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Martha Montoya Turns a Love for Drawing and Quirky Cartoon Characters Into a Thriving Entrepreneurship
If there is an art to being successful, Martha Montoya has mastered it, making a name for herself in a very difficult field. Only a handful of cartoonists can make a full-time living from their work, and she is one of them. She claims that she can't even draw, but Montoya has done well because she is a smart businesswoman, as well as an artist. Her colorful, bilingual Los Kitos characters have attracted a large audience, enabling her to branch out into licensing and merchandising deals that should earn her company a cool million dollars in revenue next year! It's not simply the money that makes her so successful though; it is also the fact that her work is recognized as an entertaining and positive force by the Hispanic community, as well as by many of the corporate and government agencies who wish to serve that community. She has found a way to amuse and educate both kids and adults while communicating her ideas and simple social messages. Los Kitos (little dolls) are characters who represent the immigrant in all of us. Their simple adventures make the audience chuckle, while also teaching little morals and advice for living. The Los Kitos website states its purpose clearly: "We are all immigrants in one way or another; even as we move through one stage of life to another, toward a new beginning...Los Kitos is committed to reviving the innocent part of ourselves that is lost in the everyday struggle to overcome the challenges of life. The playful characters Mima, Picarito, Kolito, and Pigoleto each have distinct personalities, and like humans, they can be happy, curious, sweet, a bit crazy, sometimes irritable, but they are always lovable. Like Montoya herself, they are sincere and energetic, always finding a way to overcome obstacles and to achieve their goals. Montoya has been drawing since she was a 12 year old girl in Bogota, Colombia. At the age of 15, she hit upon the idea of using her cartoons to help teach English to adults at the school her parents operated there. In college she earned degrees in chemistry and English, but when she came to the United States 11 years ago, with little money and no contacts, she had to work as a maid. On the side, she called every Spanish language publication in the book trying to sell her cartoons. It was not easy, but she persisted, eventually selling a cartoon here and there. Today, over 11.5 million readers can see her work, and her cartoons are syndicated to 215 newspapers in the U.S., Mexico, Latin America and Europe. (Los Kitos runs daily in the Southern California Spanish language newspaper La Opinion.) Now that Los Kitos has caught on with the public, she has a merchandising deal with Sears to make T-shirts, hats, dolls and other items featuring the characters. Perhaps most importantly she has aligned herself with corporate advertising in a burgeoning new market. Because Los Kitos have become familiar to a growing number of Hispanic households, corporate America has begun to employ them as a way to reach Latinos. The US Postal Service, BankAmerica Corp., Pacific Bell and State Farm Insurance and La Pizza Loca have all used her characters in an effort to build relationships with Latino customers. For example, Bank of America asked her to design a bilingual coloring book for the kids to play with, in the hopes that parents would flip through it and become aware of the services available at the bank. It also makes these businesses seem more friendly and less intimidating, particularly to immigrants. As one expert told the LA Times, "By 2010, the Hispanic will be the largest minority in the country...[people such as Montoya] who know how to build relationships between the brand and the consumer are going to be making a fortune," said Greg Bennett, president of Luna Bacardi Group, a Hispanic marketing agency in Santa Monica. In addition to marketing, Los Kitos are also used by public service groups to create bilingual materials and awareness on issues such as child-abuse prevention The characters also appear at concerts, fairs, and other events to hand out items and greet the public. Montoya told Saludos how she does it. "As a cartoonist, you must sell yourself and your ideas as well as your art. The business and management side of things is an important part of the job too." Her advice to artists is to use their pen and paper to "create a small business plan for one year. Then create a five-year plan." She also advises art students to "take all kinds of art classes, not just the technical stuff, as well as any business courses that might relate to art in some way." Her next goal is to create an English language animated TV series, and to have Los Kitos become a household world. She has been taking meetings about this in Hollywood. A bicultural cartoon would be a first, but Montoya might be determined enough to succeed. She's always idolized Walt Disney, and look what he did with a little mouse. There is a Los Kitos Club, a newsletter, a video, a radio program and more. Contact Los Kitos at (949) 955-1565.
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