Alma Rivera is a spirited 6-year-old Puerto Rican girl living in the Bronx who shares her thought process with viewers as she solves problems. Along the way, she also brings to life a culture and community not often represented in children’s programming.
Alma is the lead character of the animated series ALMA’S WAY, which premiered on PBS in the fall of 2021.
“We have already heard from Latino viewers that when they see characters like Alma, they feel represented," Paul Siefken, president and CEO of Fred Rogers Productions, said shortly after the program launched. "When children view authentic bits of their culture on TV, they experience that moment of recognition: ‘I am part of this world.’”
Latinos are underrepresented both on the screen and behind the scenes of television and film. According to the 2020 Census, 18.7% of the American population identifies as Hispanic or Latino. But just 6.3% of cast members of broadcast TV shows in 2019-2020 were Latino, according to UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report. The report also found that Latinos are similarly underrepresented as writers, directors, and television executives.
The PBS Editorial Standards recognize the importance of inclusiveness, stating that “PBS strives to distribute content that represents all children,” and that “producers should incorporate diverse perspectives as a way of making content more inclusive, accurate, and complete.”
ALMA’S WAY, which models empathy and responsible decision-making for children ages 4 to 6, was created by Sonia Manzano, an actress, screenwriter, and author, who is best known for playing the part of Maria on SESAME STREET for more than 40 years.
Like Manzano, Alma and her immediate family are New Yorkers of Puerto Rican heritage living in the Bronx.
There are other children’s programs that feature Latino lead characters, such as Dora the Explorer and Maya & Miguel, but no other kids’ show is grounded in a South Bronx neighborhood.
Manzano said she wanted Alma’s neighborhood to look like hers did growing up, so she took care to make the details as authentic as possible.
“The icon of the Bronx is the number 6 Train and that is almost a character in our show,” she told member station PBS SoCal. The elevated subway train is “featured all the time. It gives it a bit more reality and I think it's interesting.”
Indeed, Siefken said, “The Bronx is more than a backdrop in this series, it is a member of Alma’s family.”
In addition to the 6 Train, the sidewalks are lined with Alma’s favorite bodegas, stores, and restaurants. There’s a large park with acres of green and trees where Alma and her friends often play, and an amphitheater where Uncle Nestor puts on his plays.
And Alma's voice is provided by a real little girl from the Bronx, Summer Rose Castillo.
The show also features a variety of other cultures in Alma’s diverse neighborhood – often reflected through music and food.
“The color and sound palette of Alma’s block is mostly tropical Latino, but there’s also a South Asian, African-American, and Asian vibe on the street, too,” Siefken said. “The sounds reflect the people.”
In early episodes, Alma teaches young viewers the benefit of practicing and being prepared when she beatboxes as part of a band with her neighbors. She shows the importance of speaking up and telling the truth in an episode in which she helps her mother make mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish made from mashed fried plantains.
In Alma’s neighborhood of the Bronx there are houses and apartment buildings. She and her family live in a two-family house, and her Tíos and cousin Eddie live next door.
In addition to representing children of different ethnicities, the show is inclusive in another way. Eddie has cerebral palsy, wears leg braces, and uses crutches.
“I wasn’t surprised when I saw Eddie Mambo. I was floored,” Adiba Nelson wrote in a column for the Washington Post. She said the show is the first time that her daughter, Emory, will see someone almost exactly like her on television. “She will see a character who looks like her, has the same diagnosis she has, and who shares the same culture and cultural references,” which will help her see “that she fits into the world.”
As the PBS Editorial Standards recognize, a diversity of voices and perspectives leads to content that better serves the public.
“We believe that all children across America should see themselves in PBS KIDS content through complex, compelling, passionate characters whose adventures reflect a broad variety of lived experiences,” Natalie Engel, director of content for children’s programming at PBS KIDS, said.
Contact Standards & Practices at firstname.lastname@example.org.