The New York Times
December 27, 1997

Puerto Rican Barbie Doll Gets a Mixed Reaction

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Krista Aponte has 40 dolls in her Barbie collection, but on Thursday her grandmother gave her a special Barbie. She has long, wavy brown hair and coffee-colored eyes, wears a white cotton dress with lace ruffles and pink ribbon, and says in English and Spanish, "Hola, I live in Puerto Rico, a beautiful place often called the island of enchantment."

"She's pretty," the 9-year-old said. "She's different. She has a Puerto Rican dress. She's the Puerto Rican Barbie, and all the others are not."

Puerto Rican Barbie was an instant hit when the doll was introduced here last January by Mattel Inc. as part of the company's "Dolls of the World" line. The doll, which costs $19.94, was high on many Christmas lists this year, despite some stiff competition from Jailene, a more prosaic-looking doll modeled after a popular merengue singer.

But while Puerto Rican Barbie has been received enthusiastically in Puerto Rico, it has caused a heated debate among Puerto Ricans in the United States. Many on the mainland find her objectionable on several counts, from her light skin to her colonial-style tiered dress.

They also bristle at the history lesson on the back of the doll's box, which says in part: "Puerto Rico was granted permission to write our own constitution in 1952, and since then we have governed ourselves."

"I was insulted," said Gina Rosario, a 46-year-old school art director of Puerto Rican descent who lives in Alexandria, Va. "She looks very, very Anglo, and what was written on the package was very condescending -- 'The U.S. government lets us govern ourselves.' If you're going to represent a culture, do it properly -- be politically honest," she said.

But the doll was praised by Juan Manuel Garcia Passlacqua, a longtime political commentator in Puerto Rico. In a column in The San Juan Star, Passlacqua lauded Puerto Rican Barbie's "mulatto complexion, her almond eyes, her thick nose, her plump lips, her raven hair and her most magnificently simple but gorgeous local folkloric dress."

Compared with the blue-eyed version, the doll does seem to have a tan and a wider nose. But in his column, Passlacqua said what is important is that the doll "will help us explain ourselves, as we are, to all Americans."

Critics "are oversensitive," he said in a recent interview.

There have been other controversies surrounding the busty plastic doll, whose status as a cultural icon has prompted criticism from feminists and children's advocates who say its shape promotes an unhealthy self-image for young girls.

But the contrasting reactions to Puerto Rican Barbie go further, underscoring the differences in how the nearly 4 million Puerto Ricans here view themselves, compared with the estimated 2.8 million Puerto Ricans in the United States.

The disparity points up the difference between being a majority on the island and being a minority on the mainland. For many in Puerto Rico the doll is a welcome, if belated, recognition of the island's culture. But on the mainland there is a heightened sensitivity to image among Puerto Ricans who must grapple with stereotypes while trying to fit into an ethnically diverse society.

And all this comes on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Spanish-American War, which ended with Spain ceding Puerto Rico to the United States. A bill is now pending in Congress calling for a plebiscite to allow Puerto Rico to decide whether it wants to become a state, gain independence or remain a U.S. commonwealth.

On this issue, too, Puerto Ricans differ. While those on the island are almost evenly split between statehood and the status quo, a majority of Puerto Ricans on the mainland favor keeping the commonwealth, says the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, a research and advocacy group in New York City.

In October, when the institute posted the text of the Puerto Rican Barbie box on its Web-site forum, it was deluged with electronic mail from men and women across the United States. The Barbie debate obliterated discussion of more pressing issues, institute officials said.

"In Puerto Rico, the issue is recognition for this little island," said Angelo Falcon, the president of the institute, who said he was taken aback by the response. "Over here, there's a real question of how we're presented, because these negative stereotypes hit us hard."

"It's like 'The Capeman,"' Falcon said, referring to the Paul Simon musical that is about to open on Broadway, and is based on the true story of a Puerto Rican youth who killed two white teen-agers in New York in 1959, but later sought redemption.

"Some people won't even accept the theme, because to them it glorifies a murderer," Falcon added. "Within our community there are people who remember what happened, that Puerto Ricans became pariahs, these beasts. They lived through the consequences of it."

With Barbie, the concerns have focused on the doll's impact as a representative of Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking island whose status as a commonwealth leaves it sensitive to questions of national identity. The Barbie package describes Puerto Rico as being "discovered in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, who claimed it for Spain." Critics say this totally ignores the island's original inhabitants, the Tainos, a now extinct Indian people.

Neither does the richness of the culture come through, others say; putting a Spanish colonial dress on the doll leaves Puerto Rican Barbie "still stuck in the 19th-century feminine stereotype," as one Web-site subscriber put it.

The doll's looks are a hot-button issue, because Puerto Ricans are a mix of races that do not fit easily in the black and white world of the United States.

Aurora Levins Morales, a poet and historian who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and has discussed Barbie in her Puerto Rican history class, criticized the doll's "Anglocized image of what we're supposed to be like."

Her daughter, Alicia Otis, 9, offered a different critique. "It's a start that they have a person-of-color Barbie," she said, "but still, they should make it look like the person's eaten in the last millennium." She refuses to own any Barbies.

Many people in Puerto Rico, where Mattel introduced Puerto Rican Barbie by presenting the doll to Irma Margarita Rossello, the wife of Gov. Pedro Rossello, say they are mystified by the uproar.

Elizabeth Roman, 39, a magazine editor who collects Barbies, said she feels "honored" by the doll-maker's recognition. "These dolls are sold worldwide," she said. "As a collector, I was delighted."

Mary Ellen Martin, a mainland American married to a Puerto Rican who has lived here for 40 years and recently bought one of the dolls for her granddaughter in Virginia, said she could think of more offensive Barbies. "I saw the hula-hula Barbie advertised and I was appalled," she said. "It has multicolor hair and it swivels at the hips. That's really lowering the dignity of the Hawaiian culture."

Sean Fitzgerald, a spokesman for Mattel at the company's headquarters in California, said Puerto Ricans were an important market and the company's intent was "to honor and recognize the culture." The doll "was not meant to make any kind of political statement or be demeaning in any way," he said.

Fitzgerald said the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, a local government agency, was consulted for the costume and package text, which was written for girls 3 to 11 years of age, the target age for all Barbies.

The company has introduced several other Latin American dolls since the "Dolls of the World" collection began in 1980, he said, including a Mexican and a Peruvian Barbie, without complaints. There is also a Hispanic Barbie of undefined origin, as well as black, American Indian and Asian Barbies.

Kathleen Lawrence, coordinator of the women's studies program at the State University of New York College at Cortland, who organized an academic conference on Barbie last month, said the controversy over Puerto Rican Barbie was prompted by Mattel's failure to go beyond the American cultural vision of beauty when trying to diversify Barbie.

That vision, impossibly thin at the waist but full-bosomed, has also come under attack from feminists, and Mattel has announced that it will give Barbie a smaller bust and a bigger waist in future versions.

Despite the turmoil swirling around the doll, it is selling well in both Puerto Rico and the mainland, Mattel officials said.

In Bayamon, a city near San Juan, Amanda Ferri got two Puerto Rican Barbies on Christmas Day. Amanda, 8, said she owns 43 other Barbies, but Puerto Rican Barbie now reigns supreme in her collection.

"I like it more because she's from my country," she said, citing the doll's bottom-line appeal here. "It's my favorite."