The Puerto Rican Barbie

I have lived a diverse multicultural life.  I have delved into a number of areas, and people who know me from one of these areas will be astonished that this is the same person in a seemingly unrelated area.  Among my other lives is a Latin American media/marketing website Zona Latina where I have published more than 400 articles.  Most of the those articles are not very interesting or insightful at first glance -- until the day when someone suddenly needed to research a subject that seemed simple enough except it cannot be found anywhere else on the Internet.  Then I become their life-saver.

Today, I shall illustrate with one example.

Let us say that you are interested in Barbie dolls.  Not the blue-eyed, blonde-haired and white-skinned all-American girl, but how the Barbie dolls are localized.  Specifically, you are curious about the Puerto Rican Barbie doll.  Mattel cannot be selling the all-American version of Barbie doll over there.  Not many Puerto Rican females look like that.

Before everything else, the first question might be: How many Puerto Rican girls own a Barbie doll?  And whatever that number might be, is it more or less compared to other Latin American countries?

You can search high and low for that kind of information, but there will be only one source -- my article titled Barbie Dolls in Latin America.  The data in the article came from the Pan-Latin American Kids Study, for which I was the technical/research director and operations manager.

Table. % of Latin American Girls Age 7-11 Who Own Barbie Dolls by Geographic Region

Country % who owns Barbie dolls
Argentina 44%
Brazil 25%
Chile 49%
Colombia 21%
Mexico 20%
Puerto Rico 72%
Venezuela 14%
Balance of Central America/Caribbean 17%
Balance of South America 20%

In her book Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture, Frances Negrón-Muntaner has an entire chapter on the Puerto Rican Barbie doll.  On page 224, she wrote:

Puerto Rico's four million consumers do not constitute in themselves a substantial market; there are almost as many boricuas in the United States.  Islanders, however, have the highest per capita number of Barbies in Latin America, the context in which Mattel and most of the Island's elites locate Puerto Rico.  A whopping 72 percent of Puerto Rican children own at least one Barbie, as compared to the second highest, Chile, with 49 percent.  ...  The difference in Barbie penetration can be linked to closer economic and cultural ties to the United State, a higher per capita income than most Latin American nations (at twenty dollars, Barbie is considered an expensive children's toy), and higher consumption rates.

So my article was the source of the cited statistics.

But what is my real pleasure or reward in publishing this nugget of information?  Before this, I really did not know too much about what is happening with the Barbie phenomenon.  Putting this information out would eventually bring me into the Barbie world in Puerto Rico, and particularly with respect to racial identity in that society.  As Walter Benjamin wrote: "Toys are a site of conflict, less of the child with the adult than of the adult with the child."

The starting point was the introduction of a Puerto Rico Barbie doll in 1997.  Clearly, this was not going to be a blue-eyed, blonde-haired and white-skinned girl with impossible body dimensions.  So the following photograph shows what PR Barbie looked like:

Puerto Rico Barbie

What was more interesting about the Puerto Rican Barbie was that its introduction in 1997 led to a cultural war.  The question of what should a PR Barbie look like gets at the heart of cultural identity.  Negrón-Muntaner pointed out what Mattel's general principles for localization are:

... to change hair color, pigmentation, and costume and appeal to dozens of markets in their best (white) light, which tends to be appealing to the country's most affluent sectors.

Now look at the PR Barbie Doll and think about the difference from the typical American Barbie in terms of physical characteristics: the hair is dark instead of blonde but the skin passes off as white.  That didn't seem so radical and in fact meets with the stereotypical expectations on these attributes.  So why were people incensed?

First of all, it was not about the skin color.  Negrón-Muntaner quotes Lourdes Pérez, a Puerto Rican Chicago-based, San Juan-raised interior decorator: "I don't care that she's white.  Puerto Ricans come in all colors ..."  Here is more on racial identification:

In Puerto Rico, unlike the United States, a person's "race" is not solely dictated by a single African ancestor.  "Color and features," writes the appropriately named Tomás Blanco, "count more than blood."  Whereas one drop of "black" blood makes you African American in the  United States, one drop of "white" can have the reverse effect on the Island, where a person does not need to claim exclusively European lineage to access the benefits of whiteness.

A clear example of how racism, however, informs self-identification within parameters that are different from American ones can be observed from the outcome of the 2000 census: a whopping 80.5% of Puerto Ricans considered themselves as white, while only 8 percent identified as black.  ...  

When I ran the Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica study in 19 Latin American countries, I collected race classifications.  I did not want to ask people to classify themselves; instead, I asked the interviewers to make a visual classification (see Racial Classifications in Latin America).  But Puerto Rico was the one place that nothing ever came back, because more than 90% of the interviewers checked the "Don't know" box.  Why was it so difficult for them?  Negrón-Muntaner has this explanation:

"Racial" identification (and attribution) in Puerto Rico is partly determined by a combination of phenotypical factors, including the thickness of lips, skin tone broadness of nose, eye color, cheekbones, and -- most important -- hair texture, which is physically coterminous with the skin and hence often symbolizes the entire body's "race."

The whole cultural war over PR Barbie in fact revolved around hair texture.  Lourdres Pérez said: "... when I saw that hair, I thought 'Dios mío' ('my God'), we just passed on a terrible legacy to the next generation."  Negrón-Muntaner also quoted journalist Louis Aguilar: "For some Puerto Rican women who have spent countless hours ironing the curl out of their hair before going to the office or school, it's Barbie's hair that makes them cringe."  Negrón-Muntaner wrote: "The organizing assumption was that the Barbie's hair could only have been straight if it had been 'straightened,' a shameful act of self-hatred or conformity that would also be judged by American whites derisively."

If you think that grown-ups should fight over Barbie's hair texture is absurd, Negrón-Muntaner gives more examples:

The researcher Isabelo Zenón Cruz confirms the crucial role of hair when in his fundamental book Narciso descubre su trasero, he recalls a "test" through which "whites" can detect whether someone is a grifo (racially mixed) or simply an "olive-skinned" white, by placing him in front of a fan to see if the hair follows the wind: "If the hair stays put, he will stay outside the privileged group."

I would hope that such an example might make people see the absurdity of their attitudes.  But it won't.