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Philadelphia Inquirer - November 5, 2006

Bilingual playthings: Muy grande business
The $20 billion toy industry is courting Hispanics.
By Kathy Boccella

Neydary Zambrano's 6-month-old son, Gabriel, is already learning Spanish from his mami, his papi, and his Learning Friend Tad, a musical stuffed frog that teaches colors, numbers and object names in two languages.

Buying bilingual toys for their son and daughter is one way the Zambranos, Downingtown residents from Venezuela, plan to sustain the children's cultural identity in the face of inevitable assimilation.

"For me, it's key," said Zambrano, who runs the Magic Memories day-care center in Phoenixville. "I want both of them to be bilingual."

The $20 billion toy industry is happy to help.

More Spanish-language and bilingual toys and games than ever will be available this holiday season, as manufacturers court the fastest-growing demographic - and among the most child-centric - in the nation.

The estimated 43 million Hispanics in the United States are a toy sellers' bonanza. About a third are younger than 18, according to the Census Bureau, and many are very young. Hispanics, who are 14 percent of the U.S. population, account for more than one-fifth of all children younger than 5 in the country.

To the delight of the industry, Hispanics have larger families and tend to dote on their offspring, analysts say. Latinos are 33 percent more likely than other groups to be toy customers, according to the Simmons Market Research Bureau, which studies consumer behavior.

"The child is really the center of the household. [Parents] want to give their children the best, and they will tend to spend a little bit more," said Brenda Andolina, a spokeswoman for Fisher-Price, which makes Spanish-speaking Elmo, Dora the Explorer and Diego toys, all spun off from children's TV.

It was Dora la Exploradora, as it's known in Spanish, that set off the growing wave of mass-market Hispanic-themed toys. Launched in 2000, the Nickelodeon animated series - which stars a doe-eyed, bilingual Latina who lives inside a computer - toppled Barney to become the top-rated show among 3- to 5-year-olds. Since 2002, Dora-themed playthings and accessories have generated an estimated $4 billion in sales.

Among recently introduced items for the Latino market are the soft, stuffed Abuelita Rosa and Abuelito Pancho dolls, smiling, white-haired grandparents who wear round, wire glasses and sing lullabies in Spanish. Abuelita books are due out this month, and an animated TV show is in development.

"We wanted to create a doll that preserved tradition and warm memories," said Carol Fenster, a psychotherapist and the only non-Hispanic among the three Miami mothers who created the Baby Abuelita line.

Out this year are more toys from the animated PBS series Maya & Miguel, about the mischievous 10-year-old Santos twins; Amigo Bear Tele-Friend, a cell-phone-toting Care Bear that speaks about 30 words and phrases in English and Spanish; Talking Chou Chou, a bilingual baby doll from Zapf Creation available with Anglo or "ethnic" features; a Latino bilingual Little Mommy doll from Fisher-Price, which also manufactures white, black and Asian versions; and a Spanish-speaking version of Fisher-Price's mega-hit T.M.X. Elmo.

They will share retail shelves with the already-translated versions of dozens of classic games, including Scrabble (the letters have different point values to correspond to Spanish usage), Cranium and Monopoly.

Hispanic buying power, now just under $800 billion a year, is expected to be almost $1.2 trillion in five years, according to a study released in September by the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth. By next year, the report predicted, Latinos will have more disposable personal income than any other minority group.

"And they tend to be very loyal to the brands that they love. That's a big plus for our manufacturers," said Reyne Rice, trend specialist for the Toy Industry Association.

Despite their economic clout, Hispanics did not capture the attention of the toy industry until relatively recently.

"It's the same thing that happened with the African American market," said Felipe Korzenny, director of Florida State University's Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication. "The kids didn't have toys to identify with."

Sales statistics specifically for Latino-themed toys do not exist, Rice said. But the last two or three years have brought a steady increase in products, he said.

In February, when the American International Toy Fair is held, "we're going to see even more," Rice predicted.

Some of the most popular toys are designed to teach children both their new and ancestral tongues.

"It is very, very important for Hispanics that their children continue with the language," said Yvonne Cantu of Market Vision, a Latino marketing agency hired to launch the Spanish-speaking T.M.X. Elmo.

Native-language skills erode quickly in immigrant families. In a recent study of Mexican Americans in Southern California, only 17 percent of third-generation residents spoke Spanish fluently, and by the fourth generation fluency dropped to 5 percent. Latino parents and grandparents believe that bilingual toys help improve the odds.

Maria Mata of Coatesville bought her 18-month-old son, Yony, a small talking worm to teach him his ABCs in English and Spanish.

"It's very beneficial for him, especially when he is little and capable of learning more," said Mata, who came from Mexico 12 years ago.

Nelly Arévalo, who lives in West Chester, said she was concerned about preserving her family's Venezuelan culture. She reads to her children, ages 2 and 5, in Spanish, and the kids play a Spanish-language Little Mermaid computer game.

For her older child, Johanna, Arévalo buys darker-skinned dolls, including those in the Bratz line for little fashionistas.

"It's important that they be proud of who they are and where they come from. Beauty isn't only in white, blond dolls. Beauty is in darker dolls with black eyes," said Arévalo, director of the Maternal and Child Health Consortium Family Center in Kennett Square.

The fair-skinned Abuelita dolls - Pancho, Rosa and Baby Andrea - sing traditional songs that tug on the heartstrings of Latino parents.

The idea came from Hilda Argilagos-Jiménez, a Cuban American dance teacher who hoped to preserve the tunes of her childhood. She and Fenster decided on grandparents because elders are so important in the Latino family.

Some people didn't understand their business plan.

"We had to explain that within the Hispanic community, grandparents are the keeper of the culture. They participate in raising the children and really help keep the traditions alive," Fenster said.

Because the Spanish-speaking market is diverse - Latinos in the United States are from Mexico, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in Central and South America - traditions vary. The $25 dolls sing "a kind of greatest-hits" repertoire that was tested on a variety of Hispanic groups, Fenster said.

About 10,000 Abuelitas were sold last year, most in Florida. This year, as part its supplier-diversity initiative, Wal-Mart put the dolls in 60 stores, and "they did very well," said Anthony Soto, manager of the program for Wal-Mart and Sam's Club.

Now in 335 Wal-Marts and about 380 Toys R Us and Target locations, more than 50,000 of the dolls are expected to be sold this year, Fenster said.

An Abuelita doll is "an emotional buy" for Latino parents, who are a soft touch for the old melodies, Soto said. They're hard to resist, he confessed.

"I'm Hispanic, and I have a child that's 7 months old," he said. "I want her to learn Spanish, and I want her to learn these lullabies."