Today's middle schoolers were years from being born when the '90s TV game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? wrapped its five-year run in 1995. But as evidenced by their deafening screams at the Arsht Center yesterday, they were ready for its reboot.
Or maybe that's just because Gina Rodriguez was in the building.
The Jane the Virgin star is the voice of the titular, trench-coated thief in Netflix's upcoming series Carmen Sandiego, which will debut January 18. Rodriguez celebrated the upcoming series launch with a packed house of Miami-Dade public school students, bused in from locations as far as Homestead, to compete and cheer their friends on in a geography-centric game show.
"Usually, we do press tours, press junkets," Rodriguez told New Times after the show, "and I think this was exactly what we needed — letting [students] know that learning is fun and that growth is exciting and gives you freedom. To be able to have access to education is a privilege and a blessing."
Carmen Sandiego is a modernized version of the series, nixing the live trivia of the Clinton era in favor of a scripted, animated series telling the story of the woman at its heart. But though the show feels current, the game show in Miami felt like a throwback to the '90s — in a good way. Teams of students answered trivia about countries, landmarks, and capitals around the world, guided by eardrum-shattering cheers from the crowd. The games became increasingly elaborate, asking the kids to match world capitals to a map, put together a grid of attributes of countries such as Australia and Japan, and even engaged two giant blow-up globes in its final challenge. It felt like Double Dare, without the green slime. "I was waiting for the goo," Rodriguez joked. "I wanted goo!"
(Kids, if you're reading, Double Dare was another game show your parents watched when they were your age.)
The students were also treated to an exclusive clip from the upcoming series, in which Carmen Sandiego travels to Ecuador, and watched a video message from fellow Carmen Sandiego voice actor Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame.
But Rodriguez herself was the biggest deal, as evidenced by the high-pitched roar that shook the Arsht when she took the stage. Waving their own handmade flags of various countries, the kids showed their appreciation at a volume that, at one point, even seemed to have somehow triggered the fire alarm.
Rodriguez, a practiced performer who's worked onstage, first as a dancer and later as an actor, since the age of 7, matched that energy throughout the two-hour show. She was eager to interact with the students, giving high-fives and slinging her arm across the shoulders of the contestants. When a combination of nerves and that ill-timed fire alarm threatened to overtake a girl named Mia, whose answer would decide the fate of the three-person team representing her school, Rodriguez assuringly coached her: "Afterwards, you're still going to be fine." (Mia answered correctly.)
Later, Rodriguez accepted a portrait another student had drawn for her, and briefly stopped the show to make sure the onstage videographer could get a shot, showing it to the entire auditorium on a giant screen. "I'm going to keep this forever," she vowed.
"I'm, like, baby fever," Rodriguez said after the show. "They're all smiling and excited and they're happy, and I'm, like, going to explode! It's just invigorating. I see it in all the women I love who are mothers, where they get to live life again. They get to see the joy in everything, and [the students'] joy was so palpable today that I didn't need coffee."
Onstage and in the audience, the kids were sincerely fired up, waving their hands in the air and begging Rodriguez to let them whisper their answers in her ear. Either out of nerves or excitement or both, one kid did a kicky little dance nearly the whole time he was onstage. The entire crowd was engaged and captivated. It was a display of attentiveness and participation that some of their teachers might have envied. In fact, if there was any problem with the game, it was that the answers were too easy — early-round answers were near unanimously answered correctly by the contestants and audience alike. When it comes to geography, Miami kids know their stuff.
And no wonder, said Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who served as sort of a hype man for the event. "This was a celebration of our community, one of the most diverse communities in America," he pointed out.
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Though the character Carmen Sandiego is decades old, Rodriguez says the ideals promoted in this reboot are timeless — and perhaps especially worth teaching right now.
"[Carmen] is the ultimate, fearless personification of someone who ventures into spaces unknown, who travels to countries she doesn't know, inserts herself in cultures she's unfamiliar with, and learns languages she doesn't know yet," Rodriguez told New Times. "Carmen is a reflection for me to remind myself to go into spaces unknown and that are uncomfortable so that I may learn and grow and stretch and empathize more.
"One thing I'm working on to combat divisiveness or darkness is to learn others' cultures, other religions, to try to understand the perspective of others," she continued, "because then you can say, 'Wow, I had no idea that that's what life was like for you. And now I know how to be a contributor, an ally.'"
Carmen Sandiego premieres Friday, January 18, on Netflix.