‘I became what I needed to see myself as a kid’: ‘Sesame Street’ star Sonia Manzano reflects on Latinx representation in TV

There have been many cast changes on Sesame Street decades, but kids could always count on at least one beloved character: Maria, played by Sonia Manzano for 44 years.

And while it was a role she was excited to play from the start, it’s not one she expected it to be so permanent—mainly because it was so popular, she thought it would crash and burn.

“I was cast in the third year as Maria,” Manzano told Yahoo of the role she played from 1971 to 2015. “I didn’t think it was going to last at all. By the time I moved on, it was [being satirized] Feather Saturday Night Live,” she misses, and is featured on tonight show. “They’re the top shows in the media, they’re the top experiences you can have. I thought it was about to end.”

during his tenure Sesame Street, Manzano also won 15 Emmy Awards for writing the script, which allowed her to channel her passion for children’s storytelling—something that began when she was just a child in the Bronx, through her turbulent home life and neighborhood. To navigate vanished in her imagination. Now, those early experiences have inspired Manzano to create a new animated children’s series: Alma’s way

“I just remember going into my mind and running away, and saving myself there, and taking refuge there. That’s all I’m bringing in.” Alma’s way, because it’s a show about a little girl who thinks, which at times goes through her mind,” Manzano explains.

Born and raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Manzano was one of the first Latina actresses on television. Growing up, she remembers watching shows like father Knows Best And leave it to Beaver, but never seen anyone who looked like him.

“The fact that you weren’t reflected in the media or the world made you feel invisible,” Manzano says. “I think I became what I needed to see as a kid, and I think that’s why I was successful as Maria.”

Sonia Manzano 'Maria' on Sesame Street (Photo: Everett)

Sonia Manzano as Maria On Sesame Street. (Photo: Everett)

Part of becoming Maria encouraged Manzano to become more of himself. she was just 21 when she took the job Sesame Street, And there was one proud New Yorker—a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent—who had never been to Puerto Rico. When a writer on the show announced that his character was born on Maria Island, Manzano decided to speak up. “I thought, don’t let me say anything because if they think I’m from the island I’ll be more authentic. And then I said, wait a minute, what’s that about? What’s wrong with calling you a Nuyorican ‘You’re the one, you have to embrace yourself. Once I did that, I felt powerful, I could contribute to the show, I said it’s like that in my neighborhood,'” Manzano recalls.

“Remember,” she adds, “that if you don’t accept who you are, you’re going to fail.”

producers on Sesame Street Wanted to give Manzano a more natural look by encouraging less makeup. “I said, ‘I understand it now,’ and stopped straightening my hair and trying to fit what I thought was a cool little TV actor.”

when it comes to character creation Alma’s Way, Now airing on PBS KIDS, Manzano wanted to inject that same level of authenticity. The series is centered around 6-year-old Alma Rivera, a smart and confident little girl, lives in the Bronx with her family among a diverse group of close friends and community members. ready for ages 4 to 6, Alma’s way Encourages children to express themselves, show empathy and seek answers on their own.

Almas Way (Photo: Fred Rogers Productions)

a view of Alma’s way (Photo: Fred Rogers Productions)

“It’s all about the thinking, that’s the main thing—but as seen through the lens of this family, as is their culture,” she says. “I made them Nuyorican, Puerto Rican, because that’s what I am.”

Through food, language and music, Alma’s way Explores different aspects of Latino culture. In one episode, Alma tries to make mofongo, A traditional Puerto Rican dish. In another, Alma learns to dance the Bomba, a traditional Afro-Puerto Rican dance.

“It’s probably one of the few times that people are going to look at Afro-Latinos,” Manzano says. “Alma’s father is Afro-Puerto Rican, her grandfather is a little lighter. All the characters, I want them to be like a buffet of humanity.”

Latinx representation on TV has increased since Maria’s debut Sesame Street. Still, it’s nowhere near where it should be: While Latinos make up more than 18 percent of the population, they made up only 5.3 percent of the share of broadcast TV roles in the 2018-19 season. 2020 UCLA “Hollywood Diversity Report.”

So it makes sense that Manzano sees plenty of room for more. During Hispanic Heritage Month, the actor and screenwriter hopes Alma’s Way Will inspire other creators to share their original stories with the world.

“There are more stories to be told. Lena Waithe said, ‘The doors open a little, they let some people in and then they close the door again. And we get a story.’ “We need a lot more,” Manzano says. “And people will be interested in many more stories.”

— Produced by Video Jackie Cosgrove

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