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Art imitates life, knock on wood

When Martha Montoya was a child living in Medellin, Columbia, she already knew what she wanted to do when she grew up: She dreamed of publishing her own comic strip. (Little did she know that meant illustrating a new scenario every day.) "I never had an interest in doing anything else," says Montoya, now 36.

Bowing to parental expectations to study chemistry and biology in college, Montoya completed her degrees and moved to Southern California in 1986. But once on American soil, Montoya dove headfirst into researching her dream business. While working as a high school librarian, she read extensively about such subjects as Walt Disney, Hollywood, licensing and merchandising.

Next, she laid the foundation for her future as a bilingual entrepreneur: She embarked on a lucrative, four-year career in international trade and traveled around the world. "I loved it," she says, but her dream never changed. So she began saving money to fund her start-up cartoon company and increased her credit line just in case. In 1995, with $150,000 tucked away, Montoya left her job and launched "Los Kitos," a comic strip that features five Latino characters, each with its own characteristic attitude. (Translated into English, "Los Kitos" means "The 'Toons.")

A persistent phone campaign paid off: Within a year, "Los Kitos" was being carried in 185 Spanish-language newspapers across the United States. But Montoya didn't stop there. She got the U.S. Postal Service and Bank of America to purchase some coloring books she created for the children of their Spanish-speaking customers. And before long (with a little help from her "Los Kitos" characters, which speak both English and Spanish), Montoya was providing bilingual customer information sheets for big clients such as State Farm Insurance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, English-language dailies, including the Albuquerque News in New Mexico and The Orange County Register in California, also began signing on to carry the strip.

Today, "Los Kitos" characters adorn a shoe line sold in Wal-Mart stores nationwide, as well as T-shirts and hats sold in Sears. A deal with Lions Gate Entertainment will launch an animated TV series next year.

"I've learned two things about cartoon art: It's a discipline before it's a form of expression. And it's still business," says the Newport Beach, California, entrepreneur, whose Los Kitos Entertainment LLC projects $3 million next year. No wonder Montoya's illustrations feature a shining sun in every panel.

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