If you are part of the 95% of American children who watched Sesame Street before age three — or perhaps a product of one of the 140 countries where the groundbreaking educational show is syndicated — you probably got a little bummed out last week. Yes, after 44 years, María just up and left us.
Okay, to be fair she actually retired at a perfectly reasonable point in her career, but that doesn’t make it any easier for those of us who found one our earliest positive images of Latinidad in Boricua Sonia Manzano’s fictional small business owner, caring mother, and second-floor resident of 123 Sesame Street. That’s because Sesame Street was waaay ahead of the representation curve for children’s television, and — let’s be honest — for American television in general. Over 46 years, the show’s cast has been stocked full of African-Americans, Indian-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Native Americans, fuzzy green monsters, fuzzy red monsters, giant birds, and of course, Latinos. Oh and in the Sesame Street universe we’re not gangbangers, drug dealers, drug addicts, or petty thieves — what a revolutionary idea!
And indeed, when Sesame Street first kicked off in the late 60s, it was actually revolutionary to show young children that all sorts of different looking people with different cultures live together in the United States. And over nearly five decades the show has only matured its innovative approach to children’s eduction, staying relevant throughout the years and continuing to be the gold standard for educational programming.
Along the way the faces have changed, but Latino characters have continued to be a cornerstone of Sesame Street’s idealistic urban utopia, where black and white, man and monster live together, play together, and learn from one another. So in honor of María’s departure from the block after all these years, here’s a look back at the past and present of Latino Sesame Street.
Jaime Sánchez as “Miguel” (1970-74)
Yes, before María there was Miguel. Officially the first Latino on Sesame Street, Miguel was played by Puerto Rican born Broadway actor Jaime Sánchez, who also happened to play Chico as part of the original cast of West Side Story. After his departure from the Street, Sánchez went on to have a prolific career on stage and screen, appearing in films like Bad Lieutenant, Carlito’s Way, and Piñero.
Here he is introducing young audiences to the letter ‘A’.
Sonia Manzano as “María Figueroa-Rodríguez” (1971-2015)
Does she need anymore introduction? The Bronx-born Boricua got the gig for a recurring role on the show fresh out of the Carnegie Mellon Theater Department. Starting out as a teenaged book store employee, “María” grew along with Sonia, eventually marrying her fictional boo, Luis Rodríguez, giving birth to their fiction child Gabi (first played by Manzano’s actual daughter, Gabriela,) and hopping on as co-owner of Luis’s Fix-It Shop. After becoming a permanent cast-member in 1974 Manzano also started writing for Sesame Street, for which she’s earned a total of 15 Emmy Awards.
Here María plants a racy, PG kiss on Luis’ lips as martians look on trying to make sense of the whole thing. General audiences must have been scandalized.
Emilio Delgado as “Luis Rodríguez” (1971-present)
Behind every great woman, there is a great man. Over 44 years this Calexico, California native played a handyman, small business owner and aspiring writer who just so happened to be married to the most sabrosa Boricua in the hood. Along the way, he earned the title of longest running Mexican-American actor on a television series. Indeed, Delgado has proven to be most at home on the small screen: outside of Sesame Street he’s taken roles in everything from Law & Order to Person of Interest to a bit part as “Ambassador Davila” in season 3 of House of Cards.
In this classic clip, Luis discovers the joy of prescription eyewear.
Raúl Juliá as “Rafael” (1971-75)
I bet you didn’t know Gomez Addams himself lived on Sesame Street for a few years before his Hollywood career took off. Juliá’s character, “Rafael” was Luis’s business partner and co-owner of the Fix-It Shop for four seasons. It is unclear whether his time on Sesame Street inspired Juliá to take the part of M. Bison in 1994’s Street Fighter, but his starring role in Capcom’s critical dud probably wasn’t the best advised career decision. Tragically, it was the last film before his premature death.
Here we see one of Puerto Rico’s greatest leading men igniting a passion for Spanish in preschoolers with words like “oreja” and “mano”:
Gabriela Rose Reagan as “Gabi” (1989-91)
Sonia Manzano took the dreaded mother vs. career conundrum by the horns when she brought her biological daughter on to the show to play “Gabi”, María and Luis’ fictional daughter. All was going swimmingly until a two-year-old Gabi started chewing her hair during takes. Manzano was smart enough to pick up on the behavioral cues and asked little Gabriela if she enjoyed acting on the show. “Not much,” was the diapered diva’s wise-beyond-her-years response. And that was the end of that.
Here, the whole Sesame Street gang witnesses the joy of birth (or rather, the moments immediately after) as a newborn Reagan makes her television debut.
Alexis Cruz as “Alex” (1990-91)
Another Bronx-born Boricua, Cruz was brought on in the early nineties as part of a curriculum push on race relations. He’s since gone on to act in film and television, landing supporting roles in big time features like Stargate and The Brave, alongside Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando.
Carlo Alban as “Carlo” (1993-98)
This New Jersey-born Ecuadorian-American landed a recurring role as a local teen on Sesame Street over five seasons before majoring in Visual Arts at Rutgers University. He’s since gone on to guest star in series like Law & Order, Oz, and Prison Break–notice a trend here?
Here he is counting heads alongside María, Luis, and Gabi as part of Sesame Street’s “The Add’ems Family” skit.
Desiree Casado as “Gabi” (1993-present)
When the real-life Gabi ducked out of the limelight, eight-year-old Nuyorican Desiree Casado took over fictional daughter duties and continues holding it down to this day. As the original cast has aged in grandparent status, the now 30-year-old Casado has become increasingly central to the show. In addition to her work on Sesame Street, she’s taken supporting parts in films like I Like it Like That and Gloria, with Sharon Stone.
Here we witness Gabi undergo that sacred right of passage: taking off her training wheels.
Ismael Enrique Cruz Cordova as “Mando” (2013-present)
This native of Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico claims to have learned English watching Sesame Street, so how appropriate that the 28-year-old would gain national attention as a Latino writer and techie named Armando on that same show two decades later. He’s also landed roles on CBS’ The Good Wife, and most recently the xenophobic action-thriller In the Blood.
Here Mando teaches elementary schoolers how to rhyme in Spanish with some special Caribeño flair.