As a child in Puerto Rico, Ismael Cruz was delighted by the colorful characters in "Sesame Street," who not only entertained and educated him, but helped him learn "inglés." He could not have imagined that two decades later he would be playing with them in front of the cameras.
Cruz is the newest Hispanic addition to popular children series' cast, playing Armando, or "Mando."
"'Sesame Street' is a magical place. It doesn't matter if you are working there or just visiting, or if you're watching on TV, that magic is always there," Cruz, 26, told The Associated Press. "I grew up watching the show, and for me it was a place that really existed and to which as a child I aspired to go, a place so diverse that I could see myself in the faces of the people that were there. Being on the set now is that, but with cameras."
Cruz's character is a Hispanic writer from Brooklyn who writes everything from short stories to essays and movie scripts. He also loves technology and social media.
The addition expands a cast of Hispanic characters that includes Maria (Sonia Manzano) and Luis (Emilio Delgado), who debuted on "Sesame Street" in 1971 as human characters, as well as Rosita, the charming turquoise monster who joined in 1993 with Mexican puppeteer Carmen Osbahr, who also voices Ovejita.
The show wants to reflect the population changes in the U.S., where Hispanics are the fastest growing minority. It also features African-American, Asian and American Indian characters.
"It's a show that's always cutting edge, that is always aware of what's going on with the population, so by including a character that is young, with new perspectives, Latino, and that bring that new generation, it is carrying on with that message," Cruz said.
Cruz grew up poor in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, and his mother tuned in to "Sesame Street" so his son would learn English. Cruz studied music and dreamed of being an actor, eventually attending New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Before "Sesame Street," he appeared on "The Good Wife" and in films "In The Blood," ''White Alligator" and "Chaser."
The casting call for a new Hispanic character on "Sesame Street" attracted hundreds of bilingual actors last August.
"I hadn't seen it, (but) many people who knew me and read the description of what they were looking for sent me messages through Facebook, email and phone telling me, 'You have to do this audition, this is perfect for you.' And that's how I began this process," he said.
"Mando" will make his debut on the 44th season of "Sesame Street," which starts airing on September 16. Carol-Lynn Parente, executive producer of "Sesame Street," said she and her team knew immediately that Ismael was the perfect addition.
"He has a passion for creative expression and a warmth that comes right through the camera," Parente said in a statement.