1. Books

What's Sonia Manzano reading?


Sonia Manzano

When Manzano, well known for her role as Maria on Sesame Street, was growing up in the Bronx, she'd watch television keeping an eye out for kids like herself, a Spanish-speaking daughter of immigrants. "This was the 1950s, and I never saw anyone who looked like me on TV. I watched shows like Leave It to Beaver,'' recalled Manzano, 65. "I used to wonder where I would fit in, and when I grew up and was asked to work on Sesame Street, I was told they wanted little Latino kids from the inner city to relate to the show. I thought, 'Wow, I'm going to be what I needed myself as a kid.' "

In June, after working for 44 years alongside Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and Elmo, Manzano announced her retirement. Two months later, she's seeing the release of her memoir, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx. The book, given a young adult designation by Scholastic, shares good memories of Manzano's upbringing in the strong Latin community as well as not-so-good ones about suffering at the hands of an alcoholic father who would become violent when he drank. We caught up with Manzano, a graduate of New York City's famed High School of the Performing Arts and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, by phone on Aug. 13 from her home in New York City.

What's on your nightstand?

I just read I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín. It's about a girl from Chile who has to go to Maine to live with a relative because of problems in Chile, and then she has to go back to Chile. It is a very good story. I just finished Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older. It is a YA novel and takes place in Brooklyn. In the book, all the murals and graffiti that is around on the walls are changing. Expressions are changing. It has to do with spiritualism and ghosts and spirits and the power of the unknown. It's very Latin. You know, I remember thinking when all the books on vampires came out, how come Latin writers don't get into this vampire thing? We owned this stuff with the spirits. You know, the evil eye and that sort of thing. I'm also reading Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe.

Why Thomas Wolfe?

I'm interested in books that have a theme of going home. So I'm reading that, and I just finished The Great Gatsby, and I finally understood that one. But, with Look Homeward Angel, I'm struggling. He's quite vicious when he describes black people and Jews, but I'll try to stick with it.

In your book, there's a wonderful picture of you on one of the first pages. Whose house was that?

That was at the house that my parents ultimately bought, and I was already on Sesame Street. I remember it was in the '70s, and I actually wore the same outfit when Stevie Wonder came on the show. It was very exciting when he came on. He did Superstition, and the whole studio just rocked out. I remember it was fabulous. The little kids loved it, the young ones loved it, everybody was on the same page and excited about Stevie.

Do you think TV shows continue to do a good job of encouraging Spanish-American communities?

Sesame Street laid the foundation for Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, but now there's so many more types of Spanish speakers. What's going on now is the landscape of Latinos is going to keep growing. It's not just Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican. You know what I mean? There's not just one type of empanada. There's going to be different kinds, different ones. It will be interesting to see how TV shows that educate children will acknowledge this.

What kind of character would you like to see on Sesame Street?

I would like to see a critical thinking character. It would be a character that weighs problems and does not go for yes-and-no answers the way everybody in society teaches us to do.

Did working with the puppets make it easier or harder to do your job?

They could articulate what the child is feeling. Let's say something was being done on the terrible twos, for example, when it's all about no, no, no. It's hard to have a toddler do that for the camera — but Oscar can do that. So that's the value. They were the surrogate kid who we could give words to.

You were a groundbreaker as a Latino woman on American TV. How do you think your image changed through the years?

It changed quite a bit. I think that's one of the successes of the show. The characters could age. I was a teenager when it first started, even though in real life I was in my 20s. Then, when I grew up to be a feminist, Maria became a feminist. When I got married, so did Maria. When I got pregnant, we did a sonogram on the show. So, the character Maria had continued to change over the years. We changed with the times, too. For example, there was an issue about day care. In society, day care was a new thing in the 1980s. Everyone was wondering if it was good or bad. So coming from a Puerto Rican background, I said I'd have a relative take care of my child, but the show thought different. The producers said mothers are struggling with this issue. So, we got into day care on the show when Maria and Luis looked for day care for Gabi.

Did you ever have to confront producers on something that they weren't ready for?

Sometimes it was talking about something they weren't aware of. For example, Puerto Rican families can be black or white or everything in between. So I wrote a bit where Maria is waiting for a black cousin to come. I told (the puppets) to wait for him. I told them he was tall. So here comes a guy, and the puppets say, "Oh no, that can't be him." It was fun. I'm not saying they didn't want to do it, but I brought attention to the differences.

Contact Piper Castillo at Follow @Florida_PBJC.