TJ talks about learning Tagalog from his Lola to gain “confidence”
By Charmaine Y. Rodriguez
For Filipino kids and kids at heart, there was nothing more exciting than seeing the first Filipino muppet on one of the world’s longest-running children’s show Sesame Street.
TJ, the show’s first Filipino muppet, debuted on a segment with actor Kal Penn.
TJ and his friend Ji-Young, a Korean American muppet who debuted in 2021, talk to the actor about the word of the day: confidence.
Confidence, Penn explained, is “when you believe in yourself and your abilities, or in the abilities of others.”
TJ marvels at Grover’s confidence as he attempts to jump over the Sesame Street sign while riding a unicycle and balancing a tall stack of books. And when Penn shares with TJ and Ji-Young that he leans on others when he doesn’t feel confident, TJ opens up about his own experiences.
“I’m learning Tagalog. It’s a language my Filipino family speaks and I have confidence because I can always ask my Lola for help when I don’t know a word,” TJ said.
According to a CNN report, TJ is 4 years old and a second generation Filipino American, a spokesperson for Sesame Workshop said.
He finds joy in entertaining his little sister, in gardening with his grandparents and spending time with his other family members when they visit from California.
“He loves it when they all get together so he can help his mom make lumpia with all the veggies he picked, and so he can play basketball and have a dance off with his cousins,” Sesame Workshop said.
The character of TJ is voiced by puppeteer and performer Yinan Shentu and created in part by Bobby Pontillas, a Filipino American animator.
Pontillas wrote on Instagram that he collaborated with Louis Mitchell, Sesame Workshop’s creative director of character design, on the character. TJ’s appearance, Pontillas said, was based on two of his friends’ children.
Pontillas broke the news on his Instagram with some artwork that was based on real boys.
“I had the amazing opportunity to work with the geniuses at the Sesame Workshop to create a Filipino muppet for @sesamestreet ! Meet TJ!
For his look, I based him off of my lifelong friends’ kids, Max and Matteo, thank you for the inspiration lads. I was blessed to collaborate with master puppeteer Louis Mitchell, the loveliest human on earth. Maraming Salamat Rosemary Espina Palacios @rosemvpmary for masterminding this and bringing me along, Yinan Shentu @aznshents for bringing TJ to life, and everyone @sesamestreet for making this happen!????????
Palacios, Sesame Workshop’s director of talent outreach, inclusion and content development, also celebrated TJ’s arrival on Sesame Street, the CNN report added.
“I’m so proud to help bring some Filipino representation to the neighborhood, and just in time for API Heritage Month to show the range in our diaspora,” she wrote on Instagram. “His first segment with @kalpenn and Ji-Young is all about confidence, something I personally feel can help unravel the model minority stereotype.”
TJ is the latest addition to a diverse cast of new characters on Sesame Street. In addition to Ji-Young, the program’s first Asian American muppet, the show introduced two Black muppets in 2021: Wes and his father Elijah.
Last year, Ameera, a muppet character who uses a wheelchair, made her debut on “Ahlan Simsim,” the version of “Sesame Street” that airs in the Middle East and North Africa.
According to a CBS report, May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which recognizes the cultures and accomplishments of Asian Americans throughout the U.S.
The video featuring TJ was about “The Word of the Day” which is Confidence!
Sesame Street’s Youtube video on the segment was captioned “Confidence is when you believe in yourself and your abilities, or the abilities of others! Kal Penn is confident in his acting and speaking in public, while Grover shows off his confidence in his ability to jump over the Sesame Street sign while riding a unicycle and balancing a stack of books!”
Sesame Street is a production of Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit educational organization. The Workshop produces Sesame Street programs, seen in over 150 countries, and other acclaimed shows, including The Electric Company. Beyond television, the Workshop produces content for multiple media platforms on a wide range of issues including literacy and numeracy, emotional wellbeing, health and wellness, and respect and understanding.