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The Essential 'Sesame Street,' Curated By Sonia Manzano

Sonia Mazano spent more than 40 years on Sesame Street, as an actor - her character is Maria, of course - and as a writer for the show. Over the years, she guided Big Bird, Elmo and generations of children through those sensitive, challenging moments that every person encounters as they grow up.

"[She helped] the gang process their feelings about love and life and even when your buddy lets you down," NPR's Andrew Limbong reported on All Things Considered this summer when Sonia announced her retirement.

Articulating these experiences and real life lessons to preschoolers watching the program was an important challenge to the entire Sesame Street team and one that Sonia says they never wanted to shy away from.

"We had this producer Jon Stone who would say, 'You know, kids want to be in the real world, and they want power in the real world. They want to grow up as fast as possible so that they do have power and can do things on their own.' So I do think the show did a lot to help empower kids."

Sonia saw this first hand. On screen and off, she faced the challenges common to so many women in the workplace dating back to the 1970s.

When feminism was "first in the air" Maria had a job as a construction worker. "This was when women were burning bras," said Sonia, who started on the show as an actor and retired as also its multiple Emmy-winning writer.

"I realized about eight years into the show that the real power is behind the camera, not in front of it," she told Limbong, "and I wanted to impact what kinds of material was being written to explore the Hispanic community."

And when actor Will Lee passed away in 1982, executive producer Dulcy Singer pushed to be candid about his death on the show.

"That was a real breakthrough," Sonia told NPR host Ophira Eisenberg before a recent taping of Ask Me Another. "Singer really wanted to do it, and she had a hard time getting it across. She had to be a strong producer. Everybody wanted to say, 'Let's just say he went on vacation,' 'Let's just say he retired,' and she said, 'Look, it's part of life.'

"That's what Sesame Street did – give [children] a straight answer."

"That's what Sesame Street did – give [children] a straight answer. And that's a lesson we can all take away as parents and adults."

This mentality reigned even in the early days of the show, when episodes were perhaps too real by today's standards. When some early episodes – talking Cookie-Monster-had-a-pipe early – were re-released a few years ago, the videos included a parental advisory that read: "These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups and may not suit the needs of today's preschool child."

"It was just darker. It was gritty. It was a gritty place," she told Ophira and the Ask Me Another audience at The Bell House.

Grit and all, the lessons learned on Sesame Street are timeless, and Sonia was the woman who thoughtfully taught them to so many of us as children.

Sonia Mazano, NPR's <em>Ask Me Another </em>Host Ophira Eisenberg and Emilio Delgado (l to r) at The Bell House.
Sonia Mazano, NPR's Ask Me Another Host Ophira Eisenberg and Emilio Delgado (l to r) at The Bell House.

When Ophira asked Sonia which episodes and moments from the show she would recommend to every parent who wants to make Sesame Street a part of their child's life, she suggested the must-show-your-children moments above. But...

"You should watch all of them," she said.

Sonia Mazano and Emilio Delgado, who played her on-screen husband Luis, are the special guests on this week's episode ofAsk Me Another. Listen to the show to hear Sonia's full interview with Ophira, catch some Sesame Street-inspired trivia (including a trivia game challenging contestants to distinguish real and factitious muppets) and hear the couple sing their famous tune "Hola." The episode is available now at iTunes and, and will air on public radio stations around the country. Find local stations and broadcast schedules here.

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Caitlin Sanders