Emilio Delgado, best known for the 45 years he spent portraying kind-hearted repair shop owner Luis Rodriguez on legendary children’s entertainment program Sesame Street, has died. Delgado was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2020; he was 81 when he died earlier today, in his New York City home.
Born in Calexico, California, on the border between the United States and Mexico, Delgado gravitated toward music and performance from an early age. He had his first successes on the stage, while also spending time as artistic director at the Mexican-American Centre of Creative Arts, teaching drama to Los Angeles high schoolers.
Delgado’s life changed, more-or-less permanently, when he received a job offer in 1971, inviting him to leave California, fly to New York, and join the cast of Sesame Street. The series was already a cultural institution at this point, having debuted, in 1969, to both national acclaim—and subsequent accusations of under-representation in terms of Hispanic performers, writers, and viewpoints.
Game to correct these flaws, the show’s producers brought in a crew of Hispanic and Latino voices both in front of and behind the camera, including a new crop of actors that included Panchito Gómez, Sonia Manzano, Delgado, and Raul Julia—the latter of whom were swiftly established as Luis and Rafael, proprietors of the L & R Fix-It Shop. Julia departed the series after a single season; Delgado would stay on for the next four decades, imparting lessons to generation after generation of kids.
As Luis, Delgado was instrumental to many of the most iconic moments in the show’s long history, including his character’s wedding to Manzano’s Maria, and the famous scene in which the adults of Sesame Street explain Mr. Hooper’s death to a grieving Big Bird. He stayed with the series until 2016, when Sesame Workshop declined to renew his contract due to the retooling that accompanied the show’s shift to HBO. (Delgado would continues to be associated with the series, appearing in its 50th anniversary special in 2019; his final film credit was as a talking head in 2021's Street Gang documentary about the show.)
In addition to his regular Street gig, Delgado also continued to work outside the series, appearing periodically in New York-shot productions. (Among other credits, he racked up five appearances as different characters on the various Law & Order franchises.) But it’s Luis, obviously, that will be his enduring legacy, along with more than half a lifetime spent making kids’ lives feel a little brighter and safer. In his own words, Delgado noted the rarity of that kind of role in 1970s America: “I realized I had gotten a role on television that was a role of a Latino, Mexican-American, who was like a regular person. He was part of a neighborhood, he had his own business. It was a role that hadn’t been show before.”