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Mexican American Doll Sparks Community Anger in Chicago

  • Bettina Koslowski

Members of Chicago's Latino community are upset about a new doll in the trendy American Girl series.

Marisol Luna stands less than half a meter tall and sports long brown hair, a glitter halter-top and velvet hip-hugger pants. But Chicago Hispanics are raising charges of lingering racism because of the biography that comes with the doll. According to the storybook, Marisol now lives in the suburbs after leaving a city neighborhood described as "too dangerous."

There are now 10 American Girl dolls, each one with her own name and history. For example, Felicity Merriman lives in the Virginia colony just before the American War of Independence of the 1700s. Kirsten Larson's family came to the American frontier from Sweden in 1854.

Marisol Luna is a contemporary Mexican American doll. In her storybook, she describes her first home in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. "Mom said this was no place for me to grow up," she says. "It was dangerous and there was no place for me to play."

At American Girl Place, the company's three-story doll emporium in downtown Chicago, Marisol is a popular attraction in the crowd of young girls who stopped by with their parents on a recent Saturday. Ten-year-old Madeline Deregnier and her friend Amanda Evans say Marisol is the hippest American Girl doll yet. "Her clothes are better," explains Madeline, "and she has a better background because she dances and stuff." Amanda likes her hair, her clothes and her dancing. "I think it's smart to have her be a dancer, " she says, "because a lot of girls these days love to dance so it makes them want to buy her more."

Eight-year old Alexis Wroblewski has her own Marisol doll and, like the doll, she loves to dance. Unlike the doll, however, she still lives in Pilsen. Her father, Roger Wroblewski, admits it can be a dangerous place. He recalls how gang crossfire left a youngster dead last year. "A seven-year-old girl, Anna Mateo," he says, shaking his head. "That poor little girl was out in front of her house and a bullet struck her. And it broke my heart because it could have been my daughter."

Walk through Pilsen, though, and you don't sense danger. It feels like any other older working-class community - just with a Latin flavor. Pilsen is a little bit of Mexico nestled in some ten blocks of Victorian brick houses. Its restaurants, shops and other businesses display signs in Spanish. "We have something here, and that's ethnic identity and ethnic pride," boasts community activist and lifelong Pilsen resident Victoria Romeo. "The minute you walk into Pilsen, you hear it, you smell it and you feel it."

Ms. Romeo is insulted by the biography of the new American Girl doll. "Pilsen is where I, as a Mexican American woman, feel 100% at ease," she says. "So I took the snippets of the story as a personal attack on my own identity."

Ms. Romero says crime is no worse in Pilsen than elsewhere in Chicago. She believes many people are leaving the neighborhood for other reasons -- including higher property taxes and pressure from developers. She suggests a different storyline for Marisol and her parents.

"Maybe this family had to leave because they were displaced," she says. "Senor Gonzalez, who owns the building that Marisol lived in, has now decided to sell his two-flat building to a developer, and he's going to convert those apartments, which used to house Mexican families, into high-end condos."

American Girl and its parent company, toymaker Mattel, say the doll's story is being misunderstood. They say the book's author wanted to convey the fictional girl's love for her community, which she calls "the best place in the world." They have no plans to change Marisol's story.

That doesn't sit well with the doll's real-life neighbors. Last week, 300 adults and teenagers packed the Pilsen Public Library for a discussion about the doll. Many had harsh words for Marisol's creators.

"The people who wrote the books really hurt the people who live in Pilsen," said one little girl.

A teenager said the doll "looks like a little gringa…it doesn't even look Mexican."

"Pilsen is a space that is defined by Mexicans," said one man. "It's important to be able to define stories that are about us and really challenge the way people look at us from the outside."

Another man wondered whether residents could create those stories themselves. "We should develop our own doll and our own story and promote that, " he said. "Because if you're going to start going to this company, saying "you owe us'…they don't owe us anything. So we got insulted…so what?"

A woman responded by saying that the American Girl Company did have a responsibility to respond to them. "If someone insults my community," she said, "do I think they owe us something? At least an apology. And if that comes in the form of money, that's A-OK with me."

Pilsen's representative in the U.S. Congress, Luis Gutierrez, sent a letter to the American Girl Company, accusing it of making degrading and offensive misstatements about his community. But Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell says Congressman Gutierrez is being hypocritical. "The elected official has raised more protest about a doll and a perception," she commented "than he has about the reality that young Latinos and Hispanics have been killed in Pilsen for doing nothing more than sitting on their front porch."

Local high school students plan to hold a protest rally outside the American Girl Place store later this month. Meanwhile, some consumers now ridicule Marisol as the American Ghetto doll. That's a label American Girl and Mattel definitely do not want... even if Marisol continues to sell well.

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