By Kiko Martinez
While Latino-themed cartoons like Nick Jr.’s “Dora the Explorer” and PBS’s “Maya and Miguel” have been some of the leaders in bilingual children’s programming in recent years, Jennifer Peña, an actress and certified public school teacher, says pre-schoolers have been missing something that she can now deliver: a real-life Latina role model.
In May, PBS Kids will introduce Peña as “Miss Rosa,” one of two new teachers who will educate children during segments in between popular shows such as “Betsy’s Kindergarten Adventure,” “Arthur,” and “Super Why!”
“By bringing in new teachers [we’re] helping [kids] become familiar with people from diverse communities [and] preparing them for multicultural experiences they are likely to have in school and life,” said Lesli Rotenberg, Senior Vice President for PBS Kids Next Generation Media. “By infusing Spanish and adding more original music, we are helping to enrich our youngest viewers’ engagement.”
Born in Chicago, Peña moved to Florida when she was five years old. It’s during her early childhood and into her pre-teens when she says the entertainment industry impacted her life.
“‘Sesame Street’ was No. 1 right up there with ‘Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood’ and ‘The Electric Company,’ Peña said. “PBS has been a big part of my upbringing.”
Although she was only fluent in Spanish as a little girl, which kept her from understanding everything on her favorite English shows, Peña says her attraction to these programs was not always about the language they were in.
“The connection back then was more because I was drawn to the actual performances,” Peña said. “To me, it was the energy, excitement, movement, dancing, singing and whatever else they could incorporate into the show. That’s what created the entertainer in me.”
With “Miss Rosa,” a character she describes as her “alter ego,” Peña wants Hispanic children to see that there is a character on TV that is just like them. She believes she is the woman to do this because her two passions in life are entertainment and education.
“I want to get kids excited and expose them to new things, whether it’s the language or new vocabulary and concepts,” Peña said. “[Miss Rosa] is someone that can really engage them. She really is the true essence of who I am.”