The longtime star of Sesame Street talks about her 44-year run on the iconic show, and her new book, Becoming Maria.
Actress/Author Sonia Monzano
Tavis: Since first gracing TV screens in 1971, Sonia Manzano has touched the lives of millions–and I do mean millions–with her portrayal of Maria on the iconic children’s educational series, “Sesame Street”. And now–say it ain’t so, Maria, say it ain’t so–after 44 years on the groundbreaking program, she has announced that she’s going to retire from the show.
In addition to her acting work, she has also won 15 Emmys as part of the “Sesame Street” writing team and is also an accomplished author in her own right. Her latest book is a coming of age memoir titled “Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx” and she’s also the author of a beautiful children’s book called “Miracle on 133rd Street”. I am honored to have you on this program.
Sonia Manzano: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Tavis: Oh, no. Honored to have you here. In the time I have, I want to make the most of it. I want to jump right in because the story that you tell in this book of your own family, there was love, but there was a little drama as well.
Tavis: And it’s fascinating for me to see these humble beginnings from which you come, given what you have done all these years, going to the homes of other children to give them…
Manzano: Right. It’s remarkable that I found comfort watching television because I was in a tumultuous environment and it was chaotic and there was domestic violence. So in order to calm myself, I used to watch television and it was the television of the 50s, shows on TV Land, “Father Knows Best”, “Leave it to Beaver”, because there was order and it was a non-chaotic world.
So I think it’s remarkable that I ended up on a TV show that probably provided that for children in similar situations. Except it was better because it wasn’t in the foreign land of the suburbs, wherever that was in the 50s. I never knew what that was. But it was from Sesame Street, an environment they could recognize.
Tavis: When did you first see anything on TV, on stage, on screen, where you saw yourself represented?
Manzano: Well, this is going to sound like a cliché, but it was “West Side Story”. I had the fourth grade teacher who took me to see the movie. All of a sudden, I’m seeing the banal scenes that I saw in my everyday life exalted, the Johnny Pump, the schoolyard, the graffiti. It was all made beautiful. The crummy altar that was on my mother’s bureau, in this movie looked like a Matisse or something, like a cathedral.
So I think that seeing things that I saw every day so exalted gave me the opportunity to separate from my family. I couldn’t escape them, and I didn’t want to escape them. I loved them. But it gave me a higher ground to stand on.
Tavis: Obviously, “West Side Story” stars one Rita Moreno. Was she the first person or were there others that you saw yourself being able to relate to in terms of individuals? It’s one thing to see these idols on the screen…
Manzano: Right, right, right. No, no individuals. There was nobody–no people of color–on television when I was growing up. We weren’t in books either. There were no picture books. I read “Dick and Jane” at school, these little blonde kids…
Tavis: “See Dick, see Jane. See Jane run.”
Manzano: Right. Spot and everything, right [laugh]. So I never knew where I was going to fit in, what part of society I was going to play, how I was going to contribute to a society that didn’t see me because I was invisible. We were invisible. Nobody knew about Puerto Ricans. Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics in “West Side Story” said, “What’s a Puerto Rican?” when they approached him [laugh].
Tavis: What was it like for you then, coming of age in the Bronx?
Manzano: Well, it was obviously very tough. I had a foot in two worlds, the Bronx world and the world that I wanted to join. I had a teacher in junior high school say to me, “Of all the kids here, you will probably be one of the ones who won’t get pregnant and won’t get on drugs”, and I found that insulting because I wanted to hang with my girls and I didn’t want to be separated that way.
So I think that, you know, there was the bicultural aspect of being Puerto Rican in a world that didn’t recognize Latin people. There was the aspect of being an artist coming from an environment that really didn’t recognize artistry except for music. We did have that.
Tavis: Always loved the music.
Manzano: Always had the music, right [laugh]? We did have that covered.
Tavis: Yeah. They will exploit that. But you end up at the Fame school, though.
Manzano: Yes, because a teacher said, you know, I’m going to introduce you to this school. I think you should attend it. My hopes and dreams was to become a secretary. I was going to the neighborhood high school and maybe become a secretary.
Tavis: How did going to the Fame school change your world view? Your expectations for yourself?
Manzano: My gosh, that was like going to Planet X. All of a sudden, I’m an A student in the South Bronx because you could phone it in. I would do my nails. But the standards were so low that I could ace everything. And then I got into performing arts and I’m competing or I’m around kids who had very good elementary school educations and I couldn’t catch up.
They knew what a noun was, they knew how to write an essay, they knew how to debate without getting into an argument, and these are skills that I didn’t have. So I spent the rest of my time trying to sort of catch up. It was a new world, difficult.
Tavis: A little birdie told me that, since you’ve been in town, you’ve seen one of your classmates from the Fame school.
Manzano: Yes, yes.
Tavis: And who might that be?
Manzano: Melissa Manchester.
Tavis: Wow. Small world [laugh].
Manzano: Small world, yes, yes. She was one of my lovely classmates and one of the kindest kids in the school, I might add.
Tavis: You’re the “Sesame Street” expert here, but I’ve said so many times in my career–I remember the first time I said this. The comment will date itself, but remember back in the day, they had the Kodak film where you had to shake the polaroid?
I said many years ago in a speech that the only difference between our kids, black and brown kids, and their kids, the white kids, is that they get exposure and that our kids don’t. But it’s like that picture you take. When you shake that thing and it gets exposed, the picture becomes clear.
Tavis: And I’ve said the same thing about our kids. If our kids could ever get that kind of exposure, then the picture would become clear. They would see what they can do and what the world is offering them. So I’m just curious as to how that experience put you on the path to…
Manzano: Well, I think it’s interesting that I wrote for “Sesame Street”. I have 15 Emmys as a writer for “Sesame Street” and now I’m writing prose. When writing was such a foreign thing to us, it was like something intellectuals did at universities. It wasn’t something that Puerto Ricans did in the South Bronx.
And I tell this crummy joke in the book where my father is talking [laugh]. He has to write down a phone number from his boss and he goes through my mother’s purse and pulls out a red Maybelline eyebrow pencil and writes it on the kitchen wall because we didn’t have paper, we didn’t have pencils.
And I wonder today, maybe I would have become a writer earlier if there had been a pencil in the house or if they had been exposed to me in some way. So you’re absolutely right about that assessment. If our kids could see, just be introduced to things, they’ll find their way. We don’t have to show them everything, just a little door, and watch them exceed our expectations.
Tavis: When did you get exposed to–speaking of exposure–when did you know that there was a program called “Sesame Street” that existed?
Manzano: Oh, my goodness. I walked into the student union at Carnegie Mellon University and there on the screen was a very young, very bold, James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet in this very deliberate manner, “A, B…
Tavis: “This is CNN”, yeah, yeah [laugh].
Manzano: I know, I know. Like Shakespeare. It’s the alphabet and the letters are flashing over his head. And I thought it was a show that taught lip reading [laugh]. He was so deliberate and then, when I saw the street and I saw Susan and Gordon and this beautiful Black couple.
You know, Matt Robinson was so handsome and she was so gorgeous and you never saw Black people on television like that. In a neighborhood that looked like mine, I was just so thrilled.
Tavis: Matt Robinson, of course, your colleague. The father, one of my friends, Holly Robinson Peete, as you well know, the actress.
Manzano: The world’s getting smaller and smaller as we keep talking [laugh].
Tavis: So you saw it for the first time at Carnegie Mellon.
Tavis: Fast forward to how you then got into the universe of…
Manzano: Well, we were doing a show at that time at school called “Godspell”. You may have heard of it. It came to New York and I was in the original company, right? An agent saw me in the show and he said, “I could probably get you some work” and he sent me up for the audition for “Sesame Street”.
Now there weren’t a lot of Latino actors out there at that time, but I nailed it. This was at a time when one man could make a decision about a show, not 25 people [laugh]. So I fit his vision, John Stone, and he cast me.
Tavis: Let me ask you to set your modesty aside. What do you believe, hope, at least, that you from that point until now have brought to this program, this iconic program?
Manzano: Well, I think that people watched me and they have said to me since my retirement, “If I hadn’t seen you, I never would have gone into broadcasting. You made me feel like I was part of the world.” So that has certainly been gratifying. And people are sending me these messages because of my retirement.
Tavis: What’s your greatest fear, concern, about the children in this country today?
Manzano: Well, right now I think we’ve become data obsessed and I think it’s because of computers that, if we can’t count it, we don’t value it. So therefore we’re testing kids all the time and filling them with information that we think will be valuable for them in the future as opposed to giving them basic tools about negotiating life. And I think that nuances about life are lost on children now or we don’t care that they understand it.
Tavis: Tell me about this children’s book, “Miracle on 133rd Street”.
Manzano: Oh, “Miracle on 133rd Street” is the effects that pernil, which is a Puerto Rican pork shoulder, the magical aspects that the aroma of this roast has on a very depressed neighborhood [laugh].
Tavis: Can aromas do all that?
Manzano: In my world of fantasy and whimsy…
Tavis: Can scents and smells do all of that?
Manzano: Right, right, and good will.
Tavis: So what will Maria, what will Sonia [laugh], do in retirement?
Manzano: I’ve never been so busy in my life since I’ve retired. I haven’t retired from life. I’ve just retired from “Sesame Street” [laugh]. So there’s plenty of stuff to do. I think that I’m going to continue writing probably and continue to help establish a Bronx Children’s Museum.
It’s the only borough in New York that doesn’t have a museum for Bronx children who are probably the people who need it the most. So I’ll continue my work doing that and I’ll continue to write.
Tavis: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Manzano: Thank you very much.
Tavis: I mean, for a life and legacy that’s been filled with empowerment and inspiration and uplift for a lot of people.
Manzano: Thank you.
Tavis: Thank you. So much appreciate it. The memoir from Sonia is called “Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx”. Again, that children’s book is called “Miracle on 133rd Street” and I can hear all of America saying in unison, “Thank you, Sonia.” That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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