Growing up in Chicago during the 1980s, Frankie Cordero did not see many characters on TV that looked like him. It was especially true for children’s entertainment where cartoons like Dora the Explorer were still a decade away. When Cordero’s mother would turn the channel to PBS, however, he would see something different on Sesame Street. Latino actors Sonia Manzano and Emilio Delgado, who portrayed human characters María and Luis, were mainstays on the popular children’s TV show.
“María was also Puerto Rican and a native New Yorker just like my mother,” Cordero told Remezcla during a phone interview in early May. “Even though my mom was beyond the demographic for watching Sesame Street, she was still proud of that, so that was instilled in me from the very beginning.”
Since then, Cordero has always viewed the Jim Henson Company as a groundbreaking force for representing Latinos in media. “One of the elements of Jim Henson’s work that stayed with me over the years is that he created and guided so many diverse characters through the expression of their bright colors, unique designs and their distinct individual personalities,” he said. “While they weren’t necessarily assigned an ethnic identity, I felt that as a young Latino kid, I was absolutely represented by so many of them.”
Although most of his work is done off camera as a puppeteer, Cordero can now do the same for a new generation of Latino kids watching Sesame Street, which celebrated its 50th season last year. In 2017, Cordero debuted as Rudy, a three-year-old orange monster. A Spanish-themed episode of Sesame Street that aired recently featured Rudy revealing that he learned Spanish from his mom.
“Having the opportunity to help create a brand-new character on Sesame Street has allowed me to include pieces of my own childhood and background,” Cordero said.
Along with his work at Sesame Street, Cordero lends his voice to the anthropomorphic character Wembley Fraggle on Apple TV+’s new short-form series Fraggle Rock: Rock On! The new series is based on the Jim Henson-created puppet TV series of the 1980s that features multicolored creatures living and working inside a network of caves and tunnels. Wembley, the youngest of the Fraggle family, has yellowish-green fur and is usually cheerful.
Fraggle Rock: Rock On! is presented to audiences in mini episodes each week. Production of the show has been taking place using the iPhone 11s of production team members and artists from across the country since COVID-19 began. The show works the social distancing theme into the episodes with the Fraggles using a special communication device to stay connected while in quarantine.
“Especially during this time of isolation, children are sure to only have exposure to certain cultures and people through a screen,” Cordero said. “I was a huge fan of the show during my childhood, so the opportunity to play one of the characters is beyond a dream come true.”
Cordero says he has no doubt that a show like Fraggle Rock was ready for a rebirth. He felt the original series was timeless and hopes viewers who watched it as kids in the 80s would reconnect with it and share it with their children, too. “There’s something about this very fantastical atmosphere that really drew me in,” he said. “My [22-month-old] daughter has been loving Fraggle Rock. I have been re-watching so many episodes. It’s gotten to the point where she just points to the TV and yells, ‘Rock!’ to get another episode on.”
To complete his full transformation into Wembley for his daughter, all Cordero needs is the same banana tree-style shirt he wears on the show.
“My friend actually sent me a link to some banana tree fabric the other day,” he said. “So, I am really considering buying a couple of yards of it. My wife is a costume designer, and we have so much extra time, so we might just do it ourselves.”
Fraggle Rock: Rock On! is now streaming on Apple TV+