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For this beloved Sesame Street role model, it wasn’t always ‘sunny days’

Writer and actor Sonia Manzano played the character of Maria on “Sesame Street” for 44 years before announcing her retirement. In her new memoir, “Becoming Maria,” Manzano recounts her tough childhood in the South Bronx and how she used her experiences to help other children. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Manzano about her journey to playing a beloved role model.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: As she announces her retirement, an icon of children’s television looks back at her life and how she got to “Sesame Street.”

    Jeffrey Brown has that story.

  • GROVER:

    Here we have it, the part of the body we are going to talk about today, the head.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It’s a show woven into the childhood memory of generations. And for much of her life, Sonia Manzano was a major part of “Sesame Street” as one of its writers and as the actor playing the character of Maria. SONIA MANZANO, Sesame Street: Cookies and cupcakes are good sometimes, but I want everyone to realize that treats like this can be tasty, too.

  • COOKIE MONSTER:

    Oh, Maria.

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    Oh, come on.

  • COOKIE MONSTER:

    This very disappointing.

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    Oh, come on.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    She was a beloved figure who taught the basics of reading and math.

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    Tube of toothpaste.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But also complicated life lessons about love, marriage, sickness and death.

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    Don’t you remember we told you Mr. Hooper died? He’s dead. BIG BIRD: Oh, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    For many viewers, she was also the first Latina they saw on television.

    So, how much of Maria was you?

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    She’s all me. She’s a better Sonia. She’s a kinder Sonia. She’s a more patient Sonia, but it’s all — I went exactly from myself.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And yet the safe, comforting world where Maria lived and worked was very different from the one Manzano grew up in, a story she’s now telling in a new memoir, “Becoming Maria.” SONIA MANZANO: When I started thinking about leaving “Sesame Street,” I wanted — I started to think about my journey there and I wanted to examine where I went right and where I went wrong and how is it possible that a girl from my background could end up on this iconic television show.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Manzano grew up here, in the working-class tenements of the South Bronx, born to Puerto Rican immigrants. She describes her father, who worked as a roofer, serenading her with Puerto Rican ballads on the guitar.

    But he was also an alcoholic with a violent temper, a chaotic presence who beat her mother, destroyed objects around the house and generally terrified Manzano and her siblings.

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    In order to escape like what was going on inside the apartment, I used to look outside the window. I used to comb my hair, do my nails, read by the streetlight, sort of trying to find the furthest place, like being on that — at the end of the boat.

  • ACTOR:

    Beaver, Beaver, don’t eat so fast.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    She sought refuge in television of the era, in shows that depicted serene family life, as in “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”

  • WOMAN:

    Lost my husband in November. JEFFREY BROWN: And in “Queen for a Day,” a game show that invited down-and-out women to share stories of misfortune in order to win appliances.

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    I thought my mother could have a good spot on that, on “Queen for a day,” and we would get something out of being miserable.

    But the other shows were in suburban environments. And so I didn’t see the neighborhood that I lived in reflected on television or people. And I have to say that, on some level, I wondered where I was going to fit into this society that didn’t see me, what my contribution was going to be.

    I decided, no, that’s it. I’m going to stand up for myself.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    At school, Manzano found little relief from her chaotic home life, at this junior high school, getting into an early fight to prove herself. She says merely showing up was often enough to pass. SONIA MANZANO: I think I just lost myself in whatever books I could find. I had a feeling that there was something better than this. I just couldn’t believe that this was life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And then came a revelation. When Manzano was 11 years old, a teacher took her to see the film “West Side Story,” set in a place she knew all too well, but one suddenly cast in a whole new light.

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    I saw banal things that I saw every day in my neighborhood beautiful, exalted. All of a sudden, the schoolyard fence that I had wanted to climb over was like a painting. The graffiti was like something you would see in a museum. Like, I couldn’t articulate this, but I think that gave me strength. JEFFREY BROWN: A drama teacher encouraged here to audition as an actor for Manhattan’s High School for the Performing Arts, and she was accepted. She struggled in a suddenly rigorous academic environment, but her acting helped her gain entry to Carnegie Mellon University in 1968.

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    One year later, an idealistic new television show designed to reach inner-city children debuted on public television. I never saw these cheerful, attractive, black, friendly people in this environment that was recognizable to me with the stoop and the tenement doors. And I said, what’s my stoop doing on television? It was thrilling to see a show like that. JEFFREY BROWN: In 1971, Manzano auditioned and, at age 22, landed the part of Maria, a role she would inhabit for the next 44 years.

    So, having written the book to figure out how you got from here to there, did you figure it out?

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    No.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    No? No?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • SONIA MANZANO:

    No, no, I think that there is something — there is a connection that I found comfort in television and that I ended up providing comfort or wanting to provide comfort for children who were watching television, that I love theater and I love stories.

    People say, oh, she overcame a terrible childhood. I say, I didn’t overcome my difficult childhood. I say that I used it. I made something of it. I never forgot it. I remembered myself watching “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver.” And so I remembered myself doing that and I kept that sensibility in my heart while I was doing “Sesame Street,” with the knowledge that there is another kid out there looking for that sanctuary.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In retirement, Sonia Manzano will continue that pursuit. Among other things, she’s now working to establish a children’s museum in the Bronx.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And from the South Bronx, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour. Just after Jeff spoke to Sonia Manzano, “Sesame Street” announced that it will move to HBO. New episodes of the program will air there first and then on PBS stations nine months later.

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