This fall, Sesame Street kicks off its 44th season with a nod to the Latino community as the show introduces its newest Hispanic character. Armando—or “Mando” as he is nicknamed— took the stage at the PBS annual meeting this past Tuesday, and within the blink of an eye was singing in English and Spanish listing all of the Spanish words that rhyme with his name. First he was cantando, then bailando, followed quickly by jugando and saltando. Rosita, one of the beloved bilingual Muppets on the show, joined Mando on stage.
Ismael Cruz Córdova is the 26-year-old actor who plays Mando and is the newest cast member of the Sesame Street familia. He’s taking on a huge responsibility as he follows in the footsteps of Sonia Manzano and Emilio Delgado, who play Maria and Luis on the show.
Córdova grew up watching Sesame Street in Puerto Rico, so he understands the monumental responsibility that goes with his new role. He says that becoming a role model and educator with the daunting task of inspiring and teaching children across the nation is an honor. “But I try not to think about it too much,” Córdova says, “because it is not just overwhelming—it is EXTRAwhelming!” He laughs and throws his hands in the air.
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Córdova left Puerto Rico and came to New York to pursue his studies in performance art at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, from where he graduated with honors. Since then, his career has quickly blossomed and even earned him Hola and Alma Awards. So far, his acting has been directed at adult audiences, so when I asked him why he decided to audition for Sesame Street, he said (quite dramatically), “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I think it is such a beautiful, wonderful place,” he said. “And I don’t say that only as an actor. As an artist, I’m committed to social change and advocacy as well as empowerment through education. So it is a wonderful alignment because all of those things are part of Sesame Street’s goal.”
The youngest child with four older sisters, Córdova says that his mother placed a heavy emphasis on education when he was young, and he knew that he alone was responsible for his future. A nationally ranked swimmer in Puerto Rico, Córdova used his aquatic skills to get into a private high school. But despite his swimming abilities, he didn’t find himself happiest in the water. Instead, he found greater satisfaction through the creative outlet of acting.
Mando’s character is all about self-expression. He’s a writer. And Córdova says that Mando’s character is a lot like him, and his own personality and heritage will be reflected in the role. “Mando’s very diverse,” Córdova says. “Even in his approach he wants to be involved in everything. He’ll write about poetry, singing, and maybe in the future even science. Being as plural and complex as can be.” Even physically, Córdova (and therefore, Mando) reflects that intersection of cultures with his blend of Puerto Rican, Afro-Caribbean, Taino, and European looks.
Perhaps Córdova’s signature feature is his hair. He even used it to his advantage in during his Sesame Street audition, when he took the song I Love My Hair, which aired on the show a few years ago, and translated it to Spanish for his audition. The producers loved it and have worked with Córdova to create a bilingual version that will run on the show, which premieres September 16 on your local PBS station.
Córdova will continue to act outside of the show—in fact he’ll be performing in a play this summer. But he is committed to Sesame Street and the education of his young audience. “Besides,” Córdova says, “as an actor, you should be able to play for all types of audiences.”