Can characters singing beloved Latino children's songs become as universal as Winnie the Pooh? That's the mission of Susan Jaramillo, creator of Canticos, the Emmy-nominated bilingual digital video series, book series and app on Nickelodeon.
"We wanted to bring all these wonderful stories and songs that were so popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world to new audiences, so Americans would also appreciate all these wonderful songs," Jaramillo said.
The preschool series features bilingual baby animals in vibrant hues of yellow, orange, green and blue singing along to traditional songs such as "Los Pollitos," (The Chicks), a Spanish-language lullaby about a hen caring for her hungry and cold hatchlings. It's one of the most popular children's songs across Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.
Canticos resonates with parents who want to raise multilingual children through quality, appealing content.
“You’ve got fresh characters that don’t exist in books or TV right now — that’s what hooked my kids,” Evan List, a father of two, said at a recent New York City fundraiser that featured some of the Canticos characters guiding children through bilingual songs and dances.
“It’s not just the normal princess or prince," List said. "You have animals that combine rhythmic sounds with friendly approachable characters, which is so refreshing.”
Canticos came about from Jaramillo's desire to pass part of her Latino heritage to American children, starting with her own.
Compared to other parts of the world, Americans are pretty monolingual. A 2017 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found fewer than 21 percent of Americans speak a language other than English at home — and worse yet, only a fraction speak, read and write that second language well enough to use it in their everyday lives.
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And while a quarter of U.S. children are of Hispanic descent, a Pew Research study found that 75 percent of second-generation Latinos and 99 percent of third-generation Latinos speak mainly English, just like all other immigrant groups have throughout U.S. history.
For Latino as well as non-Latino parents trying to teach children Spanish, there's been a lack of books: fewer than 1 percent of all American books are actually in Spanish, according to NPD Bookscan, which tracks the sale of books. Moreover, most Spanish-language books are English-language translations.
Jaramillo made a name for herself in the world of marketing. She was co-founder and chief creative officer of Latinvox, a Hispanic-focused marketing and advertising agency, which she later sold; it became The Vox Collective. There, she sold Daisy Fuentes’ successful apparel brand to Kohls and also worked with brands such as Macy's, Verizon and Coca-Cola.
In 2011, while on maternity leave with her second child, Jaramillo decided to take a break from marketing to focus on her first love — art — fusing it to bridge a gap she observed along with her friend, Nuria Santamaria-Wolfe.
“Nuria and I shared a frustration over the lack of available bilingual books and media available for children. It really became a shared passion and mission." In 2016, Jaramillo, Santamaria-Wolfe and her husband, Steven Wolfe-Pereira, launched Encantos Media Studios. That same year, the trio published the first set of bilingual board books.
After that, their connections in marketing and the children’s media space landed them an opportunity to pitch to Nickelodeon.
In 2017, Encantos partnered with Nickelodeon to bring Canticos to Nickelodeon’s digital platforms. Canticos singalong videos premiered in May 2018 on Nick Jr.’s digital platforms, including NickJr.com, its YouTube channel, app and the NOGGIN app, Nickelodeon’s paid subscription app.
“Canticos is such a wonderfully authentic brand with beautiful vibrant characters,” said Pam Kaufman, president of Viacom Nickelodeon Consumer Products. “We just loved how Canticos brings together kids and families from all backgrounds through bilingual stories and culturally authentic songs and characters; the appeal is universal.”
The network is working on introducing a consumer products line for infants and toddlers based on the series that is scheduled to be available by the fall.
At Canticos' cozy animation studio in Manhattan. drawings and renderings of the second season adorn the walls laid out in story frames, including a map of the preschool stories to come.
In the background, a group of women from diverse backgrounds work full-time on creating and animating the digital video series.
Jaramillo's hope is that children grow up with characters like the three little chicks — Rickie, Kiki and Nicky —as well as Benji the elephant, Sammi the bunny, and Lili the spider, in the same way that generations have known Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse.
“We want to establish a premiere brand with mass appeal,’ Jaramillo said. “Latino appeals to everyone!”
Leonor Ayala Polley works in New York as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for NBC News and MSNBC. Leonor has worked as a producer and reporter for 20 years, including stints on the NBC News assignment desk, the primetime news magazine ‘Dateline,' and most recently as Northeast Bureau Chief for Telemundo network news.