Sesame Street actress speaks to university

Lauren Rathmell

Students gathered in Franklin hall Thursday to meet with Sonia Manzano before her closing presentation at the State of the State conference, where she spoke about her hardships as a child turning her into an icon.

Manzano, best known for her 44 year long run as Maria on Sesame Street, has won 15 Emmy’s and penned two books.

While speaking to the students, Manzano recalled what it was like growing up in the 60s in New York as a Puerto Rican.

“I turned to television as a child,” Manzano said. “But what I was watching, I never saw myself represented.”

Popular TV shows like “Leave it To Beaver” showcased the perfectly normal white middle class families, a family much different than Manzano’s.

“[On television] these families were in houses. I lived in a tenement. I’d see these mothers preparing breakfast for their children, my breakfast was milky coffee and bread,” Manzano said. “The fathers dressed in suits on their way to work, my father wore overalls.”

Manzano’s road to fame was shared at the closing session of the conference, fitting the theme for this year’s State of the State conference, “Understanding our Past, Embracing our Future: The Intersections of Identity and Change.”

For Manzano, Sesame Street was the first time she saw herself and her life represented on television.

“I remember, I was in the student union at Carnegie Mellon University and on the TV there was James Earl Jones, reciting the alphabet in a very pronounced way with letters popping up above his head,” Manzano said. “And then I saw Susan and Gordon, the African American couple. He was so handsome, she was so beautiful.”

Manzano recognized the set of the show, stoops in a New York neighborhood just like Harlem—like in the neighborhoods Manzano grew up.

“Maria came about because there were Latino’s on the west coast saying, ‘we need more representation,’” Manzano said. “And the writers and producers listened to that.”

“The role of Maria was very much like playing myself,” Manzano said. “When I fell in love, Maria fell in love. When I got married, Maria got married. When I had a baby, Maria had a baby.”

Manzano said in order to embrace her success in life, she had to understand her past, much like the theme of the conference.

“The examination of my journey to Sesame Street, the desire to know where I went right and where I went wrong, there were so many paths that I could have taken, resulted in this book,” Manzano said.

Her memoir, Becoming Maria, shares the story of a young Sonia on her journey to becoming the icon for the Latino community on Sesame Street.

“People are often praised for overcoming difficult childhoods on their way to success,” Manzano said. “I would suggest that you can use a difficult childhood to aid you in being successful. I didn’t become Maria on Sesame Street in spite of my childhood, I became her because of my childhood.”

Lauren Rathmell is a diversity reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].