'Sesame Street' has its first Filipino American Muppet. What representation means for kids

By KJZZ News
Published: Monday, May 22, 2023 - 11:50am
Updated: Monday, May 22, 2023 - 12:19pm

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"Sesame Street" just introduced its first Filipino American puppet. Animator Bobby Pontillas created the Muppet, TJ, just in time for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month.

Kris Vera-Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications. She also serves as vice president of programs for the Asian American Journalists Association. Vera-Phillips shared her reflection on representation and confidence.

A selfie of Kris Vera-Phillips and her son Alexander.
Kris Vera-Phillips
Kris Vera-Phillips and her son Alexander.

I loved watching TJ chatting with Kal Penn and Ji-Young on "Sesame Street." Naturally, you needed Grover to frame this conversation on confidence since he announced to this small crowd that he plans on jumping over the Sesame Street sign on a sketchy unicycle.

Kal asked TJ what gave him confidence. TJ talked about learning Tagalog, a language spoken by his Filipino family.

He tells Kal: "I'm confident because I can always ask my Lola for help when I don't know a word."

No explanation is needed. That's all we needed to know about this special family member. Within the context of this conversation, he's talking about a loved one who will have his back as he learns how to say, "Salamat po," after he receives a gift from an Ate or Kuya. Lola may show him how to hold her hand to his forehead and say, "Mano po," when greeting her and other elders. He may wish other family members, "Maligayang Pasko," after hanging a parol outside his home and waiting for Santa Claus. 

It was a sweet moment that made me feel seen. Then I went online to see what other people thought.

Other news organizations felt their audience members needed more context when using this quote, including NPRLos Angeles TimesNBC NewsCBS News, and Mashable. In their news stories, these organizations included either an explanation of the word and its translation or included the English word in parentheses. 

Many American newsrooms use these storytelling devices to make sure their audience understands what they are talking about. NPR’s Codeswitch team says the editorial decision to explain something "tells you a lot about who a storyteller understands their audience to be."     

Alexander Vera-Phillips watching new Filipino character, TJ, on Sesame Street.
Kris Vera-Phillips
Alexander Vera-Phillips watching new Filipino character, TJ, on Sesame Street.

So, that's why we see, hear, and read explanations for anything from schnitzels to tchotchkes. 

Actually, no. Just words like Lola. 

In other words, this explanation is another way of saying this word, and the people who recognize it, are not part of the mainstream American audience. 

What these newsrooms don’t understand: Filipinos are part of the American narrative. Before they were recruited as nurses and teachers, they fought for the stars and stripes. The Arizona chapter of the Filipino American National History Society found a World War I draft card for Eugenio Principe. The card was registered in 1918 and stamped in Prescott. Twenty years earlier, the United States claimed the Philippines as a territory and classified Filipinos as American nationals.

The island country earned its independence from American rule after World War II.

The census shows there are more than 4 million Filipinos living and working in the United States. They’re in emergency rooms, saving lives. They’re in classrooms, teaching kids how to read, write, and do math. 

At least one of them is on a world tour, from Las Vegas to Manila, sharing "24-karat magic" with his fans.

I don’t have to go far to share the story of growing up as a Filipino in the United States with my kid. I just have to show him how to get to Sesame Street.

On Tuesday, the AAJA Arizona Chapter will hold a virtual conversation with "Sesame Street’s" Alan Muraoka and Kathleen Kim, the performer behind the first Asian Muppet on "Sesame Street."

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