Sonia Manzano aka Maria on the set of Sesame Street/Courtesy of Sesame Workshop
Sonia Manzano aka Maria on the set of Sesame Street/Courtesy of Sesame Workshop

I remember my first memories of watching television as a young child in the late 70s and early 80s. Each day I would sit down and watch Sesame Street which my mother diligently always made sure was on for me.

For me, it was an extension of school since I was already in Head Start at the age of 4 and Sesame Street, with Oscar, The Count, Big Bird, Burt and Ernie, and of course Maria (played by Bronxite and Emmy award-winning actress and writer, Sonia Manzano), were my after school teachers.

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Maria.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized the importance of seeing someone on TV that I could relate to and that came from not just the same borough as myself but was also Puerto Rican and a Latina. Sure our lives weren’t carbon copies but there it was on TV, a young Puerto Rican woman from The South Bronx on major show watched by children all across America.

Now after 44 years of teaching our children as an actor on the show as well as a writer, Sonia Manzano is leaving Sesame Street as she enters her next chapter in her life.

“I really debated for several years, ‘Maybe it’s time to move on’ I thought,” said Manzano to Welcome2TheBronx in an interview.

“I don’t regret it at all and I’m happy to pursue my writing career,” continued Manzano who’s authored several children’s books including most recently, ‘The Lowdown on The High Bridge‘ to coincide with the iconic landmark bridge’s reopening.

Over 3,000 copies of the book were distributed to school children throughout the Highbridge area of The Bronx.

Local Highbridge school children hold up "The Lowdown on The High Bridge", by Sonia Manzano, during last month's grand reopening of the landmark bridge.
Local Highbridge school children hold up “The Lowdown on The High Bridge”, by Sonia Manzano, during last month’s grand reopening of the landmark bridge.

We asked Sonia Manzano (it’s so hard to call her Sonia when you’ve known her all your life as Maria!) a few questions on her life, experiences, and what’s next and here’s what she had to say:

Welcome2TheBronx: What is the most singular important moment of your life and career?

Sonia Manzano: “The most important moment in my life came to me when I was in the 4th grade and a teacher took me to see the West Side Story. I was a depressed little kid and in those days there were no people of color on TV in the 50’s when I was growing up. ‘Father Knows Best’ is what we all knew through TV and Puerto Ricans were like some kind of secret society where we lived in our own world where everyone was Puerto Rican and there the show like ‘Leave it To Beaver’ in suburban environments along with all the cowboy shows and I wondered, ‘Where do we fit in? How was I going to grow up and contribute to this society?’

“When the teacher took me to see West Side Story and I saw the school yard looking so beautiful, the graffiti was beautiful, the interior of the apartments were beautiful, the French doors with the painted windows painted over and over again were beautiful and everything that I saw as ugly in my neighborhood, was beautiful in that movie.

“I think on some level I got an understanding of what art by watching ‘West Side Story’. I got into reading and separated myself from the turmoil of my family life; I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I think that was the watershed moment of my life.

“As far as my career on Sesame Street, I would have to say that it was rather recent when I was able to bring in Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor [another Puerto Rican from The South Bronx] and write the bit she was in. From my start on the show being the only Latina, having two, Nuyoricans on the show was something I would not have imagined.”

W2TB: Who were your role models and/or influences? Did you ever think you’d end up becoming not just a role model yourself but one of the top Latino role models?

Manzano: “No real role models, the only role models in media that I could relate to were Mexican movie stars like and Sarita Montiel. I was fascinated by Maria Felix but once again their stories were about revolutionaries and out west as they fought for independence and it wasn’t like the urban environments I grew up in. Even with teachers I had none that were Latino and let alone women doctors.

“When I started working on Sesame Street, I remember quite clearly Matt Robinson, who was the first Gordon on Sesame Street, telling me, ‘You know that you have to make sure the Latino content on the show is right? You’re not just an actor.’ and I said, ‘Me? What? Since when did I become a spokesperson for Latinos?’

“But I took it to heart: What should Maria be like? They wanted a real person that children could relate to and I remember one of the early suggestions I made was with the fruit cart. I said there should be some platanos and ‘Ok you got it!’ Others would have writers’ meetings and ask me about what was culturally appropriate for Latinos and then was asked, ‘Why don’t you try writing some of this stuff?’ That’s when I realized it was a tough job but I took it on anyway.

“Introducing Spanglish was a way reaching out to our target audience which at first wasn’t understood by the research department but I said we would stick to Cervantes Spanish as to make it a bit more universal across for all Latinos.”

W2TB: Where did you grow up in The Bronx? What are your favorite places?

Manzano: “I grew up at 3858 Third Avenue in a Crotona tenement building when the Third Avenue El still roared by our 4th floor apartment windows. I could see the people getting on and off the trains from my window. The El provided movement in our neighborhoods and when it was torn down all of a sudden you were stuck in the middle of nowhere and not being able to get to places. A lot of the buildings from my childhood were eventually torn down.”

“I remember going to the pool at Crotona Park. I attended PS 4, then John Dwyer Junior High School 133, and then on to The High School of Performing Arts which wasn’t combined with the art school at the time and eventually became Fiorello H. Laguardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts.”

“Crotona Park and Indian lake in particular tugs at my heart. I loved City Island even if it was a trip for us to get there and of course Orchard Beach.”

W2TB: Is there anything you’d like to add, perhaps some words of wisdom for our youth? Maybe a future ‘Maria’ out there that’s reading this?

Manzano: “I would tell young people to go with what you like to do. If you like to shop, become a buyer in a store. If you find what you really enjoy doing, there’s more of a chance of finding a way of paying your bills.”

“Be flexible. I didn’t know that I would end up  in children’s entertainment. I thought I was going to be in children’s theater. I ended up here, on Sesame Street instead. You have to be flexible with your dream. In entertainment there are lots of jobs behind the camera and there’s lots of power there behind the scenes. There are so many jobs, opportunities, and disciplines behind the scenes that many people aren’t aware of.

“I suggest people expose themselves to new things. I would have become a writer sooner had I been exposed to it. It wasn’t even in my realm as a matter of fact while I was growing up—there weren’t even pencils or pens in my household, not even any kind of literature.”

“Expose yourself to things, you never know when something’s gonna be appealing to you that you didn’t know before. 

As for what’s next for Sonia Manzano, she is going to continue to focus on her writing. She’s written several children’s books and next month her personal memoir, ‘Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx‘ (you can order your copy in advanced by clicking the link) will be released and according to publishers Amazon:

“Set in the 1950s in the Bronx, this is the story of a girl with a dream. Emmy award-winning actress and writer Sonia Manzano plunges us into the daily lives of a Latino family that is loving–and troubled. This is Sonia’s own story rendered with an unforgettable narrative power. When readers meet young Sonia, she is a child living amidst the squalor of a boisterous home that is filled with noisy relatives and nosy neighbors. Each day she is glued to the TV screen that blots out the painful realities of her existence and also illuminates the possibilities that lie ahead. But–click!–when the TV goes off, Sonia is taken back to real-life–the cramped, colorful world of her neighborhood and an alcoholic father. But it is Sonia’s dream of becoming an actress that keeps her afloat among the turbulence of her life and times. Spiced with culture, heartache, and humor, this memoir paints a lasting portrait of a girl’s resilience as she grows up to become an inspiration to millions.”

Thank you, Sonia, aka Maria, for all the wonderful memories you provided me with and for millions of others during these past 44 years and here’s looking at your next phase in life as you continue to inspire.

This is not a goodbye by any means but more like an ‘Hasta luego’ or until next time!

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