EXCLUSIVE: 'Dora the Explorer' Writer Maria Escobedo on Being Latina in the Industry
Maria Escobedo has been a writer for over a decade, penning scripts for well-known shows like Dora the Explorer and Grey’s Anatomy. We spoke to the amazing Latina about her career in the industry and her mission to nurture new talent through the Rising Creators Project.
How did you get your start in the industry? Tell us your story.
I am from New York, and I was born and raised in Washington Heights. I never really thought of being the writer. I went to the High School of Art and Design, and that’s where I discovered creative writing and photography and drawing. Eventually, that led me to film school at the School of Visual Arts in NYU. Out of there, I wrote an independent film, and it did great on the festival circuit. People that watched the film said, ‘You should think about TV because your characters are great and your stories are very character driven and TV is all about character.’ I ended up writing specs, which I didn’t even realize that is what you had to do to get into TV writing. I submitted one of those to the Disney writing fellowship, and that’s what led me to California. That is how I landed at Grey’s Anatomy. We had a writers strike after I had moved my family out here and a friend of mine told me about an opening at Dora the Explorer and because that’s a different guild they weren’t on strike so I did that. I got the job and that is what sort of start of the cycle of me working a lot in children’s animation. From there I sold a pilot to Nickelodeon and I ended up writing a Disney Channel movie as well as Lifetime movie and then wrote on a lot of kid shows. It’s definitely been interesting.
What’s it like for you being a writer for shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Dora the Explorer?
I was also a writer on East Los High, which is a kids show in a way because they are teenagers and they are making lots of mistakes. But at the same time, we are giving them the best tools to get through them and in essence that is what we are doing with all the kid shows I have worked on. We are letting them enjoy themselves and enjoy their time being kids, but giving them some tools help them. Whether it’s emotional issues and helping them understand how to cope with it or just tools to help them grow.
What’s it like for you to be part of the creative process for the shows that you have worked on and continue to work on?
I feel blessed in some ways, because I have been lucky enough to work on some shows that really do make a difference. I feel in some cases that I am just enjoying the ride because I wasn’t the creator of some of these shows. That’s the interesting thing about being a writer that jumps into a show because you give as much as much you can. You really participate in a way where it’s not just about your script but you also contribute to the overall story and all of the episodes. The episodes might have a little bit of your voice because all of us writers are in room together and discussing things. The newest show I’m working on, Nina’s World, on Sprout is also about an abuelita voiced by Rita Moreno and the writer’s room is actually in Canada but I’m in L.A. I am pitching stories from my computer via Skype so it is kind of fun because you are not there but you are there. You are hearing other people’s ideas and you are giving your opinion on that and helping others to grow.
What inspires you when you are writing a script?
There are so many different places that inspiration can come from. I love books, so I love to look at my daughter’s old children’s books. I love the picture books and the storybooks. As I read, I get ideas, and I think of it even from spending time with my daughter. Even though she is older, there are still things we talk about or we do that we think back on her childhood. Average people who are writing get inspiration too from those things and while they might brush them off to me those are the gold nuggets.
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What do you want viewers to get from your writing?
I would obviously love to create my own story where I have the vision and what I want people to get from show to show. I think it’s a little difficult to answer that when you are writing for other people because you are there to be a writer on their show and make sure your script isn’t shining light on what your vision is but that it is shining light on what the creator’s vision is.
What does it mean for you to be a Latina in your industry?
It’s interesting because it’s still a “white man’s” world, of course. I’ve got two strikes against me because not only am I a woman but I’m Latina. I look at it as a positive thing because that is what I can bring to the stories as well and be as authentic as possible. Yet there is so much more to people than checking those boxes. I can relate to a lot of different people. There are so many other things about who I am and sometimes when I’m going into a meeting I’m walking in as a Latina but I’m also saying how I related to this script not because I am a Latina but because of other things in my life. There are so many other things about who you are that I think help you to some how get connected to a project.
Were there any times that you felt you wanted to give up?
Definitely. This business is a roller coaster. The thrill comes from going down, but going up is where the fear comes in. Every job that finishes you are out of work, so you are just constantly looking for the next job.
What would you say has been one of your favorite jobs?
That’s a hard one because there are so many. Once you start working on something, you are amazed that you are part of it. As you are in a little bit more, you are giving so much of yourself that it’s part of you. I loved working on Go, Diego, Go!, because it was at the time where my daughter was still young. I would read her some of the scripts and she would laugh or give feedback. At the same time I loved working with adults too on Grey’s Anatomy and East Los High. I’ve had a great time there too.
Is there one show you’ve worked on that is closest to your heart?
Maybe because it’s one of the most recent but helping to be on the ground floor of this new show, Nina’s World, was really amazing. It’s one of the most difficult things to do, because it’s constantly changing while you are still moving forward. What you thought the character was like before has totally changed now. Working on a show from the ground up is an amazing experience especially because all of a sudden you see the characters come to life and it’s extraordinary. I remember the first time I saw the drawing of the grandma and I thought ‘that looks just like Rita Moreno’ and they told me they were actually going after her to voice the character.
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How do you think your Latin culture has influenced you as a writer?
I think I’m a little more open to things and accepting to different ideas. I’m more open minded, and I don’t know if that has to do with being Latina or more with just being raised the way I was. I think sometimes some people will brush off things quickly, while I say, 'Well, let’s think about that a little more.’ Definitely I am more conscious of the fact there are more diverse characters, and I like to bring that up if I can. I also chair the Latino writers committee at the Writer’s Guild, so that is part of me.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
The idea of this competition is something that is needed because sometimes the feedback is ‘we don’t know where the Latino writing talent is.’ We always have to skirt our way through things and do things a different way just to get there and show up and to show people ‘hey, here we are.’ That’s what I think is really positive about what they have done because they opened up it and said any Latin can apply and it doesn’t matter what stage you are in your career. I just wish there were a little bit more programs like this that can make the pool of Latino writers much bigger.
How was it for you to be a part of the Rising Creators Project?
It was fun. I love to be able to see just see what people were thinking about for new kid shows being that I have been in this market for awhile. It was nice to the different creative ideas that we got in and just the different perspectives. Seeing specific Latino aspects and knowing they are coming from Latino writers was the plus for me.
What were you looking when it came to picking a winner?
There were some criteria. We wanted it to speak to the toddler audience, and we actually gave some of the finalist extra notes to go back and edit their work. We loved the ideas, but there were some that needed to be tweaked. In the end, we had the finalist pitch the idea to us because we wanted to make sure the creators of the show were good at storytelling.
What was it about the winning team that you liked the most?
I think the winning team just felt very authentic to the story they were telling. Not to say that the other finalists didn’t; I loved some of the finalists and their ideas. But this story felt very empowering for abuelitas. In the Latino culture, a lot of times the abuelitas are left taking care of the kids, and it brings out a youth in them. I saw it with my own mother when she took care of my daughter. I saw my mother being more spirited, and part of that is because it’s the grandchildren. They could just have fun and be free with them and I think the winning story brings that out.