We were devastated when Sonia Manzano, who played Maria for decades, left Sesame Street after retiring from the show. But now there's a new resident on Sesame Street who will be filling the Latina presence for the 46th season, which debuts on HBO (but will continue to air on PBS), and her name is "Nina" played by Cuban-American actress Suki Lopez, who's also a longtime fan of Manzano.
"Sonia was one of the first Hispanic presences on TV and I grew up watching her, so I feel I have this duty to keep that going," Lopez says. "She opened people's eyes to this idea of what America is, and if it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here."
The 26-year-old who now lives New York City, was born and raised in Miami with her theater- loving dad, dancer mom, and her two musically gifted younger siblings. With an artsy family and a background in ballet, acting, and musical theater, you could say she was practically destined for this gig. Before landing on Sesame Street, Lopez studied at the CAP21 acting conservatory, performed for the Disney Cruise line, and even appeared in the national tour of West Side Story. Talk about an impressive résumé.
Interestingly enough, Nina's character is in many ways just like sweet and bubbly Lopez. For starters, she's also Cuban-American, bilingual, and very proud of her heritage.
"My first language was technically Spanish. I learned English once I started going to school," says Lopez, who has always proudly identified as Cuban-American. "Miami feels like an extension of Cuba or Latin America, everyone I grew up with was either Cuban, Colombian, or Venezuelan. So I want it to come across on the show that Nina is proud to be Latina as well."
And like Nina, Lopez also juggles a ton of jobs doing everything from working in social media, designing logos, and teaching dance cardio classes on the side. But there's been a lot of controversy surrounding Nina's numerous jobs on Sesame Street, which consists of babysitting Elmo, working at a bike shop as well as a laundromat. Change.org even came out with a petition expressing its disappointment in Nina not being highlighted as a millennial Latina pursuing a college or graduate degree. But Lopez claims that, like herself, Nina is in fact a college student.
"I agree with what they're saying in the petition because a lot of times on TV or in Hollywood, we see Latinas get stereotyped into these roles where's she's either the nanny or the maid. But Nina is a college student that lives on Sesame Street and juggles all these other jobs, just like me. Nina is Suki."
When she's not hanging with the puppets on Sesame Street, doing her side jobs, or working toward her undergraduate degree in Liberal Arts at The New School, you can find her exploring the restaurant scene in NYC with her fiancé — who is also a chef.
"We go out of our way to try something different whether it's Thai food in Long Island City or dumplings in Chinatown," says the self-proclaimed foodie. "As far as Cuban food goes, the most authentic spots I've found have been in Hoboken, New Jersey. But the one thing that I really miss about Miami are the pastelitos, pastries, and croquetas. Over there you can find a Cuban bakery on every corner."
For Lopez, working on Sesame Street has been a life-changing experience. It's like being a kid all over again.
"There's this energy you feel when you're on Sesame Street that makes it easy for me to transition to that mode. The second the puppets come on set it's a blast. It also forces me to make sure that what I'm doing in my day-to-day life is in line with the values that I'm representing on the show, but that's a good thing."