Culture  /  Obituary

Emilio Delgado, ‘Luis’ for 44 Years on ‘Sesame Street,’ Dies at 81

On "Sesame Street," Delgado was able to build a character who challenged stereotypes. Luis was a business owner, a neighbor, and later a husband and father.

Emilio Delgado, the actor best known as Luis Rodriguez, the owner of the Fix-It Shop on Sesame Street, died Thursday of multiple myeloma. He was 81.

For 44 years, Luis fixed toasters, sang songs, mentored Muppets and spoke Spanish with his neighbors on Sesame Street. In doing so, Delgado made history, becoming the Mexican American actor with the longest run as the same character on U.S. television.

In addition to being a professional actor, Delgado was a talented musician and lifelong advocate for social justice and Chicano cultural representation. In public broadcasting, he found a platform through which he could reach the whole nation with this work.

Born in Calexico, Calif., and raised in Mexicali, Baja California, the border was not a barrier but a cultural milieu for Delgado as he attended school in the U.S. and shined shoes and repaired bicycles in Mexico. With extended family on both sides of the border, he soaked in the mariachi music, the trios singing boleros, and the big bands he could hear play all night in the two biergartens across the street from his house.

When he was 14, the family moved to Glendale, Calif., where he became interested in performance and spent high school in theater productions and playing trombone in the school’s symphony, marching band and jazz band. As a teenager, he became enamored with the folk music revival and began playing guitar and singing at coffeehouses around Glendale and Hollywood, mixing Irish music, African American spirituals and Kingston Trio covers with Latin folk songs like “La Bamba.” To prepare for a career in acting, he attended Glendale College and CalArts, and performed in community theater in Los Angeles.

The barriers Delgado encountered as a Mexican American adult were less permeable than the political lines of his borderlands youth: Southern California in the 1960s was a center of the Chicano movement, and Delgado became active in demonstrations against employment discrimination and racial prejudice, and in support of Hispanic farm laborers striking for fair wages. He was intimately aware of the stakes of such actions: As a supply corporal in the California National Guard called to respond to the Watts Rebellion, he saw firsthand how quickly social justice protests could be met with brutality.

When he finally broke into the acting business in 1968, he joined the SAG, AFTRA and Equity unions, and brought his advocacy of Chicano labor and culture to his profession. Frustrated that Latino actors were cast almost exclusively in menial, stereotypical roles like gang members, drug addicts and criminals, he sought to change the image of Chicanos in popular culture. Among the professional advocacy groups in which he became active was Nosotros, an organization of Mexican American actors who confronted producers and directors about the stereotypes they were perpetuating.