Teacher uses a meme of Dora the Explorer as an illegal border crosser in a lesson about voting

A meme portraying the cartoon character Dora the Explorer as an arrested undocumented immigrant was used in a teacher's lesson about voter eligibility. (Stephanie Anderson)

Reis Thebault
November 16, 2019 at 7:51 a.m. PST

Dora the Explorer can’t vote.

First of all, she’s a cartoon. Second, she’s a child. Yet, neither of those facts appears to be the reason a high school teacher chose a doctored image of the fictitious adventurer to illustrate his lesson on voter eligibility.

Instead, it seems the Advanced Placement government instructor wanted to make a point about illegal immigration. To do so, he dug up a 10-year-old meme that was first employed during a fierce debate over an Arizona immigration law. In it, Dora is pictured as a detainee — standing nearly four-and-a-half feet, her eye blackened and lip bloodied, a prisoner’s placard listing her offenses as “Illegal border crossing” and “resisting arrest.”

When the meme flashed across the projector screen in the 11th grade classroom at West Geauga High School, outside Cleveland, it was paired with the apparent mug shot of a man sporting tattoos on his face and neck. Here, the teacher reportedly reasoned, were two examples of people who couldn’t vote: a felon and someone in the country illegally.

But when Stephanie Anderson, a parent at the school, saw the side-by-side images, she was outraged. The comparison — Dora, a young Spanish-speaking Latina, and a menacing convict — was a problematic dog whistle, she said.

“On its face, the image is inappropriate,” said Anderson, whose son was in the class. “I’m very passionate about making sure our public schools are the crown jewel of our community. I didn’t feel this was something appropriate to share.”

School administrators said they were looking into the incident and told a local television station that the teacher would be “placed on leave pending the results of the investigation.”

But in a statement sent to West Geauga students and parents, Richard Markwardt, the school’s superintendent, said, “The material has been examined, the matter investigated, and the issue is being resolved.”

Markwardt told The Washington Post that he agrees the image was inappropriate, but believes the teacher didn’t have malicious intentions. He said he won’t recommend that the district terminate the teacher’s contract.

“I will not use what I regard as a lapse of judgment as the reason to damage the career of a good teacher,” Markwardt said. “That would be following one mistake with another.”

Anderson said the district has struggled with diversity and inclusion issues in the past but has taken steps to improve. She said she hopes this can be another constructive moment and said she doesn’t want the teacher — one of the school’s most popular — to be fired.

“I genuinely believe they’re taking measurable steps to ensure all the students in the district can come to school in an environment that’s free from harassment and discrimination,” Anderson said. “It is so important to me that we as a community are better for the sake of all of our kids.”

Markwardt said he’ll continue directing his staff to focus on recognizing and honoring diversity, and may recommend training to individual teachers.

“I perceive the use of the objectionable image as symptomatic of a general lack of attention to the diversity of individuals in a largely homogeneous school district,” he said.

The Dora meme can be traced back to late 2009, and it gained widespread attention the next year, when then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed one of the country’s strictest immigration bills into law. The law made it a crime to not carry immigration documents and gave police wide latitude to detain people they suspected of being in the country illegally.

Critics said the law would encourage racial profiling, and in 2012 it was challenged at the Supreme Court, which struck down some provisions but left others standing.

At the time, the image of Dora as an undocumented immigrant was appropriated by the left and the right, as some used it in satirical commentary about the Arizona law’s strictness and others used it as a bigoted mascot.

But in the classroom, such an image can take on new meaning, said University of Cincinnati sociology professor Erynn Masi de Casanova. She said the meme “can be seen as legitimizing or trivializing the very real violence that is happening to Latin American immigrant and refugee children at the border and in immigrant detention centers.”

“Because Dora is what I call a ‘generic Latina’ stereotype, a fictional character without any identifiable national origin, people may feel comfortable projecting their ideas about Latinos onto her,” Casanova said.

“It is heartening to me that students and parents were disturbed by this image that dehumanizes and makes light of immigrants’ struggles,” she said. “It seems they are learning something about empathy in spite of this teacher’s efforts to discourage it.”