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Interview with Toy Designer Rios Palante

Josue Mendez

Rios Palante is a toy designer and founder of Rios Toy Designs, a consulting agency, and developer of both toys and comics. Palante has launched Fu-Stamps, a comic book taking place in the South Bronx and focuses on a band of teens obsessed with martial arts. With an extensive background in toy production, Palante has launched his own line of toys based on characters within Fu-Stamps. He is interviewed by Josue Mendez, Communications Coordinator of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Josue Mendez: As a Puerto Rican, you're doing something that you never really see Puerto Ricans do. I want to know what inspired you to get into toy making in the first place.

Rios Palante: That's a story that goes back. I was about 3 years old. I used to draw these huge murals behind my mother's closet. One day she moves the stuff out of the closet and she realizes I drew on her entire wall. Characters like Batman and Superman. She was actually impressed. And from that moment on, I told myself I have a little gift. As I got older, I grew an interest in the human body and I would follow anatomy books. I always wanted to be a cartoonist. I loved that old Chuck Jones series, the Smurfs, so forth.

What really got me into toy design actually was when I became an adult and we were waiting for my son Roman to enter the Earth. We were developing these plush dolls, just some arts and crafts family thing because my wife at the time was staying at home. We created these plush characters and I told myself, "This is a lot of fun. This would be awesome to do it full-time and make a living off of this. I knew that the Fashion Institue of Technology was offering a toy design program, so I entered it. I had my wife's support; she was with the kids most of the time and we all kind of struggled for a minute while I went back to school in my thirties. I did get my toy design degree and after the program, I had an internship with Fisher-Price. I worked at Fisher-Price for a while, then I've been doing some freelance work for Hasbro, Mattel, and a ton of other smaller-name companies.

I finally landed at Toys R Us. When I was at Toys R Us, I worked as a product development manager and started moving up the ranks. As you know, Toys R Us went under - which gave me the opportunity to figure things out, to find out what am I going to do next. I put some drawings together and kept my contacts. I used my contacts when I started my toy company, called, "Rios Toy Designs." There are two different parts of the business: developing, creating, producing, and shipping my own product from my own imagination while consulting for other toy companies - which is my day job. I'm still in the grind, still hustling, still out there trying to get Fu-Stamps [name of character created by Rios] to be a household name.

JM: You touched on this a little bit, but I would love to know more on what inspirations you had growing up. I know what you're doing now is really your own style, but I'm sure you picked up a little bit here, a little bit there. 

RP: When it comes to cartoons, Chuck Jones. When it comes to comic books, it's Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. As I got older, Todd McFarlane broke the barrier. He'd started taking toys seriously and is a big influence on me. There's Joe Mad [Joe Madureira] and Greg Capullo, all great comic book artists who influenced me. Other inspirations aren't necessarily comic books, cartoons, or anything related but life and religion. You know, I try to look at religion from an objective point of view and fuse that with the environment around. In the Fu-Stamps comic, one of the characters is a teenage pregnant girl. These are things that we see. Years ago when I was in school, my teacher told me, "Write what you know, that's the only way you're going to engage with the reader."  So I write what I know. I create what I know, and it's the neighborhood around me. It's the characters around me,  and it's their struggle but also their triumphs at the same time. That's what I try to focus on: the humanity of the story. You know, the style could be great but if you can't tell the story the right way and you don't have characters that people care about then you're just left with a hollow shell.

JM: When it comes to the themes, what is something you really try to influence in your creations and try to tell so it's set apart from every other story out there?

RP: I want to represent human beings with real troubles and struggles that I've dealt with, my friends have dealt with, and my people have dealt with. Whether it's being able to look at yourself in the mirror and correcting your wrongs or being raised with less than and trying to overcome those challenges. It is just a struggle. Each character in my book has a struggle. Jenn is a pregnant teenager; she wanted to be a social worker. You have Bodega Blade, who is struggling with his grandfather and his bodega. There's Demonio, who is dealing with a murder. Another character has family moving in and out of jail. The everyday struggles are real and are what support these characters and the story.  

JM: I can imagine a little kid in [a low-income neighborhood of] New York City being able to see themselves in these stories as opposed to Batman, who was a billionaire. How important is it to you for these individuals to be able to have these stories represent them?

RP: It's crucial. This is something that I don't have to do. You know, I have a nine to five. All I want to do is give back. I want to create characters that you don't see in the hood. Puerto Rico. My characters are Puerto Rican, Jamaican, come from all different types of backgrounds. What supports this too is their style. Characters don't wear tights in my book. They don't have capes or cosmic powers. No one got bit by a spider and became a Spider-Man. What we do is we have real kids who just learn to buck up and learn discipline from their sensei, who has his own personal issues as well. It's also a community coming together and becoming a team. From a stylistic point, everything they wear is stuff that kids can relate to. They have Timberlands and Air Jordans, and I'm not like poking fun at it. I'm not making it a satire. It's real and it's cool. I want kids to know it's okay to be different, to be able to tell a friend that they're doing something wrong. They can push against the grain and not fall in line to become a villain.

JM: You're pretty much the only person Latino, much less Puerto Rican, that I know who is in this industry. I'm sure there's a lot more, but is it safe for me to assume that you've had some struggle coming into this job? Has anyone helped you get to where you are right now?

RP: I can say it was my hard work. Classic old fashioned hard work. It was me putting myself in a position where I didn't have to sing and dance. I came in, I studied, I learned the things that I did and it made me stronger and better. I used my talents and worked on my strengths and my weaknesses. There's tons of Latinos in the industry, they just don't get any recognition. I want to change that. I'm tired of the propaganda machine. I mean, every Latino is seen fighting with the police, getting their mug shot taken, getting paper towels thrown at them. I really want to push that clear multicultural [agenda] within our overall culture. We're good, we're bad, we're multi-faceted. We're not a stereotype. We're not a lazy guy with a big hat and mustache. We are human beings and we have stories to tell. Latinos have to tell their stories, you know. I just want to give a voice to the people that don't have one. That's pretty much my motto, and I get to do that through design, creating characters, pushing a story that's ours and owning it - without watering it down. Hopefully, we'll get somewhere; I'm hoping that kids will listen to this and say, "Alright, he came from the hood. He has a good story to tell and it sounds authentic." The story isn't a drama, but it is showing the struggles people regularly face and doesn't fit into this vanilla, mainstream way of thinking.

JM: Where do you want to see Rios Toy Designs in five years? In 10 years?

RP: A lot more profitable. More than just money though, I want to see growth and the message being pushed. I would like to see it in more retail stores, obviously. I would like more eyes on it. That's a big challenge when you have a good product: What do you do with it? How do you get it to the right hands?  How do you spread the word? Social media is great, anyone can become noticeable and find their own path. I would like it to use my platform to bring up other artists and showcase their work. Hopefully, I can have more people of all colors and just have them tell their stories through design that's deep. I get deep with my designs and that's what works for me and what I would like to showcase. So, in short, I would like to expand and get more artists to have their own lines as well.

JM: Someone comes up to you and says, "I want to be just like you. I want to create toys." What do you tell them is the most crucial piece of advice for them to follow?

RP: [That answer differs based] on everyone's strengths or weaknesses. Let's say we're talking about a kid who can draw and he's showing some development, my advice to him would be to listen to criticism because it's going to help you. Focus on the market because you have to understand and sell to your audience. There are certain struggles you deal with learning these things, so get somebody to mentor you and listen to what they're saying because you want to get better. A lot of times, kids who have talent are treated like Superman in their neighborhood. That may be fine with their friends, but when they go out, they're going to need to learn professionalism and discipline. You need to have big ears and listen.

JM: The story that you're telling is resonating with people in places similar to where we grew up in. I could read the story and say, "Oh, my God. That's me. That's just like home." I can see your characters being my friends. Is this the kind of story you wish to keep on telling? Do you plan on eventually other tackling underrepresented markets in the near future?

RP: This story is personal and there is a lot to tell. I would love the opportunity to tell it forever and leave a legacy. When you turn a certain age, you start thinking about death more often. You hear more conversations about high blood pressure and foods you shouldn't eat, which all just means the end is near. You think of these things and ask yourself, "What am I leaving behind?" I want to leave something my children can be proud of, my family and my people can all be proud of. I want people to always remember the real me and that I did things on my terms. It's a mantra that I've adopted after Toys R Us. Let me do what I can do and try. That's what happened with the toys. That's what's happening with the story. I am just trying and putting my hands and my feet together and grinding.

You can find Rios Palante on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and https://fustamps.bigcartel.com/