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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Essay

Who In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? CEO, Intellectual, & America’s Most Positive Latina Role Model


“We want to motivate them to learn about the world,” game show host Greg Lee once told the Associated Press, sometime in the past century (1992) Lee had just taken the helm at a children’s education show entitled Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, whose plot demanded the children observe the command of their boss at Interpol, The Chief (Lynne Thigpen), to capture the elusive monument thief. The premise of the show, based on a video game, at once was to maintain the audience of older children as they graduated from Sesame Street and morning shows meant for younger folk. No one in my generation doubts that it did just that. But what the creators of the Carmen Sandiego video game and program franchise could have never anticipated was the cultural impact Sandiego had on one particular demographic following the canon— Latin American girls. 

For many children, Sandiego was the pinnacle of cool for her encyclopedic knowledge of history, her keen but conservative fashion sense, and her ability to run and mainsteam the well-oiled machine that is V.I.L.E. For little Latinas, she was the most educated, successful, and powerful figure the culture had given them that finally looked a little like them.

Carmen (after two decades of support, I feel entitled to be on a first-name basis with her) began her life in the spotlight in 1983, the boss leading a pack of intrepid monument thieves bent of hoarding the greatest creations of mankind. Her minions would be everywhere— Istanbul, Tokyo, Las Vegas— attempting some of the most astounding heists in history. From the video spawned one of the greatest staples of my generation’s childhood: the game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, in which children “traveled” the world to a hip Rockapella soundtrack with the guidance of The Chief to find our ambiguously heroic veteran.

Like many video games with brand-name final bosses, Sandiego was the last challenge on the way to a promotion from The Chief. The game show followed suit. But unlike a lot of video games we know today— The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, even female-led video games like Tomb Raider—the title character is the villain, not the hero, and the character the player must defeat. Carmen was the first of her kind to earn the privilege of spearheading her video game franchise, even if, as a gumshoe understudy of The Chief, Carmen was nominally a rival. She was so beloved that, even in the obituary of creator Raymond Portwood, Jr., the New York Times can’t bring itself to call her employees “thieves.”

With his colleague, Lauren Elliott, Mr. Portwood is credited with dreaming up Carmen Sandiego, who, as a former secret agent gone bad, is the ringleader of a gang of eccentric provocateurs who roam the world causing trouble, usually by stealing a treasure of local significance. The player assumes the role of Interpol detective, tracking Carmen Sandiego or her henchmen from city to city and nation to nation on the basis of clues provided by witnesses.

Sandiego is not the only character in the Carmen Sandiego canon that presents these challenges to young women—let us not forget that your boss in the game at all times is the venerable Chief, a strong woman if there ever was one. But Sandiego has a particular impact on girls—or, at least, had a particular impact on me—because she was a symbol of cultural rebellion. She is the first major American pop culture example of a mischievous yet beloved hero who also happens to be both a woman and a Latin American.

Much of pop culture engrains in the minds of young Latinas very early on what American society entitles them to. Granted, it is far more than most Latinas would in most of their home countries, the current wave of female presidents in the Southern Hemisphere notwithstanding, but the range of careers and lifestyles is still sorely lacking: models, singers, ballerinas, sex objects. The spectrum ranging from Shakira to Jennifer Lopez [Editors note: Lopez, coincidentally enough, is producing a Carmen Sandiego movie with Walden Media] doesn’t leave much space for academics and politicians on it, even if you add in the scantily clad “journalists” on Primer Impacto.

Sandiego flies in the face of all of this: she is not scantily clad; she reads and thinks. She is a CEO in her own right—a CEO in a corporate entity designed for larceny, but a CEO nonetheless. American pop culture is not exactly saturated with images of female finance mogul or law professors or, really, any job that requires education—and if our dreams don’t require it, why should young girls bother doing well in school? It’s not like that’s going to help anyone get on Sabado Gigante. For little girls told to stay in the kitchen with the girls when the men are talking politics, bombarded with the stalest of stale “Latin Lover” stereotype long before they even know what sex is, admiring the hair and makeup of the ladies in telenovelas while holding rag dolls intended to teach them how to rear children, Carmen Sandiego simply does not compute. Why would a woman with so much to dream for—a husband, a house, a dog, children to raise—abandon it all to read about old buildings all day, or lead a corporation? Aren’t there enough men doing that already?

Those who question the moral premise of holding Carmen Sandiego up as a role model read too literally into her job description. To girls, now women, who grew up around the hispanophone media (but some of the English-language media, too), Sandiego couldn’t be anything but a thief: any woman who dares stray from the script is necessarily taking what isn’t hers. In Sandiego’s case, she was stealing entire cultures—filching away positions in the social hierarchy that she wasn’t born to have. Her spot as the most powerful figure in the art and archaeology worlds rightfully belongs to some gringo like Indiana Jones or the Ocean’s 11 guys or every Nicolas Cage character after he went bankrupt—thieves upheld as heroes while Sandiego is expected to wallow in villainy. Sandiego seems to have missed the memo, however, that she might be inspiring tawny girls to dream of having employees while not wearing bikinis on television, to actually take the time to learn history and culture, lending her a promethian quality that makes her more than a video game legend, but a bona fide role model.

Frances Martel is an Editor at our sister site, Mediaite.

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  • Anonymous

    Let us not forget that Carmen was voiced by acting triple crown winner Rita Moreno for her animated series.  Always had a firm connected to the Latino community has she.

    I’ve always viewed Ms. SanDiego as one of the long line of honorable bandits (I’d say “Gentleman theives” but there’s an obvious reason not to) that have filled entertainment, from Raffles and the Saint (look them up, youngsters) Aresene Lupin, and his alleged grandson, Lupin III, to other videogame antiheroes like Sly Cooper.  Yes, they’re on the wrong side of the law, but they’re just so sharp, and so GOOD at it, you almost feel honored to have been taken by them.

    And of course, in the CSD games, the roles are reversed – you’re not playing the baddie, you’re trying to stop her.  You’re the Nayland Smith to her Fu Manchu…and the fact that you like recognize the latter name and not the former likely speaks volumes.

  • Anonymous

    Jennifer Lopez is a great choice for doing something like that, having even named her own children after the leads of Dragon Tails, Max and Emme. Another show that did a great job of promoting strong latin culture characters.

  • http://profiles.google.com/lowsee Heidi Mason

    “Oooh, the chase!” Sing it with me now…

    Seriously, though, I remember playing the very first game as a young kid. I must have been… 7 or 8? I don’t remember properly. I didn’t even know it had more than one color until we got our first color monitor, even though it still was like only 4 colors total. So frustrating to spend tons of time pouring over the World Atlas that came with the game, only to make a decision, travel there, and no one’s heard of Carmen (or her minions). But I loved it… perhaps it was this game, combined with Catwoman on the campy Adam West Batman and the Disney Robin Hood, that is to blame for my weird affinity for thieves. (Neal Caffrey, anyone?)

  • http://profiles.google.com/lowsee Heidi Mason

    AAAAHHH!!!! YOU KNOW WHO ARSENE LUPIN IS!! Totally geeking out about that!!! :D

  • http://twitter.com/IC_Jen Jen Graybeal

    well said. thank you. 

  • Anonymous

    RE: Neal Caffrey (squee) , Catwoman, Robin Hood, and the old school Carmen Sandiego: Yes. Yes times approximately one billion.

    What are your thoughts on the 90′s comic book Catwoman? I know the art was over-the-top with the T&A, but Selina was just so much *fun* and much less likely to getting the stuffing beaten out of her back in the day.

  • Life Lessons

    I always liked that show. :)

  • http://profiles.google.com/lowsee Heidi Mason

    In the 90s, I mostly read X-Men, Superman, and classic Marvel (I got to read a HUGE box full of classic Marvel; it belonged to my friend next door’s father, his personal collection from the 60s. He had NO idea I had the entire collection *lol*). Alas, I neglected my Batman love until the last 5 years, really. So, the only one from the 90s I’ve read is Her Sister’s Keeper. The others I adore include Long Halloween, When in Rome, and Hush. Any other suggestions? I don’t really like her in the New 52. 

  • Alexandra

    I love this show! and if there ever was a game I’ve always wanted made into a movie it was CSD!!! I hope it comes out decent and not crappy like oh so many movies lately.

    But yes, here in Puerto Rico (the actual island) she was very big, at least in my youth. Me and all my friends played the games when we were in grade school.

    I never thought of her as a Latina role model, just a woman role model, but your argument is very strong for the former. 

  • Anonymous

    If you can find it, Catwoman #0 is my favorite take on her origin story so far. It manages to come up with a back story featuring an unhappy childhood and a comfort with physicality *without* going down the simplistic “she’s a naughty girl with daddy issues” route, which is such a breath of fresh air.

    Sadly, most of her story arcs haven’t been compiled into collections, but one that was (and happens to be fantastic) is Catfile. Selina’s “recruited” by the government and has to play along until she can find a way out. Cue trips to Paris, awesome heists, and creative uses for lipstick.

    I also highly recommend picking up any of the issues from Devin Grayson’s run on the book (#54-71, according to the internet). I think she was writing for Catwoman during the Cataclysm crossover, it you’d like a place to start looking for her work on the book.

    *phew* Obsessive fangirling over (for now).

  • http://revolvingdoorcommune.wordpress.com Teresa Jusino

    “In Sandiego’s case, she was stealing entire cultures—filching away
    positions in the social hierarchy that she wasn’t born to have. Her spot
    as the most powerful figure in the art and archaeology worlds
    rightfully belongs to some gringo like Indiana Jones or the Ocean’s 11 guys or every Nicolas Cage character
    after he went bankrupt—thieves upheld as heroes while Sandiego is
    expected to wallow in villainy. Sandiego seems to have missed the memo,
    however, that she might be inspiring tawny girls to dream of having
    employees while not wearing bikinis on television, to actually take the
    time to learn history and culture, lending her a promethian quality that
    makes her more than a video game legend, but a bona fide role model.”

    Yes!

    What’s funny is that, when I was little and watching the show, as much as I loved it, I also had the thought “Why does the big Latina character have to be a criminal?!” :)  Now, of course, I see what you’re saying above. Back when I was an actress, I dreamed of playing Carmen Sandiego. Now, I dream of writing her.

    Maybe I should JLo a call. She might need another strong Puerto Rican female on her team! ;)

  • http://profiles.google.com/deceleration.waltz Deceleration Waltz

     I love the honorable bandit trope. Characters like those are so cunning, fascinating, and witty.

  • http://twitter.com/acidragdoll Bel

    I run a blog about awesome women in video games and I had an entry on Carmen sitting in my drafts… Just published it with a link to this fabulous article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Gorillazfan Emily Hill

    I remember the game and game show I droves my parents nuts singing the theme XD

  • Anonymous
  • Carmen Sandiego

    I played the computer games in school, watched both the live-action game show and the animated series.  I cosplay as her at least once a year.  She’s such a badass and has style and smarts and is cultured.  I’ve always loved a rogue, though.  And she often just enjoys the chaos and mischief and ends up putting back the Mona Lisa or Stonehenge once she has a new interest. ;)

    I’d love to see a new ‘unknown’ actor tackle this role for the Walden Media film, but I could see Catherine Zeta-Jones pulling it off.  I may be basing that too much on her performance in The Mask of Zorro.

    Most of all, I loved her for imbuing a sense of curiosity about other places and times and how her shows and games had a geography focus in a country notorious for having students with poor geography skills (the US).

    I LOVE THIS ARTICLE!

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

     This is a great article, as I have always held a deep love for Carmen and her various incarnations, “Where in the World” and “Where on Earth” (the cartoon) most of all. Carmen is a great role model, in that she is conservatively dressed, intelligent, and methodical and deliberate in her actions (even if it is to steal). Carmen may be pushed to the wayside by (mostly male) “honorable thieves” like the Ocean’s 11 gang, but could they pull off the things she’s done? Who else but Carmen could steal the International Date Line? I’d love to be half as cool as Carmen.

    (However, I must also point out that the player always worked for the Acme Detective Agency, never Interpol.)

  • http://jvd897.blogspot.com jvd897

    Actually it was Interpol in the very first version of “Where in the World”, but I think that was the only one.

  • Anonymous

    Huh – learn something new every day. The very first game was a little early for me. It’s been Acme my entire life, so I never bothered to question it.

  • http://jvd897.blogspot.com jvd897

    Same — but I started playing some of the older games recently (http://www.abandonia.com/en/games/13/Where+in+the+World+is+Carmen+Sandiego.html). It came as a surprise to me too.

  • Anonymous
  • Eli Effinger-Weintraub

    OK, is everyone in the world tuned to the Carmen Sandiego wavelength? (Golly, I hope so!) http://xkcd.com/1023/

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NNDC4PQLPFMGZMCXFUCSIWPY3M CJ

    I always loved Carmen SanDiego.  I the old days, we had a thick paperback encyclopedia at hand to help with the clues.  I once dressed up for an office Halloween party in a trenchcoat and Fedora, but nobody got it. 

    We joked later that there should be a new game — Where in the Hell is Carmen SanDiego — taking her through the different levels of Hell.

  • E S

    She certainly was a worthy adversary, only caught her a handful of times in the game when I was little. Never thought about the impact of her as a role model but I can definitely see it now and it makes me smile.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lindsey.hollands Lindsey Hollands

    Wait, is it for sure that she chose the names from that show? I hadn’t heard that, and it blows my mind if true.