Netflix's 'Carmen Sandiego' brings back memories

“When I see that cute little girl with her pretty brown skin, it makes me melt," said actress Gina Rodriguez, who is Carmen in the animated series.
Image: Netflix's "Carmen Sandiego."
Netflix's "Carmen Sandiego."Netflix

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By Gwen Aviles

Carmen Sandiego and Maria Vargas Aponte don’t have much in common. One is a fictional criminal mastermind who travels the world to avoid capture, while the other is a very real Texas-based video game blogger who makes an honest living as a computer engineer.

But when Netflix released the trailer for its new series “Carmen Sandiego,” which drops on Jan. 18 and features actress Gina Rodriguez as the voice of the main character, Vargas Aponte watched it “more than 15 times."

Like other young adults who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s loving computers and gaming, Vargas Aponte relates to Carmen for many reasons, though one sticks out.

“Many Latina characters are secondary characters, but with Carmen Sandiego, we have this badass Latina character,” said Vargas Aponte, 28, who grew up playing a version of the “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” computer game.

Rodriguez, a native of Chicago who is of Puerto Rican descent, views her character as one that bridges cultures, something that resonates among the increasingly diverse younger generations.

“Carmen gets to travel to so many different places all over the world, and you see her empathy and desire to learn other people’s languages and cultures and religions, and she teaches that,” Rodriguez told NBC News. “The show fuses two things I love the most, which is art and education, and when I see that cute little girl with her pretty brown skin, it makes me melt. I almost want to cry when I think about it.”

Carmen Sandiego was introduced to the world in 1985 as a character in a computer game.

The character has since appeared in multiple iterations of the game, such as “Where in the U.S. Is Carmen Sandiego?”; "Where in Europe Is Carmen Sandiego?"; “Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?” and others.

The character also inspired a PBS game show where middle-schoolers won prizes for successfully answering questions about geography, as well as an animated television series, “Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?” Rita Moreno was nominated for three Daytime Emmys for her voice work as Carmen in the latter series. On Thursday, fans found out that Moreno will be voicing the character of Cookie Booker in a few episodes of the new series.

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Duane Capizzi, one of the new show's executive producers, told Variety that "Gina just wigged out at the prospect of having both Carmens in our show, past and present."

Though Carmen Sandiego was the center of a sprawling franchise, she was perhaps best known to young people like Vargas Apointe from the educational computer games where she first appeared — and where there were hardly any young women of color.

Netflix's "Carmen Sandiego."Netflix

According to a 2015 Nielsen survey, 22 percent of Latino video gamers don’t believe all races are have “ample representation/inclusion in all video game characters.” A 2009 survey titled “The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games” states that only 3 percent of video game characters are recognized as Latino.

Yet representation matters, as Vargas Aponte explained. She credits "Carmen Sandiego" with inspiring her to pursue a career as a software engineer — a field where Latinas are underrepresented. She remembers being the only woman in some of her STEM college classes in Puerto Rico. Currently, she's the only female on her work team, but that “doesn’t stop me from speaking up or sharing my ideas,” she said.

“If Carmen Sandiego could do it, I could do it,” Vargas Aponte said.

For many young adults, "Carmen Sandiego" is a welcome return to one of their favorite fictional characters.

Jolece Rivera, an animation and illustration major at Montclair State University in New Jersey, didn’t own the "Carmen Sandiego" videos games, but would “play them at school whenever I could.”

She appreciates its “beautiful” lineless animation, the detail and specificity of the main character — and how she looks.

“I’ve personally never seen a brown Latina in a video game or show that looks like me. Big eyebrows, curly hair. That describes me,” Rivera, 18, said. “I saw me in this character design and I fell in love with it.”

Anna-Michelle Lavandier, a freelance journalist who often writes about the gaming industry, never expected the "Carmen Sandiego" franchise to be revived, but said there is a trend of video games being remade.

Lavandier, 26, started playing video games when she was 7, despite her parents' attempts to discourage her.

“Video games are for guys,” she recalled her parents telling her, an idea that was reinforced by the overwhelming amount of male characters who didn’t look like her.

In video games, “Latina women are heavily stereotyped,” Lavandier said. “They’re presented as curvy with an accent, but that’s starting to shift.”

Lavandier felt more connected to Sombra, a Latina character in the game “Overwatch” than Carmen Sandiego, but she is curious to see how the reboot will go. She’s especially excited to see how the show will explore Carmen’s Latina identity as well as her switch from working with the ACME detectives and law enforcement to becoming the leader of the V.I.L.E. criminal organization.

“I would love to really see that transition that dives deep into who that person is and how they became the way they are,” Lavandier said. “Carmen Sandiego is not a bad person. Circumstances have lead her to where she is.”

Though many “Carmen Sandiego” viewers will inevitably be those who grew up playing her computer games, there's a new generation ready to give it a shot.

Iliana Gonzalez, 24, a gamer and journalism student at Ashford University in San Diego, said she had heard of Carmen Sandiego when she was younger, but didn’t play the games or watch the game show.

But the animation and Gina Rodriguez’s role have convinced her to give the Netflix series a chance.

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