One sunny day on Sesame Street, Mando, a Puerto Rican writer, croons cheerily to his Muppet friend, ¡Me encanta mi cabello!" The cameras stop rolling, but the conversation doesn't. "The puppeteers are so gifted at what they do," says Ismael Cruz-Córdova, the actor who plays Mando, "that I can just talk and talk with the Count and forget he's not a real person."

For Cruz-Córdova, being a member of the Street crew is a dream job—and a full-circle moment. Growing up in Puerto Rico, he learned English by watching Sesame Street on a tiny black-and-white TV. "When the connection was fuzzy, I held the dial to make sure the picture wouldn't disappear," he says. At 19, Cruz-Córdova moved to New York to study theater at NYU while working part time and eating one meal a day for the first three months. ("It was either that or let my mother sell her furniture to pay for my education," he says.) After hearing about Sesame Street's casting call for a Latino character, he impressed producers when he created a Spanglish, guy-centered version of the show's viral hit song "I Love My Hair."

Now the 27-year-old sings catchy lyrics to teach viewers Spanish ("Bailando rhymes with Mando!") with the help of Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Snuffleupagus, who still leaves the actor starstruck. But Cruz-Córdova sees his character as more than a bilingual song-and-dance man. "I want Mando to be a guy who's sharing his culture, not being singled out for it," he says. We're looking forward to seeing more of him around the neighborhood.


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