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Manzano, otherwise known as Maria on ‘Sesame Street,’ was a trailblazer, the first leading Latina on television
September 25, 20159:00AM ET
Ray Suarez: I've interviewed actors and actresses over the years who've chided me, chastised me to remember, "That's just a character I was playing. That's not me.” But when you play somebody for more than 40 years, is it a different matter?
Sonia Manzano: Absolutely. I am Maria. I was very encouraged when I first got cast on the show to be myself. Of course, I wanted to play a character. It's easier for an actress to play a character than to be herself. But they kept saying, "We want a real person. We want a real person so that Hispanic kids in the audience will have someone real to relate to." And it took me a while to catch on to that, and I finally did. And it has obviously paid off.
I think it's important to go back to pre–“Sesame Street”days and remind people that when we were growing up, if you turned on a television, the only Latinos you might see were Quick Draw McGraw's little cartoon burro, Baba Looey, Desi Arnaz. Not exactly much that you could build a contemporary identity around.
No, no. Actually, I found a lot of comfort watching television in the mid-'50s, and I would watch "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver." I used to wonder where those people were. And where those suburban environments existed. I also used to wonder where am I going to fit into this society that was clearly blind to me. We weren't in any books. We had "El Diario." So it's very hard for me to get across to kids or people who weren't around in '69 how absolutely invisible people of color were on television. And that's why I was so shocked when I saw "Sesame Street" before I was on.
When you joined the show, did you imagine that you'd spend the next four decades there?
No. I thought it was going to be over in five years. I came on board the third year, expecting it to last two more years. I feel like I've blinked and I've grown up on this show.
Did they have to provide storylines? Provide mileposts in your life that allowed you to get older on the street?
No, they didn't have to provide it. My living provided it. They just followed what Sonia did. And of course we encompassed what was going on in society. Maria followed me. And it was remarkable that they allowed the actors to age, which was not heard of in children's television. Or in any television. I mean, if you're cast as an ingénue, you try to continue to look like that ingénue for your whole career, because that's when they cast you.
And the things you talked about changed over time.
Sure, sure, sure. I became a writer on the show because I had questions about the Latino content. But I stepped up to the plate. And there was a pushcart full of apples and bananas and such. And I went to the producers, and I said, "You know, if this was a real Latino neighborhood, there would be some plantains and coconuts on that." And they did it. And I said, "Great." That empowered me. So I continued to look at the Latino content with a questioning eye.
‘If someone had suggested that this was going to be my future, I would have suggested that they commit themselves to the nearest insane asylum. My biggest dream was to be a secretary and have my own apartment.’
Maria on ‘Sesame Street’
It's interesting that you say that, because in your new book, "Becoming Maria," your relationship to that part of your life is a little bit more ambivalent. You want to get out from under the weight of what's going on in a difficult household.
I think that because I didn't see too much of the wide world, I threw the baby out with the bathwater as far as my culture went. I assumed that every Puerto Rican household was as chaotic as my household. I wanted to get away from it. I didn't, at that point, see the good parts of my growing up and the wonderful, wondrous parts of being Latina. So I did shun away from the whole culture.
You talk a lot about the home where you grew up. And it sounds like a tough place to be a young girl.
Yes, it was. My father drank a lot, and he was a violent drunk, and he battered my mother. And we would run away from him, and then we'd run back to him when my mother couldn't make ends meet. But also I think she loved him. So it was a cycle of domestic violence and hope.
Hope that continues to be dashed. Was there a frustration that she would go back?
Oh, sure. She would constantly find ways of going back. Finally, I put my foot down when I was in college, and I said, "This is it. You're not going back. You know, I'm not a kid anymore, and I can't tolerate this," because he tried to batter her in my presence. And I encouraged her to finally split up with him.
And then we were estranged, my father and I, for many, many years. And writing the memoir, I kind of had to see him. I wanted him to meet my daughter, and I wanted to see how this memoir was going to end. Somehow seeing him was going to make this clear.
And he said, "Hey. How you doing? It's so great to see you." And I'm going, "What?" and "Hey, how …" I finally said to him, "Give me your take on what went on in our household" — I had to call the cops on him several times. "Oh, you know, this happens between men and women. It was between me and your mother. I love her. I'll always love her." Here, this behavior that so affected me, he did not realize the impact that it had on me.
And then my mother's take on it, 'cause the poor woman, I really badgered her for an explanation. When she got older, I said, "Why did we keep doing this?" And she would say, "Well, I just thought when you kids would grow up, you'd understand." "Understand what?" "That this is life." I guess. You never understand these things that hurt you when you're a child.
But isn't that an answer conditioned by the times? And culturally conditioned?
The struggle, where she was an orphan, when she tells me stories about the poverty in Puerto Rico during the Depression, it makes "Oliver Twist" a walk in the park. And so the desperation that they came from is mind boggling. And Fanguito, where children died in sewage running under the wooden houses that they lived in. I'm shocked.
So in their minds, we always had a house, we ate. He didn't hit me or my brother. So she was thinking, "So we're cool on that.” And love is strange. There's also that.
To imagine yourself on the stage, imagine people paying to come see you, you have to kind of project yourself into that world from an apartment in the Bronx. You did it. Are you sometimes amazed that you did it?
I can't believe I did it. If someone had suggested that this was going to be my future, I would have suggested that they commit themselves to the nearest insane asylum. My biggest dream was to be a secretary and have my own apartment. But it was a real struggle, because I was an A student in the South Bronx, [then went] to a middle class school, the High School of Performing Arts, where I became a C student. And it was very difficult to catch up. But I wanted to get to college, so the only way to go to college was on an audition. I mean, I loved theater, and I loved television, and I loved stories. But it was really sort of "How am I going get to college?" I was going to get to college one way or another. And the only way I could get in was on an audition. Much the same way African-American boys go on sports scholarships to school.
Do people come up to you on the street? There's an enormous slice of the American population that must have very close, warm and specific memories of you.
Oh, I can't tell you how wonderful it's been to receive all of this correspondence from people. From very sad ones — somebody said, "My mother was schizophrenic, and I found an hour of peace and tranquillity watching you" — to "I never would have pursued a career in show business." Or a lot of newscasters, for some reason, in Texas say, "I never would have pursued this kind of career if I hadn't seen you on television." They send me their favorite "Sesame Street" moments, which I have long forgotten. It's been wonderful.
‘I think that racism has really reared its ugly head in ways that were unimaginable to me. In ’69, I thought we were going to fix all of that with ‘Sesame Street,’ but clearly it hasn’t.’
author, ‘Becoming Maria’
You write at several junctures in the book about being a sort of almost racial go-between. "If I wore my hair this way, people would think I was black. If I wore it another way, they'd think I was …" and it was almost a question mark there, because even you didn't know what to put in there.
I know. It was a very ambiguous time racially because my family, we all considered ourselves white. Even though all Puerto Ricans were white in their mind. And even though we had neighbors that were black as night and they were Puerto Rican.
And there was always sort of the admonishment — "Please don't stay out in the sun too long, because you are getting dark." And my sister, who's eight years older, would say to me, "Look, everybody who comes into a society checks out who's the lowest on the totem pole and then tries not to be lower than that." And that's where all of this racial ambiguity is coming from.
And then, because we were invisible and the civil rights movement happened in the '60s, I would try to align myself with black people. I would try to be black, because there was no Latino platform. We were still invisible.
Does your own daughter see the world in a different way? Is there less pressure to sort of pick a side and figure out where you're at than there was in 1968?
I don't believe so. That's a good question. My daughter lives in the South, and she favors her father, who's white. And she has an African-American boyfriend. And I think they get pressure from both sides.
Sothe country's not that different than it was?
It's not that different. I think that racism has really reared its ugly head in ways that were unimaginable to me. In '69 I thought we were going to fix all of that with "Sesame Street," but clearly it hasn't.
Yet you lived long enough to sit on the set at "Sesame Street" and share a coffee with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Yes, yes. And I wrote that bit for her too. I have to pat myself on the back about that. And we refer to each other as the other Sonia from the Bronx whenever we get together — to help initiate a Bronx Children's Museum is when I see her, once a year. It's just wonderful.
But isn't that a sign that America is a different place from the days when you and the other cast members thought that part of the "Sesame Street" brief was to change the world?
Well, sure, Ray. I mean, things are better. I'm an example of it. She's an example of it. You're an example of it. But certainly when African-American boys are profiled and we see these horrible footage of what's happening to certain young men, I always wonder, "What about the footage that we're not seeing?"
So that optimism and idealism that you first brought to the Children's Television Workshop, now that you're leaving, you look back on a long career of doing it, what's on the ledger? What do you feel like you did?
I think we've come a long way. I think I've touched a lot of people with my presence on "Sesame Street." I think I'll continue to do that.
After a short 40-plus year jaunt playing one character, what's next?
I think that I will continue to improve the lives of underserved children, in whatever arena is afforded to me. And that's only because I just have this weird capacity of remembering my very early years. I know that a little attention can go a long way.