“I once had somebody comment to me: ‘It’s funny — you’re so proud to be Latina. I’ve never met somebody who’s so proud,’” the Cuban-American recalls via phone with New Times. Her reaction wasn’t anger, but rather confusion. “Why wouldn’t I be proud?” she responded.
Like many others living in Miami, her family left Cuba for a better life. “My grandparents left everything and had everything taken from them only to come here and start over. The things they had to go through… They taught themselves English and started new businesses... What’s not to be proud of?”
Lopez used that memory as a foundation for her latest role: Nina on Sesame Street. “I want to make sure that [my acting] comes across that I’m proud to be Latina and [that if you’re Hispanic] you should be to,” she declares.
The actress first appeared on the children’s show in December 2015. She's now filming for its 47th season, which airs Saturdays on HBO.
As a kid, Lopez preferred Sesame Street to Barney & Friends. She watched it with her little brother. “He was superobsessed with Big Bird,” she says with a laugh. Cookie Monster was her favorite. She remembers seeing the character Maria (played by Sonia Manzano), the then-primary Latina on the show, walking around Sesame Street and it being a normal thing. “I’m from Miami, so I just thought that Maria looked like everybody else in my life.”
Before becoming “Nina la Latina,” as she affectionately calls her character, Lopez didn’t think much about the representation of Hispanics in the media — but then the responsibility fell to her.
“I feel really blessed to be that person,” she says. “But I also know I’m carrying the weight of that and I want to do it right. I want to make sure I’m portraying Nina in the way that she should be.”
Lopez's Nina is a college student working various odd jobs on Sesame Street to pay her way through school. “She’s a millennial,” says Lopez, who four years ago studied at New World School of the Arts. “So she’s got a couple of jobs — working at the shop, at the laundromat, and as Elmo’s nanny. She got lucky, I think. She found her place on Sesame Street.”
She laughs when asked if Nina inherited any of Lopez's Miami aesthetic. Some traits are innately a part of her, but she wants to keep the character open and relatable across all cultures, she says.
Because Miami is basically a small town where every Fulana de Tal knows every other Fulano de Tal, Lopez has unique connections. She went to Our Lady of Lourdes Academy — the same high school attended by singer Gloria Estefan and actress Ana Villafane (who portrays Estefan every night on Broadway in On Your Feet).
“Ana [Villafane] is actually one of the people who told me to go into musical theater!” Lopez cries. The two were in choir together, and though Villafane was one grade ahead of Lopez, they remained friends after graduation. “It’s pretty crazy that we both said we were going to do this in high school and then we went and actually did it.”
Catch Suki Lopez as Nina Saturdays on HBO. Visit sesamestreet.org.