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Take Note: Sonia Manzano on the influence of television, race, and talking honestly with children

Sonia Manzano
Sonia Manzano

Sonia Manzano is an author and actress best known for her role as Maria on Sesame Street. Since leaving the show in 2015, after more than 40 years in the role, she has written several books, including her memoir, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, and several young adult and children's books. She's the creator of a new animated PBS show called Alama's Way, which features the experiences of six-year-old Alma Rivera, a Puerto Rican girl who lives in the Bronx and models empathy and problem solving for viewers. Sonia, thank you so much for joining us today.

Sonia Manzano 

My pleasure to be here, I'm looking forward to chatting with you.

Cheraine Stanford  

So I want to start obviously, with the role that you're most well known for, which is Maria on Sesame Street. When you look back on your time on the show now, how do you kind of sum up your experience on the show and the impact that you've seen it have?

Sonia Manzano 

Well, it's has continued to be a remarkable experience being Maria on Sesame Street for so long. And I think we've sort of come full circle. I thought the problems we're dealing with now we would have solved back then. I was young. I was in my 20s. It was the civil rights movement. Jesse Jackson was on this show saying, "This is my hair, and my hair is beautiful." And so I thought, "wow, you know, talk about being in the right place at the right time in history; we've solved all of these problems." So it's disconcerting to be where I am now. And seeing that the impact that we thought we had made wasn't all encompassing. Though, of course, we did make a huge impact.

Cheraine Stanford  

Yeah, it's interesting you say that, because there's a new documentary out about that, too. But at the time, Sesame Street was considered kind of revolutionary, right? I mean, there wasn't really anything like it on air.

Sonia Manzano 

Absolutely. It was revolutionary, it had a very...I have very strong feelings about it. Because I was born and raised in the South Bronx and I watched a lot of television in the 50s. Shows, like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, and shows like that. And I never saw any Latin people. And you never saw people of color. And if you saw a person of color you'd go out into the hallway, we call the neighbors, "AHHHHH there's a black person on television!" For real, I mean, this was how we were invisible to the main society. And obviously, you know, you wonder what you're going to contribute to a society that didn't see you. And it was, you know, there was that scary feeling growing up about what you were going to be. So when, when I saw Susan on Sesame Street, I was a college student at Carnegie Mellon University. And I said, "Oh, my goodness!" I mean, there's this beautiful black woman with his gorgeous husband, Matt Robinson, Susan, and Gordon. I said, "This is really too much." So then I became Maria on the show. And by the way, because Latin activists demanded it so on the west coast, they said, "if you have these role models for African American children, what about Latinos?" And they went, "Okay, great!" And it was so new that yeah, so then I got cast, and then I became what I needed to see, as a kid. You mentioned my memoir, one of the earlier titles that I got talked out of was "Healing My Way Through Time and Television". Oh, because I thought I healed myself by finally being the person I needed to see in the media.

Cheraine Stanford  

And I know people often tell you, how seeing you and how the show impacted them. But how did how did the show impact you personally?

Sonia Manzano 

I became more aware of my own culture because they were asking me to represent Latinos. Matt Robinson, who played Gordon, as I said, came up to me the first day I was there and said, "You're not here to just be the cute Latina, you know, you have to make sure that Latino content is accurate" and I went, "WHAT?! who elected me mayor of Puerto Ricans", you know. But I think I rose to the occasion and I started examining my parents life and where they fit into the larger social structure of the United States. When they had...Why they had come to the mainland from from Puerto Rico What forced them to leave the island. Which was of course, grinding poverty. So the show kind of made me look around myself and see what I was all about in order to be truthful. I mean, it's silly thing like speaking Spanglish on the show, you know, and then somebody saying to me, "that's not really a Spanish word". And I'm saying "Yes, it is. My mother uses it all the time!" And then Oh,we're a mixture here, we mix languages, and we mixed sensibilities. So all of that. It was an exciting time, those early years.

Cheraine Stanford  

And has it been a good thing? Or not a good thing to be always associated with Maria from Sesame Street? I'm guessing that sometimes people don't separate the people or think of you as Maria?

Sonia Manzano 

No, you're absolutely right. People always think of me as Maria and I think of me as Maria all the time. Because I remember asking the producers early on "how should Maria be" because I wanted to play a character. It's easier to play a character than it is to be yourself. And they kept saying, "just, we just want you to be yourself." And that was, you kind of feel naked when you're performing that way and it's just you. So I think that Maria is Sonia on purpose. And she's certainly a nicer person than I could ever hope to be. [laugh}

Cheraine Stanford  

You've talked in previous interviews about the fact that you didn't see places that look like where you grew up on air. So what did it mean for you to work on a show that, you know, was a New York City street, is what you know, looked like?

Sonia Manzano 

You know, it almost felt like a do over. I came from a, you know, there were troubles in the neighborhood in the Bronx, there were troubles in my family. And then there was Sesame Street, and it was this idealistic place that kind of reminded me of my neighborhood. Like, when they built a fire escape by my window, by Maria's window, it was like my fire escape. And then you know, the Hooper's Store was like the Hooper's Store in my neighborhood. Obviously, with an idealized place, there was all this diversity living together. And it reminded me of the joyous things in my neighborhood. And when I became a writer for Sesame Street, I was able to remember those joyous things and bring those experiences to the show.

Cheraine Stanford  

You just touched on it and I want to talk a little bit about where you grew up and how you grew up. You share a lot about your tumultuous, but also you know, in a lot of ways beautiful childhood, in your memoir, Becoming Maria. So I wonder what it was like for you to reveal a lot of personal information and bring up difficult topics like abuse and even sexual assault, a suicide, those kinds of things. How was that for you to reveal that information?

Sonia Manzano 

I just think that a life lived is a life full of memories, and I wasn't self conscious about the things that happened to me. They just happened. I observed them. I came to an opinion about them. There's no right or wrong. You know, I shared these experiences with my siblings. And it seems they had different parents. I mean, it was like they had different experiences about the same events. There was a lot of joy. People think that because you live in you know, your poor, and you live in a poor neighborhood in New York, it's all misery. There's pockets of joy that keep you, that keep you going. There was a lot of music in my family and and I didn't consciously say, "Oh look, we had fun too." But I guess those are the things that I gravitated to because of who I am.

Cheraine Stanford  

You've also talked about just watching television as a child. You mentioned some of those shows in the 50s. What did television provide for you?

Sonia Manzano 

Well, it was kind of I felt like I was looking through a hole out into the bigger world. Into this white, black and white world. I didn't know where it was. I didn't know who those people were. Where they went to school. You know, it started out with learning to read with Dick and Jane books. They were little blonde kids and and they lived in a suburb. And the father went to work in a suit and the mother stayed home. Everything was the opposite. Christmas, Santa Claus came down, you know, you woke up Christmas morning, "Yay, presents!" In my house, we were out partying all night on Nochebuena. You know, I got to thinking we better get home or Santa is never gonna get in, you know. No, we're gonna not give an opportunity to get to the house. So everything was opposite. And television, you know, there was stories. I love the stories that television gave us. I mean, they were always happy stories. Father Knows Best. There was order. He always had the answer. You know, Leave it to Beaver, they had the answers too. It was an organized society. And it was my world was like, tumultuous. I liked the order of television and the good stories.

Cheraine Stanford  

Yeah. And there's a scene in your memoir that stood out to me, where you describe seeing Westside Story for the first time and feeling overwhelming emotion and feeling like there was possibility. But what was it about the show that gave you that feeling?

Sonia Manzano 

Oh, my goodness, my Miss Shirley Pellman took me to see West Side Story. And there I am having a nervous breakdown. And when I saw the images in that movie, and what it was, I realized now I mean, I started to cry I was overwhelmed, is that I saw the banal things in my neighborhood exalted. Like, the school yard fence wasn't a school yard fence, it was like a Matisse or something, you know. The fire hydrant was photographed as this challenge for this boy to jump over. The roof was this glorious place. Now these are things I saw every day in my life, but I never saw them beautiful. And I kind of can add to that. That is sort of like when you walk, go to the museum, and you see a painting of some rotting flowers. And generations and generations look at this painting of rotting flowers. And why? It's such a banal thing. We've all had rotting flowers on our table. Why is it gorgeous? Because this artist, you know, this impressionist artist, painted it in such a way that gave it expression. And I think that deep down, that's the thing that struck me and I said, "there's beauty everywhere."

Cheraine Stanford  

You're pretty open about having grown up in a household where your father was abusive to your mother and your perceptions of that, as a child. The way you write about it in your memoir, it's really from a child's perspective. Did writing the book in that way, also help you with doing the work that you're doing now of helping people learn how to talk to children about challenging topics?

Sonia Manzano 

I suppose so you know. Writing the book, of course, gave myself a little bit of therapy because I confronted the fact that it's not a black and white world. I loved my father and felt sorry for him, even as I was angry with him. I enjoyed my mother's company. She would make me laugh, even as I was angry with her for tolerating this situation. And that you feel two things at the same time is probably one of the hardest aspects of living for very young children. But there it is, and it happens all the time. So you know, in my books, a simple book, like a A Box Full of Kittens, the little girl misses her big opportunity, but in the end, find something joyful in....it gives her something joyful. So it's two things at once, and I try to get that across in a simple way.

Cheraine Stanford  

How did you begin writing and why has that become such an important part of your career?

Sonia Manzano 

Well, frankly, I saw that I was not as prominent on Sesame Street as I was as I got older. And younger people came in, they had to come in and I was on the show for so long, and they weren't using me that much, but I still had a lot of creative energy. And then Frank McCourt wrote Angela's Ashes. And I was stunned by that book. They had pathos in it. I love pathos, sad and happy at the same time. I loved that it made me laugh and I felt so much for these people. For this, the most terrible Irish upbringing you could possibly think of was still funny. So I thought "hey, I have misery in my life and I can be funny. Alright, I'll write No Dogs Allowed. And I started to write a picture books like that. And there you are. I just....the short answer is I had a lot of creative energy ,writing as you know, you don't need a group. It not television, or trying to make a movie, or being in a play, you can just do it by yourself?

Cheraine Stanford  

Yeah. If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU, I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guest is actress and author, Sonia Manzano. Why do you think it's important to talk to kids about race and racism, especially right now?

Sonia Manzano 

Well, especially because right now, you know, it's in our faces. Everybody sees it everywhere. Kids notice these things. I noticed these things when I was a kid. You know, in my own culture, there was always one attitude about the light skinned Puerto Ricans and a different attitude about dark skinned Puerto Ricans. As a matter of fact, I had a light skinned, Puerto Rican, a light skinned cousin. And I used to worry that if we were in the south during the bus boycotts, I'd have to sit in the back and he'd have to sit in the front, and then I wouldn't know when to get off [laugh]. So there I am dealing with racial identity and being lost in the south. So I know that kids really think about these things. And you know, why is it important, we just have to keep doing it. We can't sort of keep shooting ourselves in the foot by repeating history. It's gone through so many changes how you deal with kids. Sesame Street just showed it. Showed diverse people living together, never calling attention to it. Five years into that, the show decided to actually talk about "this is my skin, look at my beautiful skin. These are my eyes look at...". You know and actually point up the differences and say how we're different. And there's always those two schools of thought in children's education. Just show it, everybody living together. I guess those two trains of thought can work simultaneously, if you watch Street Gang, There's a wonderful part in that documentary about Roosevelt Franklin, the first black puppet that was created for the show. And he was a big success. But he didn't fulfill all the hopes and dreams of all African Americans in the United States. This poor little puppet. So some people liked him, some didn't. So they had to get rid of him. And Dolores Robinson, Matt Robinson's wife, says in the documentary, there's this whole sense of, you know, not bringing calling attention to race. At that time on Sesame Street, she said, "why? kids, black kids know they're black, why not say it? So that's that way? Or the other way is, let's not say it, let's present, just people working together, and being together. So I think they have to work hand in hand. I, you know, I think you do point it out. And you don't point it out in various projects.

Cheraine Stanford  

What are some lessons you think you've learned over time on Sesame Street, and then also in your work after about talking to children about difficult issues?

Sonia Manzano 

I think you have to face it, I think you have to let them know, as much as you know. For example, COVID. Let them know or the pandemic. That you don't know exactly what the answer is, because it does keep changing. And they are aware that it keeps changing. And the best thing you could say about the pandemic to kids is like we're all in this together. And we're gonna solve this together. You're not alone. Because once you say, "don't worry about it, it's not a problem." You're separating yourself from them because they know it's a problem. So the best thing to do is we're going to solve it together. And I can equate it to once again, my childhood when my mother went to work, and I thought she went to work because she didn't want to be with us. And I asked her, "why do you go to work?" Mostly, most mothers stayed home in those days. She was the only one working in a factory. And she said, "If I didn't go to work, we couldn't make ends meet." Well, all of a sudden, I felt like part of the tribe. It was like, "Oh, I got this. I'm part of the family now and I know and i can i can participate!" If she had said, Oh, I don't know, some sweetened answer, it would have been worse. I felt better being part of the tribe. So I think about race or the pandemic. Just say everybody's traumatized by it.

Cheraine Stanford  

You mentioned the documentary Street Gang. It's called Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. You're featured in that. What was that like to be a part of that and get to relive some of those memories?

Sonia Manzano 

I loved that I relived in Street Gang, the artistry of it. That, you know, we kind of got into we forget that because it's educational television and you're teaching the lesson and yada yada yada and all of that is true, that these were artists that came together in the perfect storm. It was Jim Henson saying that he was intrigued by using commercial techniques to teach like, you know, "buy this car this car is the best for you." It was like "Use your letters and numbers. It's the best way to get across." you know, doing it like that was hilarious. It was satirical. It was blunt. And Joan Cooney said, "the people who run the world know how to read, therefore, we should teach kids to read." It was so simple, and pure, and of course satirical. And it's like it was like that, the documentary reminded me of that. Think of The Beatles you know, separately they're great musicians, but together....boom! That's how Sesame Street was at that time. The perfect storm. Jim Henson, Jon Stones, Dulcy Singer, Joe Raposo, I mean, it was just....Sonia Manzano [laugh].

Cheraine Stanford  

Yes, let's not forget Sonia Monzano. [laugh]

Sonia Manzano 

Let's not forget [laugh].

Cheraine Stanford  

I want to talk about the new PBS Kids show, Alma's Way, how did you get the idea for that show?

Sonia Manzano 

Oh, thank you for asking me about that. Quickly, PBS asked me to create a family Latin, ya know, Latin family show. And then I made it more specific and made it a Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx, because that's my history. And then the theme of the show was left up to me. And I noticed that a lot of young kids, they don't like school. And they were....parents were coming up to the me saying "my kid hates school, what should I do?" And I say like," well, what grade is your kid in"... "The third grade." I'm thinking, "what's not to like in the third grade!" And what I noticed is that they're expected to, we expect a lot from them. We want them to memorize. We want them to regurgitate information, not six months before their peers or six months after, but at the same moment, as their peers. We test them constantly. Some don't speak English, some have problems at home. There's 32 kids in the classroom. So they're thinking that they're stupid. So my theme of the show is to teach kids, you have a mind, you can get information anyplace. But you have a mind and you can use it and you could put two and two together in your own way. So in Alma's Way, she always has a moment in each show where she says, "I have to think about this." And then we see the thought process in a thought bubble. And then she comes up with her solution. And it's as simple as that. That's what I want kids to know. And I'm thrilled that it is in my Bronx environment. I am full circle. I'm going back home.

Cheraine Stanford  

What other elements of yourself are as a child or your neighborhood are in the show?

Sonia Manzano 

Well, I told you I mentioned before, I had a light skinned cousin. He's in the show as a character named Eddie Mambo. My cousin, Eddie Gua Gua' Rivera, is a bass player for salsa. And so...I knew a kid who had polio when I was little and loved to dance. And he was so bold. He would lock his braces and just move around, move the top of his body around. So Eddie Mambo was a combination of my cousin and this boy. There was a junior in my family. My brother was a junior, so there's a junior in it. You know, I had an insane aunt, so there's this crazy wild aunt in the story too. So it's the family. It's very Latin to have a close relationship with a cousin. So I put that in. Now of course the show is updated, so it's current. So there's a lot. There's a Bangladeshi family in it. There's an Afro American family. When I was a kid, everybody was Puerto Rican in the neighborhood and it was nobody else. But now updated, there's a lot of other people in this Bronx neighborhood. If you go now, which you will see.

Cheraine Stanford  

So what has it been like to develop a show like this from scratch?

Sonia Manzano 

Oh, it's a long process. Animation is a different world for me. I'm used to live action where you do it on the spot. Uh, you know, you'll see, you'll read a script and not see it on its feet in an animated version for six months. You go, "Oh wait, what happened? Could I say okay to that?" So it's a long process. You have to think ahead because once it's locked, it's locked. Once they record the voices, the animation has to follow suit. But it's very exciting. The music is a little hip hop, a little salsa, a little rap. [Theme music from Almas's Way plays]. All of those things that are in the Bronx because you know what I mean? the Bronx is in the house now. This is like such a popular borough. When I was a kid I used to, I used to moan that I didn't live in El Barrio because that to me was Puerto Rican Central. I wanted to live where my grandmother lived. Because you could get fried food that people would sell off of carts in the street, way back then. So then I said, "Why do we have to live in the Bronx, you can't eat anything off the street up here?" But now the Bronx is in the house. And I'm happy that Fred Rogers productions is, you know, willing to go along with me on this idea.

Cheraine Stanford  

But do you hope children who are sitting and watching this television show, as you were sitting and watching television when you were a kid, What do you hope that they will take from Alma's Way?

Sonia Manzano 

I hope that kids watch Alma's Way will trust themselves, will trust what they think, and what they see, and what they bring to the table. How many of us look at kids and say, "Where did you get such an idea?!" They got it from the way they see things. And before we suppress that, I want them to be proud of the way they see things.

Cheraine Stanford  

Sonia, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Sonia Manzano 

Well, thank you my pleasure.

Cheraine Stanford  

Sonia Manzano is an author and actress best known for her role as Maria on Sesame Street. Since leaving the show in 2015, after more than 40 years, she's written several books, including her memoir Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, and several young adult and children's books. She's the creator of a new animated PBS show called Alma's Way, which follows the experiences of six year old Alma Rivera, a Puerto Rican girl who lives in the Bronx and models empathy and problem solving for viewers. Alma's Way begins airing on WPSU on October 4. I'm Cheraine Stanford, WPSU

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