Sesame Street welcomes first Filipino muppet in nod to diversity in polarised America

The introduction of a Filipino muppet on Sesame Street comes as Asian-American communities in the US are weathering a rise in hate crimes.

Raul Dancel

Raul Dancel

The Straits Times


Sesame Street introduced in May its first Filipino muppet, TJ, described by his creators as "sweet, nurturing" and proud of his heritage. PHOTO: YOUTUBE/SESAME STREET

May 16, 2023

SINGAPORE – Sesame Street is now home to its first Filipino muppet, in a nod to diversity and a more inclusive representation of Asian communities in the United States that have recently been the target of racially motivated hate crimes.

The new character on probably the most famous street in the world is four-year-old TJ.

He made his first appearance early in May, along with actor Kal Penn and fellow muppets Grover and Ji-Young, the show’s first Asian-American muppet introduced in a special Thanksgiving episode in 2021.

In the scene, Grover enthusiastically announces he will jump the Sesame Street sign on his unicycle.

Penn says Grover has lots of confidence, prompting TJ to ask: “Confidence? Mr Kal, what’s that?”

Penn explains that confidence is believing in yourself and others. TJ later tells Penn that he shows his own confidence by learning Tagalog.

“It’s a language my Filipino family speaks,” he says.

TJ also says he has confidence because he can always ask his lola – Tagalog for grandma – for help when he does not know a word.

‘Proud about who he is’

“One thing that we wanted to try and bring to the table was representation and just the broad spectrum of Asian representation in the US,” Ms Rosemary Palacios, Sesame Workshop’s director of talent outreach, inclusion and content development, who is of Filipino descent, told CNN Philippines.

She said it was important that TJ looked like a Filipino, and that his history, culture and heritage are also reflected in his character.

“For TJ to have brown skin was just so important because I think a lot of the times in the media you don’t always hear or see about (Filipinos). So, just being able to come full force with this beautiful brown complexion is really important, and also his very Filipino nose, that little, wide button nose of his,” she said.

Filipino-American animator Bobby Pontillas collaborated with puppeteer Louis Mitchell to create TJ.

“It is really important for Filipinos everywhere to see themselves reflected in the design… what I felt like represented the essence of the Filipino youth, both in terms of physicality and personality: the demeanour, hair, skin tone, nose,” Mr Pontillas told CBS News.

Sesame Street’s latest muppet is a second-generation Filipino-American. His parents are from California, and he has a baby sister who loves to watch him speak in funny voices, sing or dance.

His grandparents live on the ground floor of their building, and he enjoys helping his grandparents in their garden.

TJ is “very nurturing, very sweet”, said Ms Palacios.

He may be very inquisitive to the point of being annoying, she said, “but you can see him being just proud and happy about who he is, and kids can see that onscreen and feel that way about themselves, too”.

Ms Palacios said he recently came back from a visit in the Philippines, and she saw TJ’s face everywhere there.

“It made me so proud that this character will exist for kids to know there’s someone that looks like them on TV,” she said.

Pushing back against hate

The introduction of a Filipino muppet on Sesame Street comes as Asian-American communities in the US are weathering a rise in hate crimes.

In March 2021, a 65-year-old Filipino immigrant was walking down a street near Times Square in New York when a man, in broad daylight, suddenly kicked her in the stomach, and then in the head, and then again and again, telling her, “You don’t belong here.”

A 2022 study by the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism showed that anti-Asian hate crime in the US rose by 339 per cent in 2021 compared to 2020, as Asian-American communities wrestled with pandemic-fuelled racism.

About a third of Asian-Americans say they have changed their daily routine, as they increasingly worry about being threatened or attacked.

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