In her police mug shot, the doe-eyed cartoon heroine with the bowl haircut has a black eye, battered lip and bloody nose.
Dora the Explorer’s alleged crime? “Illegal Border Crossing Resisting Arrest.”
The doctored picture, one of several circulating widely in the aftermath of Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, may seem harmless, ridiculous or even tasteless.
But experts say the pictures and the rhetoric surrounding them online, in newspapers and at public rallies, reveal some Americans’ attitudes about race, immigrants and where some of immigration reform debate may be headed.
“Dora is kind of like a blank screen onto which people can project their thoughts and feelings about Latinos,” said Erynn Masi de Casanova, a sociology professor at the University of Cincinnati. “They feel like they can say negative things because she’s only a cartoon character.”
In Dora’s case, especially because her image is so widely available, she’s an easy target as discussion ramps up on how lawmakers should address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
For about a decade, the pint-sized Latina character has taught millions of children the English alphabet, colors and Spanish phrases on a Nickelodeon TV show and through a global empire. Her smiling cherub face is plastered on everything from backpacks to T-shirts to fruit snacks.
Several websites, including The Huffington Post, have narrated Dora’s mock capture by immigration authorities. One picture circulating on Facebook shows an ad for a TV show called “Dora the Illegal Immigrant.” On the Facebook page “Dora the Explorer is soo an Illegal Immigrant,” there are several images showing her sailing through the air over the U.S.-Mexican border.
Many of the Dora images assume the Latina character is an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
Representatives from Nickelodeon declined to comment on Dora’s background, and her place of birth or citizenship have never been clear.” She has brown skin, dark hair and some experts who have studied the show say she speaks Spanish with an American accent.
“She’s always been ambiguously constructed,” said Angharad Valdivia, who teaches media studies at the University of Illinois and has explored the issue. “In the U.S. the way we understand race is about putting people in categories and we’re uncomfortable with people we can’t put into categories.”
Dora lives in an unidentified location with pyramids that suggest Mexico, but also tropical elements such as palm trees and her friends, Isa the iguana and Boots the monkey. Does that mean she’s from South America or Florida?
Then there’s oak trees and her fox nemesis Swiper, which are more common to the American Midwest.
Many immigrant families, particularly Latinos, see Dora as a symbol of freedom, someone to relate to. She’s a young girl with brown skin who lives in a borderless world and can travel anywhere she wants without consequence.
At the same time, Guidotti-Hernandez says the ambiguity and negative imagery makes Dora susceptible to being used by those who support the Arizona law.