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CEPEDA: Mexico Barbie's bad rap

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO -- I love Mexico Barbie's Chihuahua.

There, I've said it. Let the Latino community slam me for lacking cultural sensitivity if it will, but I'm sticking to my pistolas on this one.

The furor over Mexico Barbie came to a head last week when a $30 doll that had been released in June 2012 became the subject of news stories and chatter on social media networks for perpetuating offensive stereotypes.

Accusations of cultural insensitivity included outrage because Mexico Barbie comes with a passport and therefore implies that the inanimate piece of plastic is not living in the United States illegally. Journalist Laura Martinez was widely quoted: "Play with your Barbie Mexicana and don't even think of calling her indocumentada."

Chuckle-worthy, yes, but there are two significant issues at play here:

First is that when Hispanics freak out over something as innocuous as a toy that was treated with every bit the same amount of cultural sensitivity as the rest of the dolls in a collection -- all of Mattel's "Dolls of the World" sport traditional costumes, tote an animal or other symbol of their country, and come with stickers and a passport -- we look irrational and humorless.

The second is that being seen as overly sensitive is the least of our problems -- Latinos in the United States have deadly serious issues with our image.

According to a spring 2012 online survey for the Latino Donor Collaborative, a Hispanic image advocacy organization, the research and communications firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies found that most non-Latino Americans have highly skewed perceptions of U.S. Hispanics.

Three-quarters of the non-Latinos surveyed overestimated the proportion of the Hispanic population who reside here illegally. A third believed that over half of all Latinos are in the U.S. illegally (the real percentage is about 18, according to the Pew Hispanic Center). More than 80 percent of non-Latino respondents associated Latinos with not having learned to speak English and nearly 80 percent associated Hispanics with crime and gang violence.

Traditional offline research has found much the same. Last fall the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the polling firm Latino Decisions found that more than 30 percent of non-Hispanics believe a majority of Hispanics are here illegally.

This same study found that 51 percent of non-Latinos think "welfare recipient" describes Latinos "very" or "somewhat" well, 50 percent think of Hispanics as "less educated" and 44 percent believe Hispanics "refuse to learn English." (According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 65 percent of all U.S. Hispanics age 5 and older either speak only English at home or speak English very well.)

Living under those circumstances, it's difficult not to be annoyed at those who would stir outrage over a doll. It's not a big deal that a company is hoping to make profits by selling impressionable young children on the idea that Mexicans have both brightly colored clothing and official passports that entitle them to travel the world freely.

Can Hispanics in the U.S. just please focus on the truly important issues before us -- our reputations, low education-attainment levels and poor health for starters? Must we waste time worrying about the accessories of a doll representing another country?

And while we're at it, let's get over ourselves a little. Could it really be such an affront to the dignity of Mexicanos all over the world to imply that the Chihuahua is their country's national dog?

Seriously: Mexicans love Chihuahuas. I didn't say all Mexicans, but more of them than any other ethnic group I can think of. I've had countless in my family and the two sitting on my couch were highly offended to hear that this petty Mexican Barbie kerfuffle has brought into question the place of honor that the proud Chihuahua holds in the hearts of the Mexican people.

And I hate to be the one to break it to all the evolved, pan-American "New Generation Latinos" out there, but millions of other Hispanics whose families hail from all over Latin America love Chihuahuas, too.

Mexicans tend to also love tacos and mariachi music. Such a broad generalization may be highly offensive to some, but the reality of life is that while no rule of thumb accounts for all instances, some stereotypes are true. We can either embrace them and share our affinities with others or be the humorless clod who won't be invited on the next Chipotle lunch run.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.