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‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ is a rare opportunity for Latino representation in Hollywood

By SONAIYA KELLEY • Aug 12, 2019 at 1:00 PM

If you want to quickly understand the enduring appeal and impact of Dora the Explorer — who gets the live-action treatment in this weekend’s “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” — director James Bobin has a story for you.

“My daughter knows Spanish because of Dora,” he told The Times during a press day for the film. “When she was little, I remember saying to her once, ‘What’s your favorite animal?’ And she said, ‘Ardilla.’ And I went, ‘A deer?’ and got a picture from a book of a deer. And she goes, ‘No, no, no, no, ardilla’ and pointed out the window [because] ‘ardilla’ in Spanish is squirrel.”

In fact, Dora has taught languages to millions of preschoolers worldwide since her debut in 2000. In the Latin American countries where the show airs, along with many of the other 100-plus countries that broadcast the show, she teaches children English. Her show has been dubbed into 30 languages, she’s had two successful spinoff cartoons and now, almost 20 years later, she’s finally getting her own big-screen adventure.

Isabela Moner, who plays a teenage Dora in the film, says she grew up watching the character every morning before school.

“Michael and I talked about this,” said Eva Longoria, who plays Dora’s mother alongside Michael Pena as Dora’s father. “Even though we weren’t kids when she premiered, she’s been in our zeitgeist. Like, I don’t remember a time that there wasn’t Dora. She feels older than me.”

The live-action adaptation from Nickelodeon Studios provides a rare opportunity for mainstream Latinx representation in Hollywood. Even more unusual: a film in which five leads (including Dora’s cousin Diego, played by Jeff Wahlberg) are of Latino descent.

In fact, even Dora’s pet monkey, Boots, and cartoon nemesis, Swiper, are played by Latinx actors Danny Trejo and Benicio Del Toro, respectively.

“It’s super rare,” said Eugenio Derbez, who plays an explorer in the film as well as serving as an executive producer. “Honestly, when I was young and trying to cross over, I said ‘I don’t know if I’m going to make it.’ I was sure I was going to just always be part of the cast but never one of the leads. And now that I’m able to see a movie where all the leads are Latinos, I thought it was never going to happen, so I feel proud.”

“I’ve done it before on ‘Narcos’ but never a big-budget movie, not like this,” said Pena.

“It wasn’t even that we were all Latin, it was that we were immediately family in a way,” said Longoria. “We also didn’t have cell service [filming in Australia], so it made us bond. But no, it was beautiful to think we were the only Latinos in all of Australia to be aggregated together.”

“The beautiful thing of the story is that thematically, it’s pretty universal,” she added. “I think everybody’s going to understand it and relate to it. You don’t have to be Latino, but it is a celebration of our culture within the movie. Our language is in it, people who [reflect] our community are in it, it’s organically Latino. It wasn’t like ‘Insert Latino here.’ “ With the arrival of the film, it seems representation for Latinos in mainstream media could finally be growing. Pena attributes the change to evolving audience demand.

“It’s kind of a great sign of the times where audiences are demanding it and wanting it and supporting it,” he said. “Like ‘Black Panther’: Would that movie really have been made 10 years ago or 20 years ago? I don’t think so. So it feels like when ‘Black Panther’ won, we all won in a way.”

The current push for diversity is a drastic departure from how things were at the outset of Pena’s career two decades ago.

“It was rough in the beginning, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “My roommates were all auditioning for way better stuff, and there were more auditions [for them]. But I feel like it’s kind of tough for everyone in a way. And I feel like it’s up to you to work through that.”

The actor says he had to make a conscious decision early on to bypass stereotypical roles even at the expense of jobs. “I was sick of playing gang-bangers,” said Pena. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to play three-dimensional characters. And my decision [came] like a month before I did ‘Crash,’ and then it was good.”

“I’ve always been complaining that they were always offering me the same kind of roles,” Derbez echoed. “They’d want me to play a drug lord or a narco or, best case scenario, a gardener. And I said ‘I want to be part of this project because it’s one of the few times you can see Latinos onscreen where no one is doing anything wrong.’ “

That sense of responsibility also contributed to Derbez’s decision to serve as an executive producer.

“I was in charge of taking care of the Latin culture because I hate when you see Hollywood movies and they go into a Mexican restaurant and then you see them dancing flamenco,” he said. “Flamenco is from Spain. And I know it’s hard for everyone — I mean, we all speak Spanish in Latin America — but the cultures are so different that it’s messy. But here we don’t make a big deal of that, and that’s the beauty of the movie.”

“We’ve talked about this many a time,” said Longoria. “It’s hard to be an actor. And it’s hard to be a dentist. It’s hard to be a lawyer. It’s like, whatever you’re going to do, you’ve got to dedicate your whole self to it. That’s why I became a producer and director, to create my own opportunities. Because I think if you sit back and wait for a movie like ‘Dora’ to come along, you’ll be waiting a long time.

“I used to say we have to educate the gatekeepers of content to tap into different wells of talent, tap into different communities of talent,” she added. “Our community has amazing stories, Dora’s just one of them. But instead of educating those gatekeepers, let’s change the gatekeepers.” Though he eventually came around, Derbez was initially skeptical about the idea of a live-action “Dora the Explorer” movie.

“When they told me about the plan of making a Dora movie, I was like ‘hmm,’ “ said Derbez. “It sounded boring at the beginning because what is it going to be about? But the [film] is completely different from the cartoon. It has the same elements, but it goes deeper so you see a three-dimensional character. This is the first time we see a Latina superhero, and that could be really inspiring for kids all around the world.”

Pena was attracted by the film’s winking tone, which both celebrated the preschool-centric source material and elevated the humor with a sweetly meta spin.

“Normally you read scripts and you want to be wowed by them,” he said. “After I read the script, I was almost relieved by it because I wanted it to be good and I wanted every excuse to do it. I just wanted to contribute to the motion, just be part of something I thought was well worth it and would be proud of in the end. It did help that James Bobin was directing and he did amazing work in ‘The Muppets’ and ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass.’ “

“I think I just did it because Michael was doing it,” said Longoria. “But also I was like ‘Oh, man, you could really mess this up, adapting such an iconic TV character.’ And when I read this script, I was like ‘Wow, it’s an origin story.’ It sets up everything that we know about her, and then you go on a new adventure with her. And so that’s what I really liked about it.”

“What surprised me first of all was the [scope] of the movie,” Moner chimed in. “The more I was a part of it, the more I wanted to be a part of it, if that makes sense. Like, the more I learned about how it was going to come together, the more I fell in love with this universe that we were creating. It just seemed to do a lot of justice to something that I grew up watching.”

“Yeah,” Longoria agreed. “An homage to the original.”

“In an era in which Latinos are getting attacked, it’s nice to see a different portrayal of us on the big screen for our community,” she added, a week before a mass shooter in El Paso would target the Latino community there. “There’s so many beautiful things about what Dora can do culturally.

“There’s definitely a lot of under-representation for Latinos in television in film,” she added. “That’s just a fact. I think the big message about ‘Dora’ is that the Latino community needs to support a movie like this … we flex our economic power at the box office.”

“But at the same time, we’re in a great time right now where things are changing,” said Pena. “So that’s kind of cool. Representation across the board I think is becoming more acceptable, and hopefully it’s not even talked about [eventually], it’s just a norm.”

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