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Two-Inch Latino Role Models, For Good Or Ill


May 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

CHICAGO, April 30 – Shady, as she is known in the barrio, wears black sunglasses and a gray overcoat to disguise herself. She is ashamed to let friends and neighbors know she works as a stripper to support her son.

Willie G, a former gangster paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a gang fight, has turned his life around. He works as a youth counselor, trying to steer children away from the path he chose.

El Profe, a high school teacher with a master's degree in education, could have left this town long ago, but he vowed to stay and teach the children who face the same challenges he had to overcome.

Shady, Willie G and El Profe are not real people; they are the Homies, plastic figures two inches tall that caricature a segment of urban Mexican-Americans. They have become a phenomenon, finding a place in a postpolitically correct world in which racial and ethnic stereotypes are being embraced in a self-consciously humorous way precisely to subvert them.

The Homies' creator, David Gonzales, a 43-year-old Mexican-American from Richmond, Calif., has watched his product move from gum-ball machines in mostly minority neighborhoods in 1998 to national retail chains like Urban Outfitters, Spencer Gifts and Tower Records. Sales of the figures have grown into the tens of millions. There are about 120 Homies characters, each one with a profile on the Web. Mr. Gonzales has also branched out with new lines and a deal with one of the nation's largest publishers of children's books.

But like Bart Simpson and the "South Park" crew, the Homies have not been warmly received everywhere. Some say they exploit Mexican-American stereotypes and are a negative example of Latino culture.

Walter Ornelas, director of the Yollocalli Youth Museum, an outgrowth of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum here, said that Mexican-Americans might be embracing the Homies because they are one of the few representations of Latinos in pop culture, even though they highlight painful stereotypes. The figures – with their tattoos, baggy pants, knit caps, short skirts and tight, midriff-bearing shirts – look like "little hoodlums," he said.

"'For high school kids it's not a very positive image for them to be relating to," Mr. Ornelas said. "Why can't they make little doctors or lawyers?"

The Los Angeles Police Department had a similar complaint in 1999, shortly after the Homies appeared in Hispanic neighborhoods. Police officials said the figures promoted street gangs, and they encouraged stores to stop selling them.

Mr. Gonzales said he was not exploiting Mexican-American culture but celebrating it.

"Not all of the characters are role models, but it is a reflection of real life," he said in an interview. "I have seen a lot of people in bad situations who were good people, like Shady. There is always another story to someone's life, what makes them do what they do. I see no harm in what I'm doing here."

Mr. Gonzales and fans of his figures argue that Mexican-Americans do not need cultural guardians to tell them what is acceptable.

"There is a certain power statement that says: `We can laugh at this. We don't need you to protect us,' " said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

He compared the Homies to the two African-American characters who sold stolen electronics out of the back of an ever-moving van on the television show "In Living Color": they were stereotypes but also received as sendups of stereotypes. The comedian Margaret Cho similarly played with ethnic stereotypes in her mid-90's sitcom "All American Girl," in which she lampooned fellow Korean-Americans.

The Homies, an outgrowth of a cartoon that Mr. Gonzales began sketching in high school, include a wino, who turned to alcohol after his dot-com failed, and a girl who lost her boyfriend, a talented college-bound artist, in a "senseless act of violence." The figures are traded on eBay and among children. They sell for 50 cents in gum-ball machines, and a set of six characters is $7.99 on the Homie Web site, Sets of 24 characters sell for $23 online.

Jose Quintero, 15, said teenagers identified with the characters. "It shows what it's like to live in the ghetto, in the streets," said Mr. Quintero, who lives in Pilsen, a largely Mexican-American neighborhood here. "That's what happens out here."

Spencer Montes, 9, a second-grader with a cherubic face, bought two Homies one recent night before coming to a dimly lighted arcade here called the Black Hole.

"I like the way they dress, and I like the way they look," he said. "I set them up on the table and fight with them. I even built a house for them out of Popsicle sticks."

Also at the arcade Sargent Santiago, a 16-year-old who shares a couple of hundred Homies with his brother, said he did not understand why some people disliked the toys.

"I'm Mexican, and they don't offend me," he said, wearing a thick silver necklace and bracelets and an oversize blue T-shirt. "In my classroom we always look to see who looks like which character and who acts like them."

While some children may embrace these images, William Estrada, an artist and the assistant director of the Yollocalli Youth Museum, collects them as reminders of the stereotypes that have haunted Mexican-Americans for years. "I don't think many people see them as a bad thing," he said, "and that's what interests me."

Mr. Estrada said some of the characters were funny and reflected people he knew growing up in Mexico and California, but he said he would not give Homies to his children.

"Would we market another culture that way?" Mr. Estrada said. "I don't think we would be able to get away with that."

But Alicia Gaspar de Alba, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that the critics are missing the point.

"I would be very careful about attaching any sort of value judgment to those images," she said. "I think the Homies represent Everyman and Everywoman. They represent life as it really is, with all of the diversity of professions that we engage in as a community."

For Mexican-American children, she said, they are a favorable alternative to blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbies. "If they play with an image in which they see themselves, there is a sense of mirroring and empowerment," she said.

Since introducing the Homies, Mr. Gonzales has added three less controversial lines of figures. One line, the MiJOS, represent a tightly knit group of Latino children growing up in a barrio; another line, the Hoodrats, are his answer to the popular children's show "Rugrats." He said that a total of almost 100 million MiJOS, Homies and Homie Clowns have been sold. He also has plans for MiJOS spinoff merchandise like childrens' clothing and bedding, he said.

Mr. Gonzales has signed with Scholastic Inc. to write and illustrate five books based on the more sedate adventures of the MiJOS, and he hopes that collection will reach schools and bookstores by next fall, he said. Scholastic is to advertise the books in book clubs and fairs as well as in stores.

"I'm reaching out to a younger group and showing nothing but positive role models," Mr. Gonzales said. One character aspires to be a mayor, he said, while another dreams of being an Olympic gold medalist.

He also recently introduced a fourth line, the Palermos, a set of Italian-American caricatures. Once a powerful mob family, the Palermos have shifted their focus and now run a successful restaurant chain.

Mr. Gonzales said he expected the same kind of backlash that "The Sopranos" received from Italian-Americans, but seemed unconcerned. "The Sopranos is one of the top-rated shows on TV," he said. And the Palermos are not a mob family, but an former mob family, he said.

The figures have already attracted Sargent Santiago and his friends at the arcade. They say they are eagerly awaiting the Palermos and scoff at those who criticize Mr. Gonzales's characters.

"They're just toys," Mr. Santiago said.

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