I can count the number of Latino role models on television on one hand. There was Erik Estrada on Chips, and Sonia Manzano and Emilio Delgado (Maria and Luis) from Sesame Street and of course Rita Moreno on Electric Company. Those were the only Latino role models television had to offer when I was a kid. They were great, but there weren’t that many.
Starting in the Fall, Ismael Cruz Cordova will join the growing number of Hispanics on television when he becomes Sesame Street‘s first Latino cast member that has been added since 1971. He’ll play Armando, a bilingual poet and singer who will share his poetry skills with Rosita, the show’s Latina Muppet that was added to the show in 1993. I was able to interview Cordova and Rosita from Sesame Street at the PBS Annual Meeting last month.
From what I’ve seen of Cordova, he will be an amazing role model for kids and young adults. The actor and singer was picked after Sesame Street held its first ever open casting call in search of a bilingual character for the show. They wanted the right person, not necessarily a male or female from a specific Latino culture.
Cordova wanted to be part of the show because it had such a huge impact on him as a child. He grew up without a lot of money in a rural area of Puerto Rico where illiteracy was not uncommon. He felt disenfranchised. “You don’t really grow up with the notion that you have a voice,” he said. Sesame Street was the first place on television where he saw people that looked like him and that’s so important for kids to see themselves represented on television. “I felt like I mattered.”
He grew up with the show and credits it with helping teach him English. He was a nationally ranked swimmer in Puerto Rico and got into a private high school. For him “swimming was the bridge to the upper class.” He discovered performing and knew he wanted to be an actor. He described it as what many people feel when they’ve met their mate, the feeling of being accepted. After high school he went to NYU as a transfer student and later went on to work on off Broadway plays and guest star on “The Good Wife.”
Performing isn’t just about being on stage for him, it’s also been a tool for advocacy and social change. Cordova doesn’t take his role on Sesame Street lightly.
From everything I heard from him and read about him after, I think he will be an amazing addition to the show (plus he sings and dances!). Here are a few other Latino role models on television and in the media who are doing great things.
Eva Longoria 1 of 7Yes, she's known for being a Desperate Housewife, but her documentary Latinos Living the American Dream was a thoughtful love letter to hard working Latino Families. She also produced the documentary The Harvest/La Cosecha: The Children Who Feed America about migrant children foregoing school to work on farms with their parents. Her foundation helps Latina students and entrepreneurs reach their potential. She's getting a lot of flack right now for being the Executive Producer of the Lifetime Show "Devious Maids," a nighttime soap about 5 maids working in Beverly Hills. It looks campy and fun to me, but I'll reserve judgment until I see it.
Maria Hinojosa 2 of 7The Executive Producer and Anchor of Latino USA on NPR and One-on-One on PBS, Maria Hinojosa is one of the greatest American Journalists working today. She founded The Futuro Media Group that helps independent journalists "give voice to the voiceless." She was the first Latina correspondent on CNN and NPR and the first Latina PBS News anchor. All of that and she's very cool and relatable.
John Leguizamo 3 of 7The actor and comedian was honored in February by the National Hispanic Media Coalition for helping erase negative Latino stereotypes along with Michael Pena and Mario Lopez. John Leguizamo's one-man Broadway shows have been made into HBO specials. PBS will air a profile of him this summer called Tales From a Ghetto Clown.
Sonia Sotomayor 4 of 7About the time that everyone was being asked to Lean In, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's New York Times Bestseller, My Beloved World, tells the story of how in spite of crushing obstacles intelligence, common sense, hard work, and determination can get you all the way to the highest court in the land. It's a beautiful book about her life growing up in the Bronx.
Jennifer Lopez 5 of 7Another girl from the Bronx, Jennifer Lopez is a singer, dancer, actress, mother, and producer. She's done it all from playing slain pop star Selena to judging American Idol to having twins with former husband Mark Anthony. She recently produced the show The Fosters on ABC Family about a biracial Lesbian couple who raise foster kids. The Lopez Family Foundations works to get quality healthcare to women and children.
Wilmer Valderrama 6 of 7Yes, he's known for That 70s Show and to parents as Handy Manny (my favorite show to watch with my boys when they were little), but the actor is also an activist and co-founder of Voto Latino along with Rosario Dawson.
Shakira 7 of 7She's killing it on The Voice this season with her mix of great advice, kind words, and sassy attitude toward the other judges. But she's so much more than a musical personality. President Obama appointed her to the Hispanic Education Commission in 2011 and her Barefoot Foundation has built six schools in her native Colombia providing education to about 5,000 kids living in extreme poverty.
Disclosure: I interviewed Cruz Cordova as part of my role as a PBS Kids VIP (Very Important Parent) at the PBS Annual Meeting. I was provided transportation and lodging but was not compensated. All opinions are my own.