Drop two quarters in a gumball machine at the grocery store and a plastic bubble tumbles out with a tiny figurine nestled inside. The toy prize might be a wino carrying a bottle in a brown paper sack, a cop lugging a box of doughnuts or a gold chain-laden drug dealer clutching a fistful of dollar bills.
These two-inch figures are "Homies," a toy line of 78 cartoon-like characters set in the Latino barrio by their creator, David Gonzales. Millions of Homies have been bought by collectors since the toys were introduced in 1999, and they have been gaining widespread popularity -- and notoriety -- ever since.
Fearing that Homies had a disreputable image, Giant and Safeway chains pulled them out of 174 grocery stores in the Washington area earlier this spring. The majority of the figures depict Latinos, although there are a few African American characters and an Asian figure called "Japon". The depictions have been criticized by some Latinos who who say that Homies look like gangsters and perpetuate negative racial stereotypes.
"There has been a big uproar over whether they were a positive influence for the Hispanic community," said Jeff Burns, the marketing manager for Rollin' Low, a Tucson company that is one of the biggest distributors of Homies. "It's a positive thing, we feel. All of a sudden there's a product or a toy that a Latino child can relate to."
Shopping with his mother recently at a Toys R Us store in Langley Park, John Chacon said that he liked the little Homie his sister Carla bought him for his birthday in May.
"I thought they were cool," the 8-year-old said. "Because of how they stood. And how they dressed."
The little figure reminded him of his cousin Ronnie in Los Angeles, he said.
Gonzales, a Richmond, Calif., graphic artist and T-shirt designer, describes himself as a Chicano businessman inspired by the "barrio culture" of the northern California environs where he grew up.
Gonzales first conceived of the characters as a comic strip for the car enthusiast Lowrider magazine during the late 1970s. It wasn't until the late 1990s that he decided to license his characters for the toy industry.
Gonzales won't release specific sales figures, but millions of the tiny toys have been sold since 1999, according to an industry analyst. Gonzales is expanding his product line to include plush toys and posters and other paraphernalia, and Homies themselves are now busily traded as a collectible on the online auctioneer eBay.
Saying he is weary of negative publicity, Gonzales no longer gives interviews about Homies. Brian Kovens, executive vice president of A&A Global Industries Inc., the manufacturing company in Timonium, Md., that makes the plastic Homies, won't discuss them either.
"I actually started refusing interviews awhile back because reporters seem to be focused only on what they perceive to be the negative aspect about the Homies, while making absolutely no mention of the positive underlying messages existing within the Homies actual storylines and bios," Gonzales said in an e-mail to The Washington Post.
Gonzales has created intricate biographies and stories for each of his characters, whom he describes as "tightly knit Chicano buddies who have grown up in the Mexican American barrio of 'Quien Sabe,' located in East Los Angeles." There is a soccer player and "Fly Girl" as well as a car mechanic and a pool shark. "It's diverse," Burns said. "It's a whole neighborhood."
Homies toys were first sold in largely Hispanic markets in Los Angeles and Texas, and they became the focus of national attention in Los Angeles in 1999 after its police department campaigned against them.
"My first thought was that they were cute," said LAPD Detective P.J. Morris, who at the time worked in gang enforcement in the San Fernando Valley. "But then I saw the ramifications and the impact of these toys on small children. I was fighting against gang crime in the area, and [Homies] were counterproductive. . . . It was a bad influence for the youth because of the underlying atmosphere of gangs or the attitude of gangs in the figurines."
Morris said that when he took the toys home to show his then-10- and 11-year-old daughters, "They put 'em in toy cars and drove them around and did drive-by shootings."
In the resulting furor sparked by the police campaign, a supermarket chain in Los Angeles County removed the toys from its stores.
But in the ensuing years, Homies have become a popular collectible for all age groups, according to Dave Gerardi, the senior editor of Playthings, a toy industry trade magazine. Gerardi said Homies fill an important niche in the Hispanic toy market that many industry experts feel is underserved, especially given the buying power of the rapidly growing Hispanic population. Latinos nationwide now have disposable income of $452 billion annually, up from $208 billion over a decade ago, according to a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
The toys have been criticized by some Latino activists as well as police and other law enforcement officials, who say that Homies glamorize the gang lifestyle and are offensive.
"They continue to perpetuate stereotypes," said Luis Vasquez-Ajmac, president of MAYA Advertising and Communications in the District. "The few images that mainstream America knows about the U.S. Latino community come from TV: gangs, maids, second-class citizens."
Some critics say Homies are particularly inappropriate for younger children.
Angela Marie Lagdameo, the outgoing student body president at the University of Maryland, compares Homies to other historical "toys" -- such as "black pickaninnies or mammy dolls."
If Gonzales is using his art to "reclaim those stereotypes," Lagdameo said, "more power to him. But taking it out of context and selling it without an explanation, there's a danger there. The danger is that it will only perpetuate stereotypes to the people who have those stereotypical assumptions. . . . Privileged kids are the most sheltered. They don't understand what they're buying into unless somebody explains it to them."
Indeed, many of the collecting rings that have sprung up locally are at suburban elementary schools where Latinos are a small percentage of enrollment, like in Reston and Potomac and Owings, in Calvert County.
Sixth-grader Logan Thrall is white, lives in a comfortable middle-class home in suburban Reston and describes himself as the most "ghettoish person in this neighborhood."
So earlier this year when he was at Safeway and saw a vending machine full of Homies -- that he thought looked just like the gangsters in his favorite rap music videos -- he had to buy some.
"I started cracking up when I first saw them," Logan said. "It's so 'me' to have something like that in my room. It fits me perfectly or something."
Some adults like them, too. Jeff Miller, a firefighter from Greenbelt, collects the Homies with his 4-year-old son, Jeff Jr. He said he thought that some of the Homies characters looked like gang members, and that the female Homies -- in midriff-baring T-shirts and hot pants -- looked like prostitutes.
"Me and my son like the girls because they're very healthy and they wear skimpy clothes," he quipped.
But Miller said he is not worried that the toys are inappropriate for a 4-year-old.
For now, he said, Jeff Jr.'s Homies mingle peaceably with his Star Wars action figures and farm animals in the wood-block landscapes he creates on his bedroom floor.
"He plays with 'em like they're regular people," Miller said. "They all play together, and that's how it should be."