Since 1971 Sonia Manzano has been one of the lucky residents of Sesame Street. As Maria, she guided Big Bird, Elmo, and the rest of the gang through life lessons large and small. After 44 years Manzano recently announced her retirement, but her dedication to help kids continues.
Manzano’s new memoir Becoming Maria is a poignant and difficult book meant for teens and adults. In it, she tells her own story of growing up in a Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx in the ’50s and ’60s. There was love, but also violence brought on by her father’s drinking.
She tells NPR’s David Greene that when her father used to become violent toward her mother her brothers would find a place to hide, but she would try to intervene. “I found myself always being in the middle of them — trying to protect her,” she says.
On how her mom used to hide the knives from her father
She would discreetly put the knives in the oven and I’d say, “Why are you putting the knives in the oven, Mom?” And she’d say, “Oh, no reason at all.” But as a kid, I’m thinking: are we going to get hurt? Is there a possibility that he’s going to use the knives? So it was all this kind of confusing take on what was going on.
On how she felt she needed to have “a sense of humor” about her family situation
I think it was a way of dealing with it. When the furniture would be broken — because my father would throw the chairs around and destroy the coffee table — my sister would say, “Look at this, this is great! We’re going to have all new furniture by Monday morning!” Which we did. It was this complete cycle of violence, hope, violence, hope.
On trying to understand what led her father to become abusive
My mother would tell me these stories about Puerto Rico during the depression — the poverty, the unrelenting struggle to find something to eat … she was one of five orphans. And one of her brothers said to me, “We used to hang around someone’s house, and if they gave us a scrap to eat, we’d stay.” You know how dogs stay around if you throw them a bone? And she would tell me these horrible stories and she would say that my father had gone through similar things. He never shared that.
On whether she feels forgiveness toward her father
I had an interview yesterday with somebody and I found myself almost defending my father, which — I’m not doing that. … I’m not going to defend that kind of behavior. But to understand something, I don’t know if it means you forgive it or condone it. But, understanding something is important. And to behave that way I can only imagine that his upbringing was very miserable.
On how she connected with Sesame Street as a comforting, safe escape for children
I found a lot of comfort on television when I was a kid. I would love Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. So I think it’s interesting that I ended up on a show that offered a bit of comfort to children who lived in the inner city. And it was better than Father Knows Best because it was in an environment that they recognized. Here was a moment, an hour, where there’s order, where there’s humor, where there’s love in a place that looks like your home.
On the first time she saw Sesame Street
I walked into the student union at Carnegie Mellon University, and there on that television screen was a very young, very bald James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet. A … B … C … This very deliberate … very deliberate manner and the letters flashed over his head. And I said, “What is this?” I thought it was a show that taught lip reading or something like that.
And then I saw the Street. And that’s when I flipped. Susan and Gordon, this beautiful black couple from tenement doors, the trashcans were like the trashcans in my neighborhood, Mr. Hooper’s store was just like the Jewish store owner on Third Avenue. And then they went to this zany — I think it was Wanda, the Witch. For the letter W with this crazy narration! And I remember [I] thought: I could do that!
On one moment that stands out for her from her 44 years on Sesame Street
There’s so many, there’s so many. …. There was a moment when Stevie Wonder came on to Sesame Street and he did “Very Superstitious.” … The whole studio rocked out and it was great because, white people, black people, young people, old people — everybody was on the same page for that two minutes that he sang and that really stands out. …
It was a moment of clarity, I think that you know, we started this show, we thought we were going to end racism, we were going to close the education gap. … We had big dreams! And moments like Stevie being on the show gave us a glimpse of the way things could be.