Sesame Street kicked off its new season this week, and it's putting a special focus on Hispanic heritage. There's also a new character on the block: Armando (also known as Mando). He's played by actor Ismael Cruz Cordova, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He earned a bachelor's in fine arts from New York University and has appeared in several films and the CBS drama The Good Wife. He's currently performing off-Broadway.
Cordova spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about his new role on Sesame Street and what he's doing for Hispanic Heritage Month.
On going from shy and reserved to the center of attention
I saw my club fair, and the tiniest of the tables was for the drama club, and it was literally like a black hole. It just drew me there. I went to the first meeting and we had to do what I learned was an audition. And the attention and the impact that my words had in just that little room to just the few people gave me this feeling of being accounted for — for the first time in that way. I was focused on becoming a medical doctor. But that [acting] made so much sense to me in terms of who I am and where I come from, and that just became my life from then on.
On his parents' reaction to his career shift and winning them over
Screeching halt! At that moment, it was traumatic because I am the first generation to go to college in my family. And there is this notion that is still very regular or common: that becoming an actor or a person of the creative field is still seen as a hobby. So for a moment, my parents — not being exposed to that world — saw it is a waste of talent, as a waste of hard work on my behalf.
I had to secretly go to auditions and enroll in classes. ... And I was cast in my first film when I was 15. ... They had to be on set with me because I was a minor. And my mom wasn't available, so my dad had to get involved, and they saw how professional I was. And they also saw the backstage area of it all. It was a craft. It was much more than the common notion of what a TV show is or a movie is. Slowly they began to respect me as a professional.
On winning the role of Armando for Sesame Street
It was like American Idol but for Sesame Street — the amount of people that were there!
They were looking for a bilingual person to begin with — so it was open to males and females — that had good comedic skills and charisma, that could sing. We were able to interact with the puppets. ... You know, they were seeing who would surrender to that and just enjoy it, and live in it, and just be able to interact with these puppets as equals as well. That's the other thing: We embrace children as equals.
On what Armando adds to the mix
I think what Mando brings is this pride for being so many things and for liking so many things. He likes written word as much as he likes technology. He embraces advances as much as he likes to go back to classics. So I think he offers a space for kids to be OK with being unique, and that uniqueness to not be a difference but something that we have in common.
On watching Sesame Street while growing up
My mother would sit me and my siblings down every day to watch it on this tiny black-and-white TV that we had to hold the dial between the six and the seven to be able to see it. It was just a beautiful experience. ... I've always told people, 'If you want to learn the language, watch Sesame Street. And also if you just want to feel accounted for. Because I remember just seeing all these kids that just looked like me. I saw myself there. Ernie and Bert looking at the screen and talking to me — I felt so important. And that just made the learning and the teaching and the didactic aspect it — just before I knew it, I was speaking English.
On celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month
I'm celebrating myself! I am Hispanic, and that's my heritage, and I'm working. So for me that's a reason to celebrate!
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to talk about a show that has a real following here in the U.S. and around the world. Let's take a trip to "Sesame Street" and meet its newest resident, Mando.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")
ISMAEL CRUZ CORDOVA: (As Mando) Hey, there's a lot of great Spanish words that rhyme with my name, Mando. That means that they end in the same "ando" sound. Here, I got a few for you. (Singing) Here's one word that rhymes with Mando, and that word is cantando. Estoy cantando means I'm singing. El cantando rhymes with Mando.
UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTERS: Mando, Mando, Mando, Mando.
MARTIN: That was Ismael Cruz Cordova as the latest featured character, Armando or Mando. He was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He earned a bachelors in fine arts from New York University. And "Sesame Street" just kicked off its new season this week, and it's putting a special focus on Hispanic heritage. Ismael Cruz Cordova is here with us to tell us more. Welcome. Congratulations.
CORDOVA: Thank you so much, and thanks for having me.
MARTIN: I heard you laughing when you heard your little segment there. Why were you laughing? Or is it just 'cause it makes you smile?
CORDOVA: Really, actually it does make me smile, and it's just so endearing and also so catchy. Since I recorded that song, I have not been able to not sing it at least once a day.
MARTIN: At least once a day.
CORDOVA: No, truly. Ask everyone that hears this song - you will find yourself, for sure, singing that song, like, doing laundry or something.
MARTIN: It's good that you like it since you can't get it out of your head, right.
CORDOVA: No, it's great. It's a great, catchy song, and kids are already responding to it so well.
MARTIN: You're going to be hearing that going down the street.
CORDOVA: Already, from the mothers that have seen already the video on the "Sesame Street" channel on YouTube, they sing it to me in the subway.
MARTIN: And plus, you're pretty - you kind of have a very distinctive look, so they probably don't have any trouble picking you out. You've got...
CORDOVA: From a mile away.
MARTIN: Yeah, you've got this great mane of hair and a great smile. Forgive me, it sounds so reductionist, but are you as happy a guy as you seem? I mean, on the show, you seem like just such a happy guy, like, just sparkling all the time. Is that really you?
CORDOVA: I was joking earlier, but not really, that the word of the day for me today is gratefulness. And I just - I try to have something like that everyday 'cause I am, in many ways, living my dream and have been for so many years, beginning with getting to NYU, getting a higher education, being able just to have platforms in which I can have my voice be heard. So I am just consistently grateful, and that for me is just a great gift and every day is just a beautiful, beautiful thing. Of course, I have my moments.
MARTIN: Well, I would imagine. But, you know, you weren't raised in San Juan. You weren't raised in the capital in Puerto Rico. Do I have it right? I've never been to your town. But it's not a major city, right?
CORDOVA: No. No, it's not.
CORDOVA: It's not. It's a rural town, beautiful hills and mountains and very jungley in Puerto Rico. It's called Aguas Buenas, or good waters.
MARTIN: So how did you get exposed to theater, and how did you get the idea that you would like to be a professional actor?
CORDOVA: I was actually very reserved and shy growing up. I became an athlete, and that got me a scholarship to go to a bigger city - it was called Caguas - to a private school there. And when I was there, I saw my first club fair. And the tiniest of the tables was for the drama club, and it was literally, like, a black hole. It just, like, was - it just drew me, drew me there. I went to the first meeting, and we had to do, what I learned, was an audition.
And the attention and the impact that my words had in just that little room to that few people gave me this feeling of being accounted for, for the first time in that way. I was focused on becoming a medical doctor, but that made so much sense to me in terms of who I am and where I'd come from. And that just became my life from then and on.
MARTIN: How did your folks feel about that, I mean, from switching gears from wanting to be a doctor to wanting to be an actor?
CORDOVA: Screeching halt. At that moment, it was traumatic because I was the - I am the first generation to go to college in my family, and there is this notion that is so very regular or common that becoming an actor or a person in the creative field is still seen as a hobby. So for a moment, my parents - not being exposed to that world - saw it as a waste of talent and as a waste of many years of hard work on my behalf. I had to secretly go to auditions and enrolled in classes, and I was given a scholarship in San Juan. And I was cast in my first film when I was 15.
MARTIN: All kind of secretly?
CORDOVA: All kind of secretly. My mom slowly started to get on the bandwagon 'cause, I mean, she had that sigh, you know, I'm your mom. So we started doing it secretly under my dad's nose. And they had to be on set with me because I was a minor, and, you know, my mom was unavailable, so my dad had to get involved. And they saw how professional I was, and they also saw the backstage area of it all. There was a craft. It was much more than the common notion of what a TV show is or a movie is. And slowly, they began to respect me as a professional.
MARTIN: I understand that this was not an easy gig to get. They had the first - for this character - their first ever open-casting call in New York, which was in August last year. So how did you hear about it, and what did you have to go through to get this job?
CORDOVA: It was like "American Idol" but for "Sesame Street." The amount of people that were there. But before that, there was a breakdown - pretty much described what "Sesame Street" was looking for, and it was sent out. And as soon as I saw it, of course, I said I have to be there. Then the opening call came about, then after that, a series of callbacks with a lot of material. They were being very thorough.
MARTIN: What were they looking for?
CORDOVA: They were looking for a bilingual character - bilingual person to begin with. So it was open to males and females that had good comedic skills and charisma, that could sing. We were able to interact with the puppets. They were at the casting, and the puppeteers are amazing improvisers and just witty and funny. And, you know, they were seeing who would surrender to that and just enjoy it and live in it and be able to just interact with these puppets - as equals as well. That's the other thing. We embrace children as equals.
MARTIN: You're not the first Latino character on "Sesame Street." I mean, I think most people - I mean, anybody who's watched the show knows that. Luis and Maria have been on the program for, what, 30 years? And then the Muppets Rosita and Ovejita have been on the program for quite some time now. So tell me about your character. What does your character add to the mix?
CORDOVA: He's put forth first as this person with great ideas. And that aspect of being Latino is just a point of connection and sharing with other people. I think what Mando brings is this pride for being so many things and for liking so many things. He likes written word as much as he likes technology. He embraces advances as much as he likes to go back to classics. So I think he offers a space for kids to be OK with being unique and that uniqueness to not be a difference but something that we have in common.
MARTIN: This new season is featuring Hispanic heritage. That's kind of one of the central elements of this new season. I just want to play a clip from the Latino Festival episode, which kind of makes the point that you were just making about the idea that you can be many things and be proud of being a lot of things.
MARTIN: And here it is. And this is - this little clip has some other leading characters, including Emilio Delgado, who plays Luis, and Sonia Manzano, who is Maria. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")
CORDOVA: (as Mando) It's a Latino street festival.
EMILIO DELGADO: (as Luis) Both my parents were born in Mexico. So that makes me Mexican-American.
SONIA MANZANO: (as Maria) My parents are from Puerto Rico.
CORDOVA: (as Mando) Our language is the one thing Latinos have in common, even though we come from so many different places around the world.
UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER: Hablan espanol en Peru?
MANZANO: (as Maria) Si. Hablamos espanol en Peru.
CHARACTER: Hablan espanol en Cuba?
CORDOVA: (as Mando) Si. Hablamos espanol en Cuba. (Singing) Dominican Republic, Chile and Peru. They speak Spanish in these countries, and that's just to name a few. There's Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba and El Salvador, Colombia....
CORDOVA: (Singing) Colombia, Bolivia, Honduras and Ecuador.
MARTIN: OK. What's the rest? Give me another one. Come on.
CORDOVA: (Singing) But that's not all. There's even more. It goes - Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, every chico, every chica speak a language that's the same like the one they speak in Spain.
MARTIN: That's awesome. Thank you for that - a little treat. Now did you grow up watching Sesame Street?
CORDOVA: "Sesame Street" was the show we watched. My mother would sit me and my siblings down every day to watch it on this tiny black-and-white TV that we had to hold the dial between the six and the seven to be able to see it. It was just a beautiful experience 'cause I truly remember. And it's not - and I speak about this in a personal way, not related to the show. I've always said it, I've always told people - if you want to learn the language, watch "Sesame Street."
And also, if you want to just feel accounted for 'cause I remember just seeing all these kids that just looked like me. I saw myself there. Ernie and Bert looking at the screen and talking to me. I felt so important. And that just made the learning and the teaching and the didactic aspect of it - just before I knew it, I was speaking English.
MARTIN: What else are you doing to - are you doing anything to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month or Latino Heritage Month?
CORDOVA: I am celebrating myself. I am Hispanic and that's my heritage and I'm working. So for me, that's a reason to celebrate.
MARTIN: Ismael Cruz Cordova plays Mando on "Sesame Street's" 44th season, which just started this week. And he was with us from our bureau in New York. Ismael Cruz Cordova, thank you so much for speaking with us. Congratulations on everything. Our best wishes to you.
CORDOVA: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoy the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.