Millions know Sonia Manzano as Sesame Street neighbor and friendly Fix-It Shop owner Maria. Now, the Emmy-winning actress and children’s book author reveals a different — and darker — side of herself following her retirement from the show, opening up about her turbulent upbringing with her new YA memoir, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx. She speaks to EW about getting personal, growing up, and giving back.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve published several children’s books, but this is your first foray into non-fiction. What stands out as the biggest difference between those two genres?
SONIA MANZANO: A lot. [Laughs] If you’re writing a piece of fiction and you want to grease up the story, you can make up an explosion or something. But when you’re writing a memoir, you have be true to real life situations, which don’t always follow a dramatic storyline. Sometimes they just drone on and one. And so, you know, finding a narrative that moved the anecdotes of my life forward was the challenge.
Tell me a little bit about the title you choose, Love and Chaos in the South Bronx.
There was affection and humor in [my childhood]. There was artistry. [My family] had a capacity for beauty, but the same time they lived in this chaotic, cyclical lifestyle that didn’t seem to have any end. So if you put those two things together, you might think, ‘Well how can a family be humorous, love each other and look after each other and be so violent in a way that the children are afraid of their well-being?’ That’s the dichotomy of it, that these two things are going on at the same time. And when you’re a kid, you see things as the good guys and bad guys. It’s either one or the other. I thought I would examine that.
In the book, you open up about the physical abuse and poverty that surrounded your childhood. Did that experience shape your approach towards playing Maria on Sesame Street?
Well, I think that I am the smiling face. I was always that. That wasn’t put on. I did find a sense of humor, but I think that the dark side is part of me too. I think I became Maria because of that dark side. I used to watch a lot of television as a kid. I found it an escape from the craziness going on around me. I’d look at Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best. I think because I found order through television, I became the best Maria I could be. I knew there were kids watching Sesame Street that were looking for calm in an environment that looked like their environment. I saw it as a sanctuary for inner city kids to tune in and see people like themselves that were not chaotic.
What was your favorite childhood experience that you revisited in these pages?
How I felt when I saw West Side Story [for the first time]. I think at the time, I was depressed. Now, we didn’t use that term back in those days. We didn’t even use the words ‘upset’ or ‘stressed.’ But I think I was depressed, and when I saw that movie I woke up. It was the first time I saw a crappy neighborhood like mine look so beautiful. The graffiti was beautiful and the schoolyard was gorgeous. It looked like a modern art painting. The colors were lush. I think that’s what art is. I couldn’t articulate it then, but that’s what I felt.
Were you influenced by any particular writers in tackling a memoir for the first time?
I was quite inspired by When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago. When I read that, I thought ‘Oh my god, there other people that are like me—Puerto Ricans in New York.’ Another great inspiration to me was Frank McCourt. Angela’s Ashes inspired me to write my first picture book, No Dogs Allowed, because it introduced this idea of being able to write about terrible things and make the reader laugh. One title we didn’t end up using for the book was Knives in the Oven. My sister would tell my mother, ‘Don’t worry, Ma. You’ll get all new furniture on Saturday.’ Because my father would tear up the furniture, and she’d get new furniture to replace it. That’s finding humor in a ridiculous and dangerous situation.
You spend a lot of time in your memoir reflecting on physical abuse: The nature it can take and how it can affect people. How has that experienced shaped you even now, and was it painful to revisit that?
It was painful. You can’t make up for a lost childhood. Both my parents are dead now but I used to talk to my mother and say, ‘Why did you allow this to go on? How could you justify this?’ And she’d say, ‘Well, I figured you’d grow up and you’d understand.’ And my father said, ‘What do you mean, what was going on?’ [Laughs] It was just sort of like, I’ve learned you can’t know what drives people. As a child, you like things black and white. You hit, therefore you’re the bad guy. Now I know it was a whole world of issues. There are no easy answers, and the complexities of people and their relationships are endless. You cannot know what drives people.
Your story exemplifies the American Dream—that when odds are against you, if you persist and work hard, you can make it to the top. Do you still believe that dream is possible?
I think you can make something out of any life. As a matter of fact, another title I was considering for my book was Make Something of It. Because when you had a fight in the schoolyard, you’d confront someone by saying ‘You wanna make something of it? Yeah, make me.’ I thought, ‘I’m going to make something of this life.’ I do believe that. I don’t think you can necessarily make it to the top, that you’re going to be a great actor or writer or artist or whatever, but you can make something out of your life.
You place a lot of emphasis on specific places throughout your text, like Bronx and Puerto Rico. Do you have a favorite place where you go to write?
Oh, no. I can write pretty much anywhere. I can write at airports, in the kitchen with the TV on. I can write anywhere. It’s not this precious thing. You know, I came late to it because there was no literature, no paper or pencils in my house growing up. Writing was something smart, intellectual people did. Not us dummies. When I started writing, I needed a tutorial to write a thank you note. [Laughs] When I went to college, I had never learned how to write an essay. I barely knew how to write a paragraph. I didn’t know the difference between an opening sentence and a closing sentence. That stuff was just not taught. The discrepancy between my education from the Bronx going to a college for the performing arts was huge. And so, writing came late to me. When I started writing on Sesame Street, I was writing dialogue and short scenes. I would write a sentence and I would say to my husband, who was an English major, ‘What do you think of this paragraph? Look at this!’
You’re very open about how growing up, your exposure to the arts and literature were limited. What’s one classic book you’ve been meaning to tackle?
I must be the last person to read How To Kill a Mockingbird. I was with some friends, and I said ‘You know, I just read that book.’ And they said ‘Didn’t you read that in high school?’ I didn’t know that there was required reading in school—I honestly don’t remember reading anything. And I just read The Great Gatsby. That was a good one.
As an actress, would you ever be interested in working on a film or television adaptation of your story?
Oh sure, that would be wonderful.
Who would you want to play you?
Oscar Isaac. [Laughs] He’s wonderful.
What does life look like for you post-Sesame Street?
I think I’m going to do more writing. I want to do more picture books. And I want to make sure that diverse books are always in print.