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Selecciones (Reader's Digest) - May 2006

Doll Melodies

They are the sounds of our childhood, songs that are enchanting and relaxing. Our grandmothers sang them to us to put us to sleep and our mothers hummed them while they cooked. These familiar melodies put us in touch with times we would like to recreate, even if for the pleasure of seeing our children smile.

That's why three women in Miami have spent innumerable hours and nights awake, in a loving attempt to bring back these melodies for future generations.

"When people hear these songs, they seem to dance in the arms of our memory", explains Laura Santamaría, mother of three children and attorney for a well-known Finnish paper company. "It doesn't matter where you're from - Colombia, México, Puerto Rico, Cuba -, the reaction is always the same".

Laura and her two friends, Hilda Argilagos-Jiménez and Carol Fenster, are the creators of Baby Abuelita Rosa and Baby Abuelito Pancho, two 16-inch long plush dolls that, when you press their hands, sing the favorite melodies of yesteryear: "Duérmete mi niña", "Tengo una vaca lechera", and "Los pollitos dicen", among others. After many months of planning, the dolls are being sold throughout the country in Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us stores, and on the webpage www.babyabuelita.com .

What's most impressive about this group of friends is that none has experience in the toy business and that the three of them have succeeded in making this project happen while working full time in other jobs as well as tending to their families. Before venturing out into the unknown world of toy manufacturing, the three hardly knew each other, their only link was dance. Now they are good friends and they get together for coffee and to share their lives.

"We are not a Mattel", says Hilda Argilagos-Jiménez, a middle-school dance teacher in Miami and mother of two children. "We are real people, and these dolls have stories that are also real; they are based on our own experiences. For us, this is more than a business; it is keeping a tradition alive."

Indeed, at the beginning, what brought the three women together was Hilda's interest in preserving these children's songs. Her maternal grandmother, Antonia Rodríguez, of Spanish origin, serenaded her every night with traditional songs. When her first niece was born, Hilda felt badly when she realized that, with the passing of time, her sisters, her friends and she were forgetting the words to the songs that they had so enjoyed. She promised to record them for prosperity's sake.

However, she didn't follow through with her idea until much later, after a chance meeting with someone who heard her hum a song; this person told her that she was married to a Latin and frequently heard her mother-in-law sing the same tunes. But the grandmother was sick and this woman was afraid that the tie with another culture and other generation would be lost.

"When she told me that she wanted her daughter to be able to appreciate these songs, I ran to the hotel room where we were staying and sat down to write down all I could remember", she says.

"I wrote some of the words and tried to remember, but there were parts that I could only hum, for which I only had the tune. I realized that we were forgetting the words".

Then Carol Fenster, a therapist and mother of a daughter who studied under Hilda, came into the picture. Carol, a daughter of Russian Jews, is a first generation US citizen and grew up speaking Yiddish. In 2004, on a field trip with the dance students, Hilda confided to Carol what she wanted to do and Carol loved the idea.

Carol suggested to Hilda that she be bold, that she not lose any time: instead of publishing a songbook, which was the original idea, why not make a doll that sings?

Hilda's first thought was: "She's crazy". It would be too complicated. She was so busy with work and a family, that she didn't think she would have time for that. Not giving up, Carol recruited Laura Santamaría, who immediately joined them. Born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico and México, Laura was used to traveling in these countries. "Talking toys sold there are North American, translated into Spanish. They are not Latin."

When the three women finally met to discuss the concept, they realized that each of them could contribute a special talent. Hilda is the creative muse, a perfectionist who insists on high quality and intricate detail; Laura could cover the initial capital and legal bases, and Carol had a long list of contacts that could help them start the business. In fact, it was through Carol that they found a designer, a toy businessman who became their consultant, a music producer, a sound engineer, and the singers who provided the voices for the dolls.

But to bring the idea from concept to the stores was no easy or quick job. There were a lot of doors that didn't open, or they were met with arched eyebrows when they explained the project. Skepticism within the industry was crushing. Some executives, confused, asked: "But what does "abuelita" mean?"

"People in high positions tend to be very boxed in and don't want to take risks", explains Carol. "Our dolls don't fit any mold. They haven't been evaluated in focus groups or studies. They are born out of love. So for some people with whom we interviewed, it was difficult to understand our objective".

But the friends persisted. The three mention that their success is due to the fact that they all had a profound purpose and that there were people who gave them a lot of support (their husbands and fathers, or their fathers-in-law, who helped care for their children). "This is more than a business for us", says Laura. "We, the women, are the torch bearers of tradition".

Little by little, the three learned the toy industry mysteries. For example, even though they wanted to manufacture the toys in the U.S., they discovered that most of the toy factories are in China. Fortunately, technology made the interchange with that country easy: the women communicated their ideas and drawings through the Internet.

At any rate, "we were confronted with some problems", Laura remembers, smiling, "because we had to explain what a "guayabera"(the man's traditional shirt in Latin America, worn by "Abuelito Pancho") was".

The women clearly explained how they wanted the dolls to look and feel. The "Abuela" doll would be based on Carol's grandmother and the "Abuelo" on Hilda's grandfather.

They had to make a lot of decisions: fabrics, colors and facial expressions. When choosing the eyeglasses for both of the dolls, the women opted for the round ones, with a wire mounting and no pointed edges. In the end, the three are mothers and always aware of what's best for children.

Then it came time to record the songs. In the studio, Hilda and Laura were surprised that, depending on the country of origin of each singer, the words for the children's songs varied a little. For example, the classic verse "Pon, pon, pon el dedito en el pilón", resulted in a long discussion, because Hilda remembered two "pon pon" in the Cuban version and not three, which was what seemed right to Laura. The women decided to go with the three repetitions.

The final versions of the dolls are adorable and make you want to hug them. Abuelita Rosa (Grandmother Rose) is dressed in a pink cotton robe (like a muumuu) with stamped daisies and has white hair pulled into a bun. Abuelito Pancho (Grandpa Pancho) has a yellow guayabera (loose -fitting men's shirt) and blue pants. The two sit in hard cardboard rocking chairs.

The dolls were first introduced in Miami in May, 2005. The initial 3,000 first edition dolls (sold at $29,.99) literally flew off the shelves, recovering the creators' initial investment of $40,000. Very satisfied, the women joined a national distributor, contracted a public relations agency, and ordered more dolls.

"Sales surpassed our most ambitious dreams", admits Carol. "We knew we had something that people wanted, but it was a pleasant surprise".

Now, busy with the creation of other Baby Abuelita products, the three insist that their motivation - their reason for entering the doll business - is the same: keep the songs alive for the next generation.

"Whatever we do, we will always have that essence", affirms Hilda. "We want to make sure that these traditional songs will stay alive permanently".