On Monday, Sonia Manzano, better known as Maria from “Sesame Street,” visited Bloomsburg University. Manzano spent over 44 years acting and writing on the show and just retired this past year. She has since published a book “Becoming Maria,” and now travels to share her story. Her presentation, “Sonia Manzano: From the South Bronx to Sesame Street” in Carver Hall’s Kenneth S. Gross Auditorium was directly tied to her new book, her life before Sesame Street, and how she became what she is today. She stressed not overcoming her troublesome childhood, but rather using it as her driving force to become the iconic Maria she is known and loved as today.
Before Manzano’s presentation, I was given the opportunity to interview her. I commented on how remarkable her lengthy run on the show is and asked if when cast in 1971, she ever imagined starring in it until 2015. Her response was an immediate “No. Not at all,” as she laughed. She only thought she’d be on the show for a couple years. But during her 44-year run, Manzano’s character became iconic and she was recognized as “Maria” constantly, and still is. When asked about what it’s like to be recognized so often (by both adults and kids) as “Maria” instead of Sonia, she replied “It’s obviously very gratifying,” and it shows her just how many lives she has touched.
“The book is titled “Becoming Maria,” she said, “Because I want to share my life before I became Maria.” In the book, readers can see the foundation of her life before Sesame Street that allowed her to become the role model and friend “Sesame Street” viewers grew to love.
She is so often recognized as her character because on “Sesame Street,” although she was called Maria, she really was Sonia.
“She’s all me. She is exactly me. They wanted a real person on the show,” Manzano explained smiling. Her producers kept telling her they wanted someone real and relatable to kids. That was important to the show, and the children. Manzano said, “It was especially important for the Latino and African-American children who were watching me, because up until that time, they really had not seen anyone of color on TV.”
At the time she was cast, Manzano became the first Latina woman to hold a leading role on Television, which came with a lot of responsibility. At first, that responsibility was overwhelming to Manzano.
“I was very nervous when someone said to me you’re not just a Latina actress, you need to make sure the Latino content is appropriate for kids,” she said. “I thought to myself, when did I become a spokesperson? I’m just an actor.” But after time passed, she came around to it. She explained, “I kind of saw that the show was trying to change society, and I wanted to hang around with them and see how I could help.”
Manzano did more than just help. She was a 15-time Emmy winner for her writing on the show. She wanted to contribute more than her acting because, as she explained, “the show lasted so long, after the first five or six years I felt that I had contributed everything I could as an actor.” She claims that being an actor means you are “…at the bottom of the totem pole,” and that the real power lies in writing and producing, and anything behind the camera. Manzano told me, “I wanted to contribute more to the show, more than I could just acting, waiting for them to tell me what to say.” So, she started to criticize some of the Latina content and it was then that someone suggested she started writing, which is where she believes she was able to contribute to the show the most.
Manzano’s contributions to the show didn’t stop at acting and writing. She provided comfort to her viewers. People would approach her in awe that she was really a Latina woman on television. She was an inspiration to not only Latina children, she inspired them all.
Since her retirement, Manzano has received many heartfelt messages. She recalled one in which a girl wrote to her that she watched the show for her, to find comfort in her, because her mother was Schizophrenic. Kids who had troublesome lives looked to her as a friend. She can relate, because she too had a troublesome life.
“I kind of grew up to be what I needed myself to see when I was younger,” she said. She was someone all kids could look up to, not just Latino children or African-American children, but all of them. Manzano gave credit to “Sesame Street.”
“Kudos to the show, who insisted on me being a real person,” she said. That allowed her to really impact the lives of so many people. The stories of “Sesame Street” were so important, according to Manzano, because, “you can really transform someone’s life with a story.”
Though her time on “Sesame Street” is over, the show will never truly leave Sonia Manzano. Her decision to leave was a tough one, and she thought about it for a few years saying humorously, “I meant to leave five years ago, but I forgot.” She added that she couldn’t wait any longer for Oscar the Grouch (her favorite of the Muppets) to propose, so it was time to leave.
Though the show is not quite the same without Maria, it will remain a groundbreaking, iconic show for years to come. “Maria” will never be forgotten.
Check out this NBC News clip about Manzano’s farewell to “Sesame Street.”