Time’s” Gloria Calderón Kellett leading figures in the industry. In Netflix’s case, reaching out to creators including Gutiérrez and del Toro to bulk up their animation slate has in turn helped develop new in-house talent.

“When you hire a creator from underrepresented backgrounds, immediately you end up with a crew that looks just a bit different than every other crew,” says Melissa Cobb, vice president, kids and family at Netflix. She points out that those who have been brought on to work on “Maya and the Three” are already developing their own shows for the streamer.

And if inclusivity in animated storytelling seems to be making more strides than in live-action, it may be because of the freedom inherently built into the medium.

“We get to go broader and bigger and more epic with a lot of stuff. That would be impossible to do with live action because of the budget. We get to really have our dreams visually come true,” says Gutiérrez.

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