Posted on August 12, 2004

Barrio Boon: Mijos Figures Are All The (Commercial) Rage

Chris Macias, Sacramento Bee, August 3, 2004

In the toy aisles at Wal-Mart, Baby Boy is now in the same neighborhood as Barney the Dinosaur.

The 6-inch figure is an inner-city Latino kid sporting fat sneakers, baggy overalls and a bald head. His fellow Mijos (“little ones” in Spanish) have nicknames that come straight out of the barrio, such as “Spooky,” “Lil Dre” and “Brownie.” And they’re ready for a play date with Middle America.

This month, the first series of six Mijos figures will be shipped nationwide to Kmart, and they will be on shelves at Target and Toys ‘R’ Us later this year. Toy Play, the company that manufactures the 6-inch Mijos for a suggested price of $6.99 each, says 250,000 figures have been sold at Wal-Mart since May.

These icons from Chicano “cholo” culture are going mainstream, building on a strong fan base of Latinos who have nearly $171 billion in buying power in California.

Mijos enjoy a street credibility you can’t find on Sesame Street, and in a toy market that thrives on fantasy, the scrappy Mijos live in a bittersweet world, working toward a better life.

Two-inch versions of Mijos and their once controversial counterparts, the Homies, can be found in gum-ball machines. Pop in 50 cents at a Mexican market or a corner store, twist the knob, and if it’s your lucky day, maybe DJ Jokachild will fall into your palms. This sought-after Homie comes poised behind a set of turntables.

Jose Montoya, a prominent Chicano artist from Sacramento, can’t resist when he has a pocket full of quarters. He’s collected about three dozen Mijos and Homies toys.

“I think these do a good job of capturing our ‘cholitos’ (little cholos),” says Montoya, 71. “Everybody needs an identity, and sometimes the way we dress becomes our ‘placaso,’ our tag. It’s one way of people demystifying old notions about people.

“(Forty years ago) being a Chicano was weird in Iowa and Nebraska,” he adds. “You go through there now and it’s all ‘raza.’ We’re everywhere.”

Collectors of Homies and Mijos also are everywhere, and they take the toys seriously. Hazel Weatherford, a former Sacramentan who lives in the Bay Area, is building a staircase for her Mijos and Homies collection. Elaine Casillas, a deputy district attorney in Stanislaus County, has Homies and Mijos decorating her home and office.

Benito Dimas, a math teacher at Sacramento High School, boasts perhaps the area’s ultimate Homies and Mijos collection. He owns about 200.

“I grew up cholo in (Sacramento’s) south area,” says Dimas. “The Mijos are great because they have their little nicknames, like ‘Spooky’ and ‘Mocoso.’ These are the names that kids grow up with. A lot of Chicano kids don’t understand the old-school style of growing up.”

Mijos and Homies are created by David Gonzales, a graphic artist and designer based in the East Bay. He’s brought Chicano-centric products to the shopping mall, first with T-shirts that were sold at J.C. Penney, Miller’s Outpost and Hot Topic.

Gonzales says Mijos mythology is a mix of hi-jinks and hard knocks. My Little Pony and Bob the Builder are child’s play compared with the Mijos’ world.

Lil Dre, based on one of Gonzales’ sons, is the wide-eyed leader of the Mijos. He loves Chicano art and strives to be mayor so he can uplift the Mijos’ neighborhood. Some of his fellow Mijos need the help. Poor Boy always is broke and hopes BMX bike riding will wheelie him to a better fortune. Chorriyo is a toddler with a perpetually dirty diaper because his parents are never around.

“Their world is real,” says Gonzales, during a call from his Emeryville studio. “Their feet get stuck on gum. They read the graffiti on the walls. They live in Oaktown (Oakland). There’s a cynicism about the kids, where, ‘It’s our world, but don’t feel sorry for us. Our friends are with us.’ They don’t quite realize yet that their life is tough.”

Still, most Mijos are like kids who can be found on any elementary school playground. Spooky is the resident scaredy cat, Chunky Chaz is a junk-food junkie, and Bubba bullies the other Mijos for lunch money.

In Gonzales’ third Mijos book for Scholastic, the crew takes a field trip to Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. The mischievous Mijos accidentally break the shark tank and flood the aquarium.

“I grew up a big ‘Peanuts’ fan, and I just like drawing kids,” says Gonzales. “With Mijos, I wanted a universal thing where anyone in the country could relate to what their lives are about.”

With long eyelashes and baby faces, the Mijos are less hardcore than their Homies counterparts. Willie G, the Homie most coveted by collectors, is an ex-gangbanger and disabled youth counselor who sits in a wheelchair. He is accompanied by a pet pit bull. The Tennishoe Pimp, another neighborhood Homie, is decked out in a purple suit and grips a wad of $100 bills.

Not everyone saw the Homies as fun and games. Five years ago, as the Homies hit $1 million in sales, the Los Angeles Police Department claimed the toys were glorifying a gangbanger lifestyle. As a result, the Vallarta supermarket chain pulled Homies from its stores.

“The Homies are low-riders from East L.A. where it’s all about looking cool and having the baddest car,” says Gonzales. “(Mijos) is just a fun group of kids. I don’t want a bad image with retailers. They don’t want edgy items, and that’s not what this is. They’re just growing up in Oakland instead of the suburbs. So far, there hasn’t been any controversy.”

Toy Play is eyeing 6-to 11-year-old boys for its prime Mijos demographic. Given their roots in Chicano subculture, the Mijos are expected to sell well with urban Latinos. The Mijos’ manufacturer also is thinking of audiences beyond the barrio.

“I’m a big believer in urban and hip hop,” says Jonathan Breiter, vice president of the Betesh Group, the parent company of Toy Play. “Our research shows that everything is meshing together. The superstars of music today are hip-hop/pop singers. It’s crossed over — white, black, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter.”

Subcultures can be watered down once they enter the mainstream. Some Mijos collectors are in a quandary.

“Now that they’re mainstream, it’s not like, ‘Ooh, you’ve got that? That’s neat,’ “ says Dimas, the local collector. “Now it’s just at the store. It takes away the novelty of it. (I’ve) spent $20 in a gum-ball machine trying to get two or three characters.”

Mijos mania is just beginning. Mervyn’s is carrying a line of Mijos clothes, and kids soon will be able to scoot around in Mijos shoes by Buster Brown.

“When my kids were 5 years old, I wouldn’t buy them a shirt that said ‘Homies,’ “ says Gonzales. “But I would buy them something that said ‘Mijos.’ “

Gonzales also is planning a Mijos cartoon series and video game with Electronic Arts (EA), the makers of “Madden NFL” and “Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup.” Breakdancing and talking Mijos are on the drawing board as well.

Ultimately, Gonzales envisions his Mijos characters being licensed on pretty much anything that kids can get their hands on, including night lights, alarm clocks and bedding.

Hold the quarters and grab some dollar bills. The Mijos have graduated from the gum-ball machine.