Sal Perez '06 (BFA, Kanbar Institute, Film & TV), got an early start to his career in the Film & TV industry. Raised in a first-generation Mexican American family in the Bay Area, Sal's love for storytelling and film developed early in life, fueled by his role as a family translator during movie nights. This unique experience instilled in him a deep appreciation for the power of storytelling—and a knack for it, as well.
Today, Sal is an Executive Producer at Sesame Street, the first Latinx Executive Producer in the show's history. In his role, Sal has actively steered the show's development, particularly in response to significant societal changes like the pandemic and the social justice movements. Sesame Street's mission remains steadfast: to connect with children at their moment in time, helping them feel seen and understood.
NYU Tisch Alumni Relations got a chance to learn more about his journey from the Bay Area to NYU Tisch to Seasame Street, and all the places he's been to along the way.
Alex Manges: Just to kick us off - what brought you to NYU Tisch?
Sal Perez: I’m originally from the Bay area, first generation Mexican American. Growing up in an immigrant family, television and movies were a big part of my childhood. My parents didn’t speak English, so when we would watch a movie, I would translate as we were watching together as a family. I think that really got me to love storytelling and films, and helped me understand a little more of the inner workings of a character. By the time I got to high school I knew I wanted to work in film and TV somehow, but I had no connections in the industry.
I applied to NYU as a long shot, and when I got in, my sister was the one to be like, “You have to do this. You've got to take a shot.”
AM: Was there one program in particular that you remember being really drawn to when you were young?
SP: We would watch a lot of action and a lot of horror movies. I think about it now that I’m a dad, and I would never share this with my daughter [laughs]. But we would watch Friday the 13th, and all the Schwarzenegger Terminators, as a five-, six-, seven-year-old. They weren’t necessarily scary to me because I was busy translating them.
I really liked analyzing the stories and thinking about the structure. I remember writing really good essays and reports and things about the films, like how people write about literature. It was always something I connected with.
AM: What an interesting role to find yourself playing, taking on the role of a narrator while you’re simultaneously processing the film, and how lucky that it sparked a love for storytelling!
SP: Absolutely. It definitely sparked the love because it was also like a communal thing—it was always something that we were doing together as a family. Instead of silently watching together, it was a much more dynamic experience. We didn't do it at the movies because we probably would have gotten kicked out [laughs], but we definitely did it at home.
AM: So how were your first few months at Tisch and in New York?
SP: I don’t know if they still do this, but for our very first weekend as Tisch students, they took all the film kids camping. We had to make a short movie over the weekend, three-to-five minutes, with a small group. I remember Aubrey Plaza was also in our group, and Matthew Gray Gubler played an old, funny movie on the screening day. It was strange, our first weekend in New York, and we left the city—it was really fun though!
Everything was very exciting at the beginning, but after a while you start to feel lonely, especially in a big city like New York. There was a period in my sophomore year where I didn't totally know where I fit in. I ended up applying for the study abroad program in Prague and went in my junior year. Honestly, that was probably the best experience I had at NYU. My best friends now are the people that I met in that abroad program. We did a full semester in Prague, and wanted to stay together, so some of us went to Cuba for the next semester.
One of my friends in the Prague program was Gabe Pulliam, who is also in the kids industry with his show Octonauts. Not a lot of people go into kids programming, so I just thought that was a funny coincidence that we both did.
AM: Speaking of kids programming, how did you find your way to Sesame Street?
SP: One of the people in my program in Cuba was my friend Sarah Brown, whose mother was the senior producer for Plaza Sésamo, the Latin American Sesame Street. After we got back, I was looking for an internship for my senior year. I had an interview at Sesame Street for their session workshops, and when I told Sarah, she said her mom was looking for someone who spoke Spanish and knew production.
I had my internship interview, then went to speak with her, and later that day she called me and said, “It’s not an internship, but you seem great for this job.” So I started working as a production coordinator for Plaza Sésamo during my senior year. I would go three days a week to the office—by then I only had two days a week of classes—and once we graduated, I hit the ground running.
I got to learn very quickly. I was this 22-year-old kid who had no idea about anything, just learning from the industry and how things were done.
AM: So 16 years later, you’re now an executive producer of Sesame Street—the first Latinx EP for the American show. What was that journey like, and what does this new role mean to you?
SP: It wasn't a straight line. I stayed working with Plaza Sésamo until I was 28, then left to work on a variety of other shows and projects in Mexico and Spain. A few years later, I got the opportunity to work as the supervising producer for the US Sesame Street, which always felt like the mothership. Shortly after I started, an EP left the show, so it all happened very quickly.
I try not to let it feel too daunting, because it is an incredible responsibility. I'm very proud of what it means for my culture, for my family. My wife is from Mexico, and so my daughter is Mexican American as well.
I try to use it to my advantage in how I think about things. I want to make the community proud. It’s kind of like a North Star, guiding any decisions I need to make when we’re making content, or for the organization at large. Trying to keep that North Star helps me make decisions that are fair and equitable.
AM: In your time with the show, how have you seen its stories and mission evolve?
SP: One of the major things about the show is that we're always trying to speak to kids at the moment. Meet them at the moment with what's happening in their lives. But what's been happening in their lives over the last couple of years has been incredibly extreme!
Between the pandemic and everything happening around social justice movements and what they're seeing in the media, it was an opportunity for us to find new ways to address the moment. We’ve always been a very inclusive and diverse organization, but how do we continue to help kids feel seen?
One of the early projects I worked on in this role was a special called See Us Coming Together to talk about the Asian American and Pacific Islanders [AAPI] community. We created a new character for the special, Ji-Young, who is a Korean American girl played by the talented Kathy Kim. Ji-Young likes to play music and she’s a bit of a rock-star, but someone tells her that she “doesn’t belong here.” Anyone who has ever had that experience and comes from another country, or whose family comes from a different country, can relate to that. Even though I'm Mexican American, I completely understood what she was going through as a Korean American.
That sort of story is universal, even when it’s specific to one character’s background. That’s something we think about a lot—how do we continue to help kids feel connected and represented? Hopefully, we can help them understand a little bit more about the world around them and help them feel like they belong anywhere. ⧫