When 19-year-old Sonia Manzano walked through the doors of Sesame Street for her role as Maria, she had no idea the impact she would have on television for Latino kids across America over the next four decades.
"I never dreamed that I would be on television and I certainly never dreamed that I would be a role model," says Manzano. "There were no Latinas on television, no women of color. And Matt Robinson (first actor to play Gordon, the endearing neighbor on Sesame Street) was like, 'You're not just here to be an actress. You have to make sure that the Latino content is right.'" Alas, her career took off. But don’t let her retirement as “Maria” fool you, she’s already onto new adventures.
The now 65-year-old, Puerto Rican actress is focusing on her writing career, particularly her new memoir Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, coming out August 25th. The book chronicles Manzano's life before landing her hit role on Sesame Street and is clear reminder as to why she'll always have a special place in our hearts.
"Maria is me," she says. "She's a better version of Sonia Manzano." For many kids growing up watching the classic PBS children's show, Maria, was more than just a friendly, neighbor with sound advice for Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch. She became an integral part of our lives. Before she knew it, Manzano’s ethnicity was making an impact on the show.
Sesame Street’s producers eventually asked Manzano to write the Latino portions of the show so that they would appear more authentic and true to Latino audiences.
"I had to examine my own culture a lot," she says. "I would say, if they want a real Puerto Rican on the show, I should speak Spanglish. It's authentic. But I also realized I couldn't exclude the Mexican Americans kids in the west coast who were watching."
Manzano ended up winning 15 Daytime Emmys for her writing. It later lead to her authoring two children's books, No Dogs Allowed and A Box Full of Kittens, along with The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano.
But Manzano’s journey to becoming one of the most loved characters on television didn't come easy. In fact, her memoir touches on all the challenges and obstacles she faced as a Puerto Rican girl growing up in New York City. She grew up in a rough neighborhood in the South Bronx, in a home filled with chaos and abuse. Her parents were poor and her father was an alcoholic who was physically abusive to her mother. It was her love of television that motivated her to go after her dreams.
"I always had the feeling there was more to life than this" she says. I saw beauty in the world, especially after I saw the movie, West Side Story. It was seeing a crummy neighborhood that looked just like my neighborhood, beautiful. I felt this must be what art is and I wanted to do something like that." Manzano got accepted to the High School of Performing Arts in New York City and later earned a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon where she honed her acting craft. She did some theater and landed a role on Godspell before getting her big break on Sesame Street, during her junior year in college.
"It seems like it was so easy, but there was an underlining race thing," Manzano says. I would go up for parts that were always the maid, a mother having an accent and I was so self-conscious about it," she says. "Whereas my white girlfriends would go for parts of girls that were just like them. They didn't have to change."
Sesame Street wound up being the perfect fit for Manzano. In the midst of her troubled upbringing, television was initially the only escape to peace Manzano had and wanted to recreate an experience like that for other children. "Because of this retirement people have told me, 'You remind me of my mother, you remind me of my aunt, or I always felt related to you," she adds.
"One girl said to me I was abused growing up but when I watched you on the show I found moments of relief.' It's just wonderful because I’ve really succeeded in what I wanted to do."
Seeing a brown-skinned woman on television served as such an inspiration for so many of us. Manzano used her role to make a real effort to reach under served kids and create an inclusive world many shows today have yet to accomplish.
“Any life is worthwhile,” she says, “You don't necessarily overcome bad childhoods but you learn how to use that childhood to tell your story.”