Emilio Delgado expected he'd be a short-timer when he landed the role of Luis on "Sesame Street." Was he ever wrong.
He played his character with a grin as wide as a Muppet for four decades and burrowed his way into the hearts and minds of generations of people.
And as important, his long presence on the show allowed him to continually contradict stereotypical characterizations of Mexican Americans and other Latinos on television, while also demonstrating that bilingualism and biculturalism were indeed American.
Delgado died Thursday at 81.
His fans posted fond childhood memories of Luis on social media and tributes, including a post on the account from the famous Muppet — Kermit the Frog.
Born in Calexico, California, Delgado had acted in a soap opera, "Canción de la Raza," for a couple of years before landing the "Sesame Street" role. The serial depicted a Mexican American family and was used to build a Mexican American television audience, according to the public television station KCET.
Delgado was in Los Angeles when he first heard of the "Sesame Street" auditions for Latino performers.
“It was very exciting, because at the time I was involved in trying to change the image of Latinos in media and TV,” he told NBC News in a 2019 interview. “When I first got the job, I had no idea it would go on for so long.”
Delgado joined the show in 1971 and remained a series regular until 2016.
At a time when authentic depictions of Latinos were rare on television — a situation that persists today – he and fellow "Sesame Street" actor Maria Manzano portrayed well-rounded characters who worked together, became friends and eventually married.
“People would tell me that I was the one person who looked like them on TV,” Delgado said, as the show celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. “Many grown immigrant kids have told me that the show helped them learn English. With Luis and Maria, we would sometimes throw in bits of Spanish, too.”
Those sentiments continued to be shared posthumously.
Over the years, Delgado frequently incorporated Spanish into his scenes with characters such as Elmo, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Miami pollster Fernand Armandi recalled in a tweet the impact of Delgado's use of Spanish on the show.
On “Sesame Street,” Delgado played the owner of The Fix-It Shop, where characters would come in search of repairs for broken items.
Even in this small way, his character was rare because he was a small-business owner and not a gang member, drug dealer or other stereotype, portrayals Delgado said he shunned.
Delgado's warmth and humor made Luis a visible, daily role model for children learning to read and count. Long before diversity and representation became industry buzzwords, he was quietly making television history as an educated Latino who was fully integrated into his community and a leader in it.
He stated in an interview with All Arts TV that he said no to scripts and shows that had “ethnic slurs” and stereotypes” in them and refused to do roles as a “bandido,” a drug smuggler or someone who hurts kids.
“Things have changed a little bit, but it’s still got a long way to go,” he said in the "Famous Cast Words" interview, during which he also recounted referring to Big Bird as Pájaro, the Spanish word for bird.
On Twitter, the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind "Sesame Street," paid tribute to Delgado.
“A beloved member of the Sesame family for over 50 years, his warmth and humor invited children to share a friendship that has echoed through generations... At the forefront of representation, Emilio proudly laid claim to the ‘record for the longest-running role for a Mexican-American in a TV series.’ We are so grateful he shared his talents with us and with the world.”
In addition to “Sesame Street,” Delgado was active in theater and also appeared in programs such as “Law & Order,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “The Michael J. Fox Show,” and “House of Cards.” However, aware of his impact on young viewers, he said that he always chose his “outside” roles carefully.
And he was rightfully proud of his legacy among children, who never forgot his kindly character.
“With our show, people were seeing Latinos as actual people,” Delgado recalled. “They were in the community, and they were just like everyone else, which had not been represented before. For kids, I like to think that “Sesame Street” was a window into the whole world.”