Monday, January 26, 2009

Hispanic doll comes with immigrant story

Miami-based doll has Hispanic look and immigrant story

Girls across the country are playing with a new doll that may look like one of the American Girl doll figures -- but she's not.

Maru is similar to the New York-based icon -- with trendy outfits, pets and a book about her life. But her story is closer to home for many South Florida girls: Maru is Hispanic.

She came to the United States alone to learn a new language, make new friends and live with her aunt and uncle until she is reunited with her parents, who are in another country.

''Finding courage from within, she will soon learn that she is not alone on this journey,'' starts the Forever Friends book that introduces her.

''It is my story,'' said, Maritza Gutierrez, a marketing professional with many awards in her 20-some year career, who wrote the book and created the doll.

Gutierrez and her family fled the Fidel Castro revolution in Cuba and went to Spain. She came to New York to live with her aunt and uncle in 1965 when she was 4.

''My parents couldn't get a visa; but I did,'' said Gutierrez, adding that they joined her more than a year later.

''At that age, you really don't know how to tell time, so it seems a lot longer,'' she said recently, sitting in her office, twirling Maru's hair. ``That is a typical story of immigration and the sacrifice our parents make to try to make a life for their children.

''It's pretty scary living with two people you've never met before,'' Maru narrates in the story's first chapter.

“Each night before I go to sleep, I look out the window and count the shiniest stars. I pretend that the biggest and closest ones are my parents watching over me.''

Gutierrez, who lives in Coral Gables and is chair of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and wife of well-known political consultant Armando Gutierrez, says the doll company is a labor of love.

''What I'm trying to do with the doll is not just encourage safe play, imagination and reading,'' Gutierrez said, because each of the three dolls come with a book and there are more books in store.

''But most importantly, it promotes the celebration of cultural diversity. Because that's what America is today,'' she added.

In that vein, the Maru and Friends line already has two other dolls -- girls Maru meets at school. ''They become BFFs,'' Gutierrez said. Jamie is blonde with blue eyes and freckles. Tanya is browner-skinned and has long curly brown hair.

All three were designed by award-winning artist Dianna Effner, better known for her one-of-a-kind collectible porcelain dolls. Each face has a different mold, Gutierrez said. And they have several outfits to choose from, including a jeans and espadrilles set, a coat and hat and pajamas. More outfits are in the works, as is a dog that Maru's aunt and uncle give her ''to help ease her pain,'' Gutierrez said.

Next on the agenda is an Asian-American doll and babies, a line called Happy Twins developed by a different award-winning designer. Quality is very important to Gutierrez, who has about 200 dolls in her own personal collection.

Not one of those, however, is an American Girl doll.

''Because I don't have little girls,'' said the mother of two boys, who are now 25 and 20. ``I had never seen an American Girl until one day, because I collect dolls, I received a catalog.''

She didn't buy one.

''They're not collectables. I don't buy dolls to play with. I buy dolls to collect,'' she said. ``My dolls are for playing, but they look like collectables.''

The idea, brewing in her head for many years, started taking form in February of 2006 when she went to conduct ''research'' at a toy convention.

''OK,'' she admits. ``At first, it was an excuse to see all the dolls.''

But she was disappointed with what she saw.

''There wasn't anything like this out there,'' she said, referring to her line and the dolls' childlike features.

''When I looked at the dolls out there, I thought, they don't look like the dolls I used to play with,'' she said. ``They don't really look like kids.''

It took more than two years of design and development to create Maru and her friends and Gutierrez admits they look like the American Girl product, which has become a national phenomenon and a craze among pre-teen girls, spawning two recent major motion pictures.

''Americans have American Girl. Now Latinas have Maru,'' said Gutierrez, adding that there are some differences.

Maru and friends are less ''bulky'' than the AG line and they have one item of clothing their more famous predecessor doesn't have: underwear. It was something girls noticed at a recent toy fair where children were allowed to play with new toys as part of a market test.

'Some of the comments were that they owned American Girl dolls but that she [Maru] was more flexible. She can sit and turn her head around. And one girl said, `She even had underwear,' '' Gutierrez said. “Incredible that such a small thing makes a big deal.''

Gutierrez launched Maru and Friends on the Internet in October. In November, Maru was one of the gifts given to celebrities arriving for the 9th Annual Latin Grammy Awards. The dolls have already won the 2008 Greatest Products Award by iParenting Media.

And the website has already sold thousands of dolls at $110 a pop.

Demetrio Perez, Jr., the former school board member and vice president of the Lincoln Marti schools, bought two of them. A friend of Gutierrez, he first pre-ordered one as a favor and put it under the Christmas tree for his 5-year-old daughter, Sofia.

But when she opened it and he saw how delicate the doll was and how it came tied with white ribbon -- rather than the twisted wire that had already made a mess of his hands -- his wife told him to order another as a collectable.

That one stays in the box while the other one goes everywhere with Sofia.

''My daughter goes to sleep with her. My daughter brings her in the car with us,'' Perez said. ``She dresses her up and changes her outfits. She plays with Maru more than the American Girl doll or Barbie.

“She loves her. And everywhere we go, she's with Maru.''

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