Actor Robin de Jesús is using his musical talents to connect with young viewers

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Fans know him from award-winning Broadway musicals such as “In the Heights” and “La Cage aux Folles” and recent movies such as the award-winning “Tick, Tick… Boom!” and “The Boys in the Band.” On Friday, Puerto Rican actor Robin de Jesús will use his musical talent to connect with younger viewers as a faun who steals sounds from neighbors and nature to make music.

“I’m making my guest star appearance as Pepito on the show ‘Santiago of the Seas,’” he told NBC News. “It’s a beautiful show about this kid named Santiago who lives in the Caribbean, on an island with a very similar name to Puerto Rico.”

Nickelodeon’s “Santiago of the Seas” is an animated preschool TV show that follows an 8-year-old pirate and his friends on treasure-seeking adventures. It teaches young English-speaking viewers Spanish words and phrases and features music, food, dances and other traditions from Latino and Caribbean cultures.

Image: Pepito in
Image: Pepito in

The series is set on Isla Encanto, which translates to Charm Island or Enchantment Island. This name is akin to Puerto Rico’s nickname, which is La Isla del Encanto (the Island of Enchantment).

De Jesús said having grown up in Connecticut, he did not have access to shows that spoke directly to his Puerto Rican heritage. He recalled watching “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Darkwing Duck,” “Power Rangers” and “Care Bears,” just like other kids from his generation.

But because he was raised in a bilingual household, he said he considers himself fortunate to have connected with Spanish-language television, specifically the Mexican children's telenovela “Carrusel.”

“It was this big, beautiful show about these kids in this classroom and their teacher and all the childhood drama, and there was something about that show that really allowed me to be comfortable in my body and my space,” he said. “Being Puerto Rican was such a big part of my experience growing up.”

Broadening identity, inclusiveness

Now, after 20 years onstage, the actor said he identifies as many things — Boricua (another name for Puerto Rican), Latino, Latine, Latinx — and feels empowered by the idea that society is figuring out how to become more inclusive.

He pointed out, however, that diversity needs to be present throughout film and TV production.

“As someone who was changed by seeing Rosie Pérez in ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ and didn’t know there was space for him until I saw her — and now I get to be in this place where maybe someone gets that from me — I feel so grateful,” he said. “But I want to see that behind the camera. I want to see diversity for my producers, for my writers, for the crew, because that is what will let me know that it is, in fact, systemic.”

De Jesús said his mission as an actor is to push beyond the borders that limit identities, so different viewers can connect with characters and stories on the stage or through their screens.

“I’m a gay Latino who presents in a way that is sometimes effeminate and sometimes not. And so I wish to diversify specifically queer Latino characters and kind of challenge what we define as masculine,” he said. “I would love for my career to be predominately queer characters in different time periods, so that we insert Latinos specifically into period pieces that we’ve been erased from, even though we all know we existed.”

When asked about off-screen music that inspired his character Pepito in “Santiago of the Seas,” the Puerto Rican actor remembered fondly the parrandas, or Christmas carols, that he used to sing with family and friends during the holidays.

In Puerto Rico, parranderos, or carolers, sing from house to house, with neighbors joining them, until daybreak, while accompanied by instruments such as güiros (a Puerto Rican percussion instrument made from a gourd that looks like a hollowed squash), guitars and accordions.

“Literally by 6 in the morning, you’re like 100 heads deep, and everyone’s just living their best life and caroling and just immersing themselves in that Puerto Rican culture that we miss so much in the mainland sometimes,” the actor said.

De Jesús guest stars in the “Santiago of the Seas” episode “A Tale of Two‐Más” on Friday at 12:30 p.m. ET and PT on Nickelodeon.

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