Interesting piece by Daniel José Older on Sonia Manzano, who played María on Sesame Street. Raised in the Bronx, Manzano—described in the article as “proudly brown and representing Nuyorican excellence in all its glory—was inspired by her Puerto Rican family. She attended the High School of Performing Arts, where she began acting, and was a Carnegie Mellon student when she was hired on Sesame Street. Hats off to Sonia Manzano!
It would be easy to call Sonia Manzano’s upcoming retirement from Sesame Street the end of an era – and in a way it is: Manzano’s semi-autobiographical character Maria has graced public television’s screens for 44 years, brightening the lives of millions of children over several generations and changing television forever. It’s that change that makes this moment feel less like an ending and more like a graceful transition into the next chapter.
Manzano, then a 21-year-old Carnegie Mellon student, walked into the Sesame Street audition in the early 70s, amidst the turmoil and excitement of civil rights and Vietnam war protests. The world was changing and Sesame Street, then only a few years old, was speaking to that change on TV screens across America. “I had never seen people of color on television,” Manzano told CBS last year. “And that was like whoa! This show is really in your face and outrageous.” She went on to become an integral part of the multicultural neighborhood, as well as one of the lead writers, garnering 15 Emmys over the next four decades.
Manzano’s gift to us, the power of her presence, lies in the fullness of Maria’s humanity. While still being proudly brown and representing Nuyorican excellence in all its glory, Maria never became a caricature, never boxed herself into the facile images of Latinos that American television sometimes still offers up. She slipped easily in and out of Spanish and English, celebrated her culture lovingly, became a feminist, worked as a repair woman, got married and had a baby, and, perhaps most importantly, aged – all before our eyes. She doesn’t ham at the camera or condescend to the kids and muppets: theirs is a relationship of mutual respect and admiration.
In a Sesame Street segment from 1994, Oscar the Grouch sprays Maria with Disappear-O, turning her invisible. She shrieks, demanding to be seen again. It takes help from her husband Luis and a blast of water from Oscar’s pet elephant to get her back to normal, but the power of that moment – the fight to be seen – is what Manzano’s career is all about: “I’m Puerto Rican, born in New York, watched a lot of television in 50s, never saw anybody who looked like me on television, and thereby began to feel invisible … and I wondered, how was I going to contribute to a society that didn’t see me?”
The answer to that question came in the form of her decades long career. “Now, my position here on Sesame Street,” Manzano said, “is so that other Hispanic children can watch me and say ‘Oh look, I exist in the world.’” We did see her, millions of us, and saw ourselves in her: a fully formed and emotionally complex human surrounded by a loving community, and because she was who she was, we knew we could be who we were. [. . .]