In 1993, when I was 14, I became a regular on “Sesame Street.” The show usually liked to have a teenager on, so that was me. My character had my same name, Carlo, and eventually I got a job at Mr. Hooper’s store. I had to make a birdseed milkshake for Big Bird, that was my tryout. I ended up appearing on “Sesame Street” for five years. But the whole time, I had a secret: I was an undocumented immigrant. The papers I’d used to get hired were fake.
My family had come from Ecuador when I was seven and my older brother Angelo was nine. We came on a tourist visa, and the moment my parents had gotten it, we knew we were not coming back. They sold all our furniture before we left.
My mother had a sister living legally in the United States, and my parents planned to have her sponsor us for residency. Soon after landing in New York, my parents saw a lawyer. But we were told the process would take four or five years.
Coming to the States was traumatic. In Ecuador, we had lived in a house. Here, we were in a small apartment. We didn’t know any English. But you know, at that age, things change quickly. In six months we were speaking English and running around like normal kids. Most of the time, we blended in. But we knew weren’t supposed to be here, and we lived with a lot of fear.
I started acting when I was 11, almost as a fluke. One day, we went to visit our cousins, and they were on their way to try-outs for a community theater production of “Oliver!” It was through a program put on by the city, to get disadvantaged kids off the street. When we got there, the producers were like, “You should try out, too.” So my brother and I did. Then we all went to lunch. When we got home, we had a phone message that we’d both been cast. I was Oliver.
My parents were horrified. I mean, we were illegal. Plus, the theater was about 45 minutes from our house and we only had one car, and my parents worked long hours. But the producers insisted. They came up with a plan where one of them would come to pick us up in the afternoon for rehearsal, and then my parents would go at night and bring us home.
After the play was over, one of the producers told my parents that she thought I could act professionally, and that if we wanted to, she would send me out on casting calls. Again, this was a big moral dilemma for them. But I think they didn’t want to keep this experience from me. There was already so much we couldn’t do. And in the end I think they decided that we had come to this country in search of opportunities, and this was an opportunity.
So I did a couple of plays, and in the beginning, “Sesame Street” was just another audition. It was a role in the 25th anniversary special that was shot in Central Park. Then, I was offered a regular role. I wasn’t about to turn that down. We had counterfeit green cards, but we never showed the actual card. We turned in photocopies, crossed our fingers, and hoped it worked. And this time it did.
I loved being on “Sesame Street.” It was like a big family. But at the same time, it ratcheted up the fear of being found out. At the time, my brother and I were desperately trying to be normal teenagers. We did the normal things: We hung out, we jammed with our friends. None of them knew we weren’t here legally, not even the closest ones. But more and more they were pressuring us and asking questions: Why do you stick so close to your parents? Why can’t you come on this trip to Canada with us? Why can’t you get your license?
(In fact, we tried to get licenses. My father heard of a guy that was selling Puerto Rican birth certificates, and we bought two. My brother’s worked, and he was able to drive. Mine didn’t, and the people at the DMV took it away and told me if I wanted it back, I’d have to go pick it up at the state’s central office. I didn’t, of course.)
With “Sesame Street,” my fear increased. If I got caught, not only would I be found out and deported, but I was on TV, so it would be a public humiliation. It made things very stressful. One year, I was supposed to be part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For that, you get hired by Macy’s, so again I had to give a social security number and show paperwork. I was scared and wanted my father to change a number on the Xerox. And he didn’t, because he didn’t know how to. I was so angry, we got into a physical altercation. I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face. After everything they had done for us, still one of his children turned on him.
And of course, when I handed the paperwork in, Macy’s barely looked at it. Why would they? Who would believe this kid on Sesame Street would have any kind of a problem?
In the end, it took us 12 years to get our residency. We all had to have our fingerprints taken three times, because the laws about how you had to do it kept changing. On the day that we had our final interview with what was then the INS, my brother, father and I wore suits, and my mother wore a dress. You go in, and they call you into one of these little cubicles. It was April 28, I remember, because it was two days before my brother’s 21st birthday.
Normally, at that point, they’d look over your paperwork and give you a stamp in your passport, and that’s good until you get your green card in the mail. But that day, the official there told us that our fingerprints still hadn’t been processed by the FBI. It was going to take a few more weeks. But because you can only be sponsored by a parent until you’re 21, he said, my brother would no longer be eligible. He had waited 12 years. It was a heartbreaking moment for my family.
That night, my parents wrote our local congressman. We’d met him years before, at one of the performances of “Oliver!,” and my parents had kept in touch. And he helped us. My brother got his residency along with the rest of the family. This was all before 9/11, you know. It would never happen that way now.
Carlo Alban is an actor and playwright. His autobiographical one-man show, “Intringulis,” is playing at New Orleans’s Southern Rep theater through March 23.