Some people have been so integral to my life that, like the air that I breathe, they take on a kind of invisibility. I take them for granted even as I count on them. These people have been, for me, formulative.
Such a one was Emilio Delgado. He was a big part of my childhood. He played Luis on Sesame Street for 45 years, which was the longest running role for a Mexican-American in a TV series. I’m not even sure I ever knew his real name until I heard news of his recent passing at the age of 81. I didn’t really need to know it. Like his fix-it shop, Luis simply inhabited my imaginary neighborhood.
I’m quite sure that Luis was my introduction to Spanish. It intrigued me that it was possible to communicate by way of a different idioma. To me it seemed like some sort of magic code. I never made the link until this very minute, but it could be that Luis was the reason I majored in Spanish and Latin American Studies in college. (I always thought it was because I got frustrated that I couldn’t tell if the migrant children on my middle school bus were talking about me or not.) Luis could also be the reason I felt so safe taking the leap to study abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico.
There has been much talk about Mr. Delgado being a role model for Latinos, because he was the only consistent person on American TV who talked and looked like them. But he was also a role model for me, because he was one of the first people I saw on TV who didn’t talk or look like me. And that was something I very much needed to see.
The first 10 years of my life I was very sheltered in my white bread Connecticut world, and could probably count the number of people of color I saw on one hand. So Luis was a bit of an archetype for me. Based on interviews, he was well aware of this and took it quite seriously. But because of Luis, my default assumption was kindness, generosity, enthusiasm, and a propensity to sing silly songs. If a kid is going to prejudge a man, those are definitely not the worst conclusions to draw. It’s a start, anyway.
When I heard about Mr. Delgado’s passing, I got tears in my eyes. It felt like I was losing a much beloved uncle with whom I had lost touch. I loved the man, but I suppose I outgrew him when I outgrew Sesame Street. But by then he had built a firm foundation in my heart, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
Rest in peace, Emilio Delgado, and thank you for all that you taught me.
I’ll leave you now with the Pink Martini cover of the Sesame Street song called “Sing.” The Spanish voice in the song is Mr. Delgado. (Wait for it, though. He doesn’t come in until minute 1:24.) It makes me smile to think about how much fun he must have had in that recording studio.
A book about gratitude is a gift that keeps on giving! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5