It seems impossible to remember he was anything other than Luis. He played the role from 1971 to 2017; as far as anyone can tell, that is the longest TV performance by a Mexican-American actor in a single role. Luis and his partner in the Fix-It Shop, Rafael, were brought onto the show to make efforts to teach English-speaking kids Spanish a little less strained and to genuinely improve the diversity of the show beyond black and white. Rafael was a character for a single season before going on to other things—thirteen years later, he’d return to PBS to make Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. But Luis stayed with us; my kids know Luis.
Emilio Delgado was born in Calexico, California, across the border from Mexicali, Mexico. For a while, he lived with his grandparents in Mexico and crossed the border to go to school. Interestingly, in his youth, he worked in his uncle’s bicycle repair shop. His family moved to Glendale, and he got interested in acting. He was in the first Mexican-American soap opera and went to college in the new theatre program at CalArts. Eventually, as the saying goes, he went to New York to try to break into public television.
Obviously, Luis spoke fluent Spanish, but he was never a stereotype. As with all the adults on Sesame Street (mostly), he was just a nice guy who happened to live on a street populated with animals and monsters and so forth. He’d fix things. He’d be kind to the assorted animals and monsters and so forth. He would talk excitedly about the alphabet and numbers and sharing. He came into our homes every day, and he was our friend. For nearly fifty years, he came into kids’ homes and was their friend.
Of course, Emilio Delgado had to put up with the fact that people assumed he was married to Sonia Manzano. That’ll happen. Apparently, William Powell and Myrna Loy had the same problem back in the ’30s. As an adult, I can definitely approve of how his on-screen marriage was shown; there’s an episode where Big Bird and Abby are having a slumber party at his nest (go on, ask me why they’re not at her house), and Luis and Maria are supposed to be going on a date. It’s almost impossible not to feel sympathy for how much they just want to go dancing instead of taking care of these kids who aren’t even theirs.
Another thing that amuses me as an adult is that Delgado was, for nineteen episodes, on Lou Grant, because I always associate that show with Raul Julia, who of course played Rafael. I wonder if Julia thought about that; Sesame Street wasn’t even the only time they’d worked together. Delgado was an understudy for Julia now and again. They both worked for similar charities, too. Even before he was Luis, Emilio Delgado was giving back to the community. Our friend Luis supported kids, including by working to keep queer kids safe.