44 Years and Counting: A Day with ‘Sesame Street’s’ Maria, Mando … and Grover

Reena Ninan and Mary-Rose Abraham
44 Years and Counting: A Day with ‘Sesame Street’s’ Maria, Mando … and Grover

When Ismael Cruz Córdova was growing up, “Maria” from “Sesame Street” was one of the people who helped him learn English. Now, as the newest cast member on the long-running children’s show – making his debut as “Mando” this season -- Córdova finds himself right alongside Maria teaching a new generation of children.

“It's definitely a full-circle kind of experience because I did grow up on the show in Puerto Rico,” said Córdova. “I learned a lot of English watching the show. Now I'm doing songs in Spanish and working more of the Spanish components. So it's monumental in that sense.”

Both Córdova and Sonia Manzano, who has played Maria, joined the show as it committed to greater diversity on the Street, though nearly four decades apart. While Córdova joined “Sesame Street” after the show’s first-ever open casting call last year, Manzano became a series regular in 1974.

“The country was an exciting place,” she recalled. “Everything was changing. And the curriculum goal at that time was children should know that Latins live in America, and Latin children should be proud of their culture because Latins were completely invisible in the media. And so 'Sesame Street' was trying to remedy that situation by having a diverse cast.”

“Sesame Street” just celebrated its 44th anniversary, working its way into American cultural lore because, as Manzano explained, “There's something about the show that people own.”

“I could be in the Midwest, where everybody's a farmer and everybody's blonde and blue-eyed and there's not an inner-city look, or there's not a city, you know, anywhere. And I'll ask a kid, ‘Where's Sesame Street?’ And they'll say, ‘Oh, it's right around the corner there.’ If I had to theorize about it, I would say it's the Muppets. That everybody relates to them and their zaniness.”

Manzano revealed that she’s always “had a thing” for Oscar the Grouch, pointing to his nuance and sophistication. Surprisingly, Caroll Spinney, the Muppeteer who plays Oscar, also plays Big Bird. “It’s like he's playing two ends of his own personality,” said Manzano. For Córdova, he listed the Count, Ernie (Enrique in the Spanish version) and Snuffy as his favorites.

“The magic doesn't wear off, you know,” said Córdova. “I come to set each day and it's still real and it's still beautiful and I still feel equally engaged and honored to be part of this legacy, to be part of this worldwide community.”

Indeed, “Sesame Street” bills itself as the “longest street in the world,” with country-specific versions airing globally, including Germany, Mexico, Afghanistan and China. In fact, Google Earth even has a layer showing co-productions around the world. But children don’t need a television set to experience the show. “Sesame Street” has a robust presence online and through various apps.

It’s not only children whom the show tries to reach. Since its founding, “Sesame Street” has engaged adults as well, knowing that children will retain concepts if they are later discussed and reinforced by a parent. To that end, the show has done several parodies, including “Homelamb,” “Desperate Houseplants,” and “The Biscotti Kid,” a take on “The Karate Kid.”

Guest stars are another way to reach both children and adults. These pull from the political world -- First Lady Michelle Obama, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor – and from entertainment, including actors and musicians. For Manzano, the highlight was earlier in the show’s history, when Stevie Wonder sang his hit “Superstition.”

“It was an uplifting moment,” she recalled. “And I remember it because it seemed everybody was on the same page. Kids, old people, young people, white people, black people, Latin people. I mean, everybody was grooving. Straight people, hip people. It seemed like everybody was grooving at the same thing at the same time. And it was this wonderful, hopeful vision of the world.”

But it was another, quite somber, moment which Manzano remembered as the show’s proudest. When actor Will Lee, who played “Mr. Hooper,” died in 1982, the show chose to address the issue of death directly, instead of saying the character had retired or ignoring his absence.

“And ‘Sesame Street’ rose to the occasion and a beautiful script was written,” said Manzano. “And all of the feelings that children went through when they lost a beloved person in their life were addressed. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is a very cool place to be.’”

It was that same sensibility that drew Córdova to the show. And he hopes his legacy will be one of inclusiveness.

“For me, what was so important when I was watching the show as a child, was visibility,” he said. “To see people who looked like me. I mean, we all want to feel accounted for. Coming from a poor family, not formally educated, I grew up with that sense that my story wasn't as important. But everybody has the right to speak out and to create and to voice their opinions and to be heard. From wherever you come from.”

Córdova continued, “I actually felt like these kids that I saw [on “Sesame Street”] were family members. I hope that by the sheer factor of visibility of being in the show, of looking like someone, of talking about these things, that a generation of kids will feel the same way.”

ABC News' Maurice Abbate contributed to this episode.

Related: See an interview with the Muppeteer who plays Abby Cadabby on “Sesame Street.”