Sonia Manzano, the beloved writer and actress best known as Maria from Sesame Street, has a presence so familiar it’s strange to think we’ve never actually met. Without thinking, I hug her “hello” like she's a relative, someone I’ve known since before I can remember—forgetting for a second that to her, I’m a stranger.She hugs me back anyway—then cracks a joke about the coffee shop where we’re sitting: “Café Grumpy, what a funny name. Great place to meet Oscar the Grouch!”Manzano played Maria for 44 years on Sesame Street, guiding generations of kids through everything from the alphabet to feminism to 9/11—so she’s used to awkwardly impassioned greetings from fans. Sometimes they’re funny (“You were my girlfriend!”) and sometimes they’re sad (“I was abused as a child but when I watched you for that hour every day, I was comforted.”)And sometimes they’re mind-boggling. “I’ve heard Anglos from the Midwest say, ‘You were the first Latina I ever knew’ and I think, ‘Wait a second, there’s no Latin people out in the Midwest?’” she says. “Then I think what they really mean is I was the first one they saw as a real human being. And so that’s very gratifying.”Manzano, 65, unwittingly prompted a day of mourning on social media in July when she casually broke the news of her Sesame Street retirement to a group of librarians from the American Library Association. She had made the decision in between the show’s 45th and 46th seasons, which means there will be no onscreen goodbye to Maria. “I just sort of fade off into the distance,” Manzano says, laughing.
Sudden as the announcement felt to us, leaving Sesame Street was a move Manzano had been planning for years—she just hadn’t gotten around to picking a date. But with fewer episodes and fewer human-driven segments being produced each season, along with an ever-expanding cast of Muppets, she had begun to feel that there was “less to go around” for each cast member.“I still had a lot of creative energy,” she says. “That’s why I segued into writing.”Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx is Manzano’s first memoir, a poignant coming-of-age chronicle of her childhood in the South Bronx in the ’50s and ’60s. Much of the book focuses on her Puerto Rican parents’ turbulent—and often violent—relationship. She describes difficult moments, like watching her father drunkenly smash all the furniture in their tiny apartment’s living room and seeing the black eyes and bruises he would leave on her mother. In one chapter, she watches him beat her mother with a broken table leg.Manzano and her father stayed estranged for many years during her adult life, but she visited him while writing the book to reacquaint herself with the man who shaped so much of her childhood. “It’s funny,” she says. “He was unaware of the effect that that life had on me. He said, ‘Oh, that was between me and your mother. I still love her, you know.’ He stopped drinking, which was remarkable to me. He had a new wife and had stopped drinking.”She hasn’t necessarily forgiven her father, but Manzano says she understands him now more than ever before. “When I hear these horrible stories of poverty that my father and mother lived through in Puerto Rico and this harsh environment where people were so cold-hearted…you say, ‘Well, no wonder he strengthened.’ You get kind of a new perspective,” she says. “It doesn’t mean I forgive [what he did], or that it’s OK. It’s not OK. But you can’t ‘make up’ your childhood. Once it’s gone, it’s gone and you’re not gonna get it back if somebody says, ‘I’m really sorry about what happened.’”
The memoir ends on the day of Manzano’s Sesame Street audition in 1971, two years after catching her first glimpse of the show as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University. “There was James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet and I said, ‘My gosh. Is this about lip-reading?’” she laughs. “The words were so deliberate and the letters were flashing over his head. Then they showed the street and I said, ‘My goodness, that looks just like my neighborhood.’ And there were black people on television!”Manzano’s audition consisted of telling a scary story and explaining, as if to a 4-year-old, which two shapes on a chalkboard were identical. She was pleased that producers didn't ask her to perform the stereotypes that actresses of color were (and still are) often asked to reflect onscreen.“Every other job that I went up for, I had to have an accent or act older than I was so I could be the maid. Or I would get sent up [to play] the sassy black girl,” Manzano says, snapping her fingers sarcastically. “But here was a show that said, ‘We just want you to be yourself so that children in the inner-city neighborhoods who are watching you will have someone to relate to.”Manzano helped overhaul Sesame Street’s then-rudimentary bilingual segments (characterized as “patronizing” by some Hispanic activists at the time). She piped up so often with suggestions for improvement that Dulcy Singer, Sesame Street’s first female executive producer, asked her to start writing for the show. Manzano has since won 15 Emmys for her writing on Sesame Street.
A part of her misses those earliest of sunny days when she says there was a sense of camaraderie among the show’s writers and actors who still believed in the counterculture spirit of the ’60s. “We were going to change the world,” she says, smiling wryly. “We were going to eradicate racism, we were gonna close the education gap and help inner-city kids start school on the same level as their peers—we were young and very idealistic and everybody had a platform in those days.”“You know, when I first met Emilio Delgado [who plays Maria’s husband, Luis],” she continues, “I didn’t know he was an actor because every time you saw him, he’d pin a ‘Boycott Grapes’ button on you. He was part of that movement. Actors had a platform in those days. Now it’s a different time.”Different indeed: Sesame Workshop announced a five-year deal with HBO last month that will allow new Sesame Street episodes to air on the premium cable channel nine months before they move to PBS. As a tradeoff, HBO will finance 35 episodes a season (up from just 18), along with extra Muppet-related content and new Sesame Street spinoffs.But the move prompted a flurry of concern about shifting Sesame Street's focus away from the kids who need it most: low-income students. An Elmo education is almost as beneficial in the academic long term as attending the federal pre-kindergarten program Head Start, according to a study published in June. The effects are especially pronounced in economically disadvantaged children.
Manzano sees the HBO move as simply a sign of the times.“If I was gonna criticize anyone [about that], it’s not gonna be Sesame Street,” she says. “It’s gonna be the coarse and uncompassionate society we live in now. Nobody wants to help the other guy.”“I’d be sadder if it had to go off the air,” she surmises.Manzano, meanwhile, has set her sights on helping bring a children’s museum to the Bronx, the only borough in New York City without one.And when she wants, she can reminisce: Her favorite years on the show were in the ’80s—the “golden years of Sesame Street,” she says—when her personal life closely mirrored Maria’s. Two years after Manzano married conservationist Richard Reagan, Maria married Fix-It Shop owner Luis. When Manzano became pregnant with her now-27-year-old daughter, Gabriela, Maria also became pregnant—and the real-life Gaby played her TV daughter for several years. (She’s now a yoga instructor.)Then there was the day Manzano walked into the show’s Manhattan studio and found Lena Horne singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” with Kermit the Frog in 1974. “Are they singing about what I think they’re singing about?” Manzano recalls thinking. “I saw it as a song about race and other people did too. But a kid might just see it as a song about Kermit! That was a time when you could do nuanced things for kids on television. Now I think a lot of the shows wanna know [things like], ‘How many words did you learn today?’ Data. Numbers and data.”The Sesame Street cast’s sob-inducing goodbye to Mr. Hooper is another favorite of Manzano’s, especially the scene’s straight-shooting explanation of death to a confused and devastated Big Bird. “Just give ’em a straight answer,” Manzano says. “Don’t underestimate kids, don’t give them a glossy version of things. On their level, they can comprehend much more.”