Those born before the 21st century know the question, but no one knows the answer: Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?
On Tuesday, the actress playing the red-clad, globetrotting thief-of-thieves was at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall in Miami. But for the 1,700 schoolchildren in the audience, the question was who is Carmen Sandiego?
The select Miami-Dade County students now know her as “Jane the Virgin” star Gina Rodriguez, the voice of Sandiego in the animated show “Carmen Sandiego” debuting Jan. 18 on Netflix and the main role in the live action film slated for 2020. To acquaint a new generation with the 1980s and 1990s phenomenon, Rodriguez hosted a game show to quiz students on their geography skills and celebrate the premiere of the new show.
Carmen Sandiego was featured in books, computer games and a TV game show. At the Arsht center, Rodriguez left behind her character’s signature red fedora and matching coat to rile the crowd in red pumps.
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“When I was your age, she was my world,” Rodriguez told the crowd of students, each waving handmade flags of countries. “She was my hero, and now I get to be her.”
When textbook and curriculum company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt acquired The Learning Company, it realized it retained the rights to “Carmen Sandiego.” The company inked a deal with Netflix and has plans to incorporate the character into geography curriculum.
Jack Lynch, the CEO of HMH, said he picked Miami for the premiere for its international flair. The company enjoys a good relationship with Miami school Superintendent Alberto Carvalho; Miami-Dade County Public Schools uses HMH books in its curriculum.
“When you think about these times where it’s a country that is increasingly more inward, it’s a great time to show respect for people in different countries and different cultures,” Lynch said. “I think a character like Carmen Sandiego with a curiosity for other cultures is perfect.”
Caroline Fraser, the executive producer of the series and director of the Sandiego brand for HMH, said the world is in need of a female globetrotting action hero for the new generation.
“The existing fan base has an increased love and nostalgia for the brand,” Fraser said, adding that parents and teachers are “bringing that love back for kids who had never seen it before.”
Fifth- and sixth-grade students from select elementary and K-8 schools spanning the county were invited to the event. A few students formed teams that competed on stage by answering trivia questions on geography, landmarks and capitals and placing small red fedoras on maps.
Many students said they learned of Carmen Sandiego from their parents or older siblings.
“My dad kept telling me about [her],” said 11-year-old Sofia Castaneda, a sixth grader at Coral Gables Preparatory Academy. If she had grown up in the character’s heyday, she said, “all of my room would’ve been Carmen Sandiego.”
“It was so overwhelming in a good way,” said 12-year-old Isabel Lopez, also a sixth grader at Coral Gables Prep. “It’s not every day you can meet one of your favorite actresses.”
Carvalho called the event a “super field trip” that showcased Miami-Dade students, who aced the geography games.
“It was interesting to see multiple generations come together to celebrate Carmen Sandiego,” he said. “What better place to do it than in Miami?”
Rodriguez said she’s always been an advocate for education and likened “Sandiego” to an educational television show like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“For me to be able to fuse my art, which is like my heart, my beating drum,” she said, “I find it really awesome that we get to make this show for kids.”
Rodriguez said it’s daunting to reboot a show that’s unfamiliar to a new viewership but, “it’s less daunting if you think about how great she was and just think about how great she’ll be for the next generation.”
Colleen Wright: 305-376-3003, @Colleen_Wright