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“Everybody calls me Maria,” says Sonia Manzano. After all, the actress has played Maria on Sesame Street for the last 44 years.
“Grown people who were raised on the show recognize me more [than children do],” she told EW last week following the announcement of her retirement from the series. “I love when they recognize me, but it does upset me when they start to cry, which happens a lot.”
Probably because they remember when Manzano’s sweet Maria helped them learn their letters, or made them laugh, or taught them how to count. And though Manzano won 15 Emmys for her writing on the series and received two acting nominations, she says her proudest achievement is having been one of the first Latina women in a highly visible leading role on television.
“I’m very proud that young Latin women come up to me and say, ‘I never would have gone into broadcasting if I hadn’t seen you on television’—and that has happened a lot,” she says. “I was born in the U.S. and watched a lot of television as a kid and never saw anybody who looked like me, so I knew how lacking that was, and how you could feel invisible.”
Since she started on the show in 1971, the television landscape has become much more diverse. According to Manzano, however, the biggest change on Sesame Street has been the advent of computers. “Now kids can watch whenever they want. They watch the current show or the ancient show if they want.”
That speaks to the series’ timelessness, that children today might watch the same episodes that their parents saw decades ago. “It’s really a remarkable thing, because Americans like to dispose of things,” Manzano says, “but Sesame Street is the one show that keeps going, chugging along, year after year.”
Manzano’s work on Sesame Street has always been deeply personal. “Maria is Sonia Manzano, on purpose,” she says. “When I fell in love, Maria fell in love; when I got pregnant, Maria got pregnant.”
As an actress and a writer, Manzano incorporated her own experience into the portrayal of the character from both angles. The challenge about writing real life into Sesame Street, she says, was “to take those life events find out what was interesting about [them] to a 4-year-old.” For Maria’s wedding to Fix-It Shop owner Luis, for instance, “maybe the 4-year-old only cares about Elmo not dropping the rings, because he was the ring bearer.”
Her favorite nonhuman costar is Oscar the Grouch. “I love him because he’s nuanced, and you can’t tell if you’re talking to an 8-year-old or a 44-year old,” she says, adding that his unflinching pessimism made him the best puppet to write for. “If everybody’s nice, you can’t have any drama! But you could always count on him to be negative,” Manzano says.
Manzano’s memoir, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, hits shelves in September and discusses her childhood, which was far from the gentle calm of Sesame Street. “I believe that I used my childhood to become a success. I’m the perfect Maria because of what I went through as a child,” Manzano says. “I thought Sesame Street was like a little safe haven for kids. They could watch for an hour and relax, and see a very organized world, and a very calm world, and a loving world. And I remembered not having that and wanting to put it in Sesame Street.”
She also has a Christmas-themed picture book, Miracle on 133rd Street, coming out in the fall. Whereas Sesame Street always had to adhere to a specific curriculum, children’s books can be more emotional, and writing them has been another form of memoir for Manzano, who writes happy endings into difficult memories from her own childhood.
Manzano plans to keep writing post-Sesame Street—but will she miss Maria?
“Oh, I think I’ll always be Maria,” Manzano says. “No matter what I do in life, people will always associate me with the show. I think that I could be responsible for world peace, and everybody will say, ‘responsible for world peace—but knew Elmo!’”