Claudia Lara Martinez, the principal at Harms Elementary with parts of her Barbie collection. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Growing up in El Salvador, Claudia Lara-Martinez’s favorite childhood toy was Barbie. 

However, her parents could only afford to buy her one authentic Barbie doll and the rest were lookalikes. 

“Their knees didn’t even bend,” Lara-Martinez recalled of the other dolls. 

She said she would get made fun of by the other girls because she didn’t have large Barbie collections like they did. But as an adult, Lara-Martinez, principal at Harms Elementary in southwest Detroit, is making up for lost time and embracing her inner child. 

For the last 25 years, Lara-Martinez has been slowly building up her Barbie collection, buying the famous doll in her many forms–Holiday Barbie, Coca-Cola Barbie, Harley-Davidson Barbie and a Barbie modeled after aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. In total, she has about 30 dolls between her basement at home and displayed in her office at the school. 

Claudia Lara-Martinez displays her Dolls of the World Barbies in her office at Harms Elementary School. She looks to show the diversity of the dolls to her students. (Courtesy photo from Claudia Lara-Martinez)

With the recent release of director Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” movie, Lara-Martinez, 46, was inspired to show off her school Barbie collection on social media. The Barbies are a hit with her students and fellow educators, she said. 

Harms English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher Nolaydee Miller first saw Lara-Martinez’s collection years ago when she was the director of the district’s Office of Bilingual Education and Related Programs. 

“As a kid, I had the Barbie house, the car, the pool and 50 Barbies. So seeing a Barbie collection as an adult caught your attention,” she said. “And I loved seeing that they were all women of power who have accomplished many things and they were all from different cultures.” 

Lara-Martinez even dresses up in pink like Barbie. When she met with BridgeDetroit in her Flat Rock home, she donned a white and pink blouse, hot pink pants and pink lipstick. 

She said collecting Barbies is a fun hobby for her because it gives her the chance to comfort the little girl who didn’t grow up playing with many Barbies. 

“A lot of times when you grow up in an underdeveloped country, you have limited resources and your parents struggle to buy you something that they know you love,” Lara-Martinez said. “And I’ve always been fascinated by their clothes and the fashion and reading more about their collections and the making of Barbies.”

Catherine Cuckovich, an assistant professor for Wayne State University’s Mike Ilitch School of Business, said it’s difficult for brands to create nostalgia and an emotional connection with their consumers, but noted Barbie has succeeded in doing that for generations of girls and women. 

“What Barbie’s done over the years, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, is change and adapt Barbie to the times while staying true to her essence,” she said. “Whether or not you agree with her unrealistic body type and her blonde hair, she did do some cutting edge things. She had her own car, she had her own house. She went to the moon, she became a doctor. She showed girls that they can become that.” 

The many layers of Barbie 

Lara-Martinez said she began her collection in the late 1990s when she was around 21 years old. For Christmas, her parents gave her a Beauty and the Beast collector edition Barbie featuring Belle in her signature golden gown with long, flowing brunette hair. 

“I thought it was a joke,” Lara-Martinez said. “But then my mom remembered I love “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s one of my favorite movies. It just got me intrigued to look at other Barbies.” 

She began buying two to three Barbies a year, depending on the price. Some cost $25, while others, like the holiday Barbies, cost between $50 to $60. Lara-Martinez buys all of her dolls at the store, with the exception of one she bought on Walmart’s website. 

But as she got married and raised three children, Lara-Martinez Barbie slowed down. 

“In the last 10, 15 years, I bought maybe two or three,” she said. 

Growing up in El Salvador, Claudia Lara-Martinez’s favorite childhood toy was Barbie.  However, her parents could only afford to buy her one authentic Barbie doll and the rest were lookalikes. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Along with Belle, another one of Lara-Martinez’s favorites is a special edition Avon Winter Splendor Barbie from 1998. The doll looks elegant with a black and red dress and her blonde hair styled in an updo. 

“I’ve always liked it because I love red and I love her dress,” Lara-Martinez said. 

She also treasures her Dolls of the World and Inspiring Women collections, which she displays at Harms. Some of those dolls include Earhart, Spanish Barbie, Princess of the Navajo, and Frida Kahlo. Lara-Martinez said she has those Barbies at schools to show the diversity of the world and how different nationalities can learn from each other. 

“A lot of times, kids decide to focus on the differences of each other, as opposed to what makes us similar,” she said. “Part of the purpose of having the dolls in my office is whenever there’s conflict with students, I ground it on, ‘What do you notice that’s the same? What do you notice that’s different?’” 

Dolls of the World also has a personal connection, with the collection reminding Lara-Martinez of when she moved from El Salvador to Canada when she was 15. 

“Having grown up in El Salvador, everybody speaks Spanish, we’re all Salvadorian and then coming to a country where there’s people from different countries who speak different languages, who dress differently,” she said. “That was such a cool thing to experience.” 

Claudia Lara-Martinez, principal at Harms Elementary in southwest Detroit, talks about the significance of her Barbie collection (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Lara-Martinez said she plans to see the “Barbie” movie this weekend after hearing good things from her niece. She said she likes how Barbie represents women and the many layers they wear, like going from dressing up for a night on the town to wearing just a t-shirt and jeans. 

Miller had similar thoughts, saying that Barbie was a positive role model growing up and over the years, she’s starting to look like all types of women. 

“You look at all the barbies that have been created over the years and how they represent all of the cultures. It changes the way you think and the way you see things. Growing up, all my Barbies looked the same, they just dressed differently.” 

“It just speaks to the classic of the toy,” Lara-Martinez added. “Cars are never gonna go out of style and Barbies are never gonna go out of style. I like the fact that they’ve tied a movie to a greater theme so that it goes beyond the superficiality of a pretty looking doll with nice clothes. I love that.”

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