SESAME’S STREET: MARIA.
By Nilda Melissa Diaz Rodriguez.
For 44 years, Sonia Manzano played the iconic Maria of Sesame Street, a groundbreaking character in its normalcy of portraying Latinos as regular people. It was the role that made a South Bronx kid a trailblazer Latina.
On her memoir, Becoming María: A story about Love and the South Bronx, Manzano wrote about her father’s abuse, how she’d noticed the black eyes on her mother and how she’d hide their knives on the oven. Her escape from it all: television.
“I always looked to television for, I don’t know, some sort of peace. Even though I never saw anybody who looked like me, porque en esos días no se veían puertorriqueños en la televisión, ningún latino,” says Manzano, who went on to study at the High School of Performing Arts and Carnegie Mellon University.
On those times, not everything was bad. Manzano grew up surrounded by extended family, gathering on the front stoop to enjoy the day, memories she used on Sesame Street bits.
In 1972, Manzano, then an actress on the original production of Godspell was casted as María. After being criticized for its bilingual content, Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), set out to include a more diverse cast.
“Matt Robinson, who was the original Gordon, said to me “You’re not here to be the cute Latina, you’re here to make sure that all the Latin content is appropriate.” And I thought to myself, “What?! When did I become a spokesperson for the Puerto Ricans. I’m just a kid from the Bronx, I’m not a political leader” But then I kind of kept waltzing out and I naturally rose to the occasion,” she recalls.
And better representation started with food. “There was a fruit car on Sesame Street with apples and bananas and stuff like that,” she shares. “And I went to the producers and said, If this was in a real diverse neighborhood, with Puerto Ricans in it, we would have plátanos and coconuts on the fruit cart too. And they said ‘ok cool’. So I like to joke saying that that was my first act as a role model,” she remembers.
“Sonia and Maria are the same person,” she explains, “I was always myself on the show and I think people appreciated that and I think that’s why they remember me now.”
Sesame Street ended up being an extension of real life. When Sonia married, Maria married; when Sonia had her daughter Gabriela, Maria had Gabi. And while productions wanted to cast her to perform trite stereotypes: a maid or a sassy Latina with a thick accent, Sesame Street was home.
“I enjoyed being around Sesame Street where I could be myself, be the Puerto Rican I was,” recalls Manzano, “I didn’t have to fit in any categories. I didn’t have to be an island Puerto Rican, I could just be myself, so I have to say I didn’t really pursue many other avenues.”
But other avenues came looking for her.
W is for Writing
For Manzano, Sesame Street was also a source of inspiration. During her time on the show, she found a love for writing, never before imagined.
“I always tell this funny joke of my father writing a phone number on the kitchen wall, using my mom’s eyebrow pencil. I thought it’s funny, but that’s terrible! There wasn’t any paper in the house,” Manzano says.
It wasn’t until her producer and mentor Dulcy Singer suggested it that Manzano considered writing. Having her input validated by the producers, Manzano found a new medium. She became a writer, receiving 15 Emmy’s for television writing. She has written five books, including her memoir and the Pura Belpre Honor winner The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, and is still committed to write young adult books for Scholastic.
Manzano’s departure was between seasons, there was no final goodbye. But that has not deter the fans’ accolades for their beloved. And Manzano recognizes the importance of Maria because “because so many people cry when they meet me. My assistant always says ‘oh how many people did you make cry today.”
Manzano is no stranger to the power of television. “When I was playing Maria, I always thought of the kid who was watching,” she shares. ” Who was in a uncomfortable situation like I was as kid, looking for comfort, so that is what kept me going.”
“I was always myself on the show and I think people appreciated that and I think that’s why they remember me now.”
But, the recognition by the establishment took her by surprise.
After her retirement, Manzano has received numerous recognitions, among them the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Arts and Sciences. And in May, she received the Legacy Award by the San José Children’s Discovery Museum for her involvement with children’s education. It was a special award for Manzano, as museums, along with the theater, are her cherished pastimes. “I like going to the museums, they clear my head,” she expresses.
The award is a special sundial that will work on her Manhattan window. “When we called [the artist] and asked him to do this [window sundial] for Sonia Manzano, he ended up writing us a beautiful letter talking about how her legacy will live on with him and his children,” shares Marilee Jennings, the museum’s executive director. “He really did learn the strength and value in diversity seeing her and so many of the other human beings who were different than he was.”
And Manzano is committed to their mission. “Books and museums are where kids are going to practice using their imagination. To receive this recognition from the museum in hopes that I could save that, and people could see how important art is in education; it’s not just about learning facts.”
“Don’t retire, you’ll never stop working!”
Manzano’s retired life has been anything but quiet. She gives back to her community through the Bronx River Alliance, a cleanup initiative, and, she is heavily involved in bringing the Bronx Children’s Museum to life.
“The Bronx is the only borough that does not have a children’s museum and it’s museums that needs it the most because those kids are the most underserved,” she explains.