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Analysis: Doll's story offends Hispanics

By AL SWANSON, UPI Urban Affairs Correspondent

CHICAGO, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- A storybook that accompanies a Latina doll added to the popular American Girl Today collection for 2005 has offended some Hispanic activists in ZIP code 60608.

The 136-page biographical book tells the story of cute Marisol Luna, a 10-year-old Chicago girl whose family moves away from Pilsen, a Mexican-American community where Spanish can be heard on the streets, to the less dangerous suburb of Des Plaines, northwest of the city.

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The predominately Mexican-American neighborhood on the near Southwest Side is a long way from Beverly Hills 90210, but not that far from Des Plaines.

Critics say Marisol's tale buttresses stereotypical perceptions of race and ethnicity in the United States.

In the book Marisol's mother tells her their old Chicago neighborhood "is no place for me to grow up in. It was dangerous, and there was no place for me to play."

Community activists said they have worked hard to reduce crime and gangs, and while there is crime in Pilsen it's not worse than many other ethnic urban enclaves. There is gang and drug activity, but the neighborhood has established Hispanic-owned businesses, restaurants and shops and is home to the Mexican Fine Arts Center.

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Mexican President Vicente Fox visited Pilsen on trips to Chicago before and after he took power in Mexico.

Ironically, all the fuss over Marisol Luna's story may attract more outsiders to Pilsen, one of the cities largest Hispanic communities.

"Pilsen is more than just a place on the map, or a typical Latin community that has drive-bys and is unsafe and dangerous," Alejandra Ibanez, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, told Chicago Public Radio. "That's just a typical outside view of Latino neighborhoods. Pilsen is a neighborhood. Families live here. They raise children here. Raise grandchildren here. They've made it into the vibrant community it is, with a grand history and amazing cultural institutions. So it's offensive to us who live here and have made our lives here."

Gary Soto, an award-winning 52-year-old Berkeley, Calif.-based writer who authored the children's book, said Pilsen residents have misunderstood the storyline because excerpts of dialogue have been taken grossly out of context.

"It would seem (critics) have not read the book. If they had, they would discover a charming girl in love with her community," Soto said in a statement released by Middleton, Wis.-based American Girl.

Soto has visited Pilsen several times.

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Most critics had no problem with the cell-phone carrying 18-inch-tall doll that retails for $84. Marisol could be a wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked, pre-teen Jennifer Lopez.

The doll arrived with fanfare in January, the third in a limited-edition series of contemporary characters in the American Girl Today line introduced in 1995. A new contemporary character is destined to replace her after supplies are gone.

Wildly popular with young girls, American Girl has sold more than 10 million dolls and 100 million books over 20 years.

Promotional material describes Marisol's "passion for dance" -- ballet folklorico (Mexican folklore), jazz and tap and proclaimed her the 2005 "Girl of the Year" -- "a modern-day character who's lively, confident, and imaginative, and who comes to life with her own special story."

A real little girl who lives in Des Plaines reportedly was her model.

"I applaud the company for putting together a Mexican-American doll, but they made a mistake," Alderman Daniel Solis told the Chicago Tribune. Solis, who represents Pilsen, planned to meet with Mattel Inc., the parent of American Girl, next week.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., invited Ellen Brothers, American Girl's president, to visit Pilsen.

"Pilsen is flush with parks, with top-notch playgrounds and athletic fields and other amenities ... your assertion that there are no places for children to play is simply not correct," Gutierrez said in his invitation.

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The Chicago Sun-Times said violent crime in the Pilsen area declined 15 percent between December 2003 and December 2004, the second-largest decrease in violent crime in the city.

Some activists said the Marisol Luna story might have been more accurate had her parents been forced to move away because of gentrification, or if an outsider bought their building and tripled the rent.

"We're really happy to see that our name and neighborhood is recognized nationally -- but why does it have to be seen as this typical poor, dangerous neighborhood?" Ibanez asked. "It's a vibrant community. That's how we want to see it portrayed."

Solis said people don't want to leave Pilsen and you don't have to move to the suburbs to raise a family.

Life in the suburbs is not perfect for Marisol.

The dance studio in her new neighborhood closes but Marisol and her new friends figure out ways to keep dancing.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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