By: Kelli Green
On the evening of September 13th, 2016, Sonia Manzano stepped into the VIP room a little after 6:00 p.m. She was dressed in a black dress, red blazer and black and white heels that certainly turned heads. The people in the room welcomed Ms. Manzano, introducing themselves, taking photos and making small talk here and there. I got a chance to get a quick question from Ms. Manzano before the presentation started.
I asked her what was it that she most wanted the audience to take away from her speech that night. She answered, “That they understand how important early childhood is, and how important it is to teach children now to avoid problems in the future.” After thanking her once more for her time, we filed out into the studio and found our seat.
After a short, but wonderfully edited video compilation highlighting her time on Sesame Street, Ms.Jill Hubbs, WSRE’s Director of Educational Content & Services, gave the audience a little introductory information about Ms. Manzano and thanked Gulf Power for sponsoring the event. They also mentioned that not only was Manzano’s visit a part of WSRE’s Public Square Speakers Series, but it was also apart of American Graduate, which is a program that helps keep kids on a path to graduation. As the applause died down she thanked the audience and began to speak.
Manzano told us just how she made it to Sesame Street. She was raised in the South Bronx area of New York City by Puerto Rican parents. She writes about her life and experiences in her memoir, “Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx”. She discusses growing up and dealing with poverty and domestic abuse and how she dealt with it, but she also says that she remembers her childhood as being “wondrous”. She cited her mother as being very supportive of her following her dreams and talent. Manzano attended the famous High School of Performing Arts in New York City , seen in the 1980 film, Fame. She went on to attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she did the play, Godspell in her Junior year.
In reference to her recent retirement on Sesame Street, Manzano laughed and told us that “44 years was long enough for me to wait for Oscar the Grouch to propose. A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do.” Manzano said that the show often felt a bit like a reality show, “But without all the whining.” In fact, the show was even spoofed by Saturday Night Live in a sketch entitled “Reality Street” which was of course much more gritty than any Sesame Street episode; but it’s the thought that counts.
Sesame Street’s goal was and is to be real and relatable for the children watching. Meaning they deal with real issues and situations that children may be going through and not solely their cognitive skills. For instance, when Mr. Hopper passed away, the team considered just telling the children on the show that he moved away or had gotten sick. However, the show’s producer, Dulcy Singer didn’t want to “shortchange” the kids. It was decided that it was necessary that children were shown how to deal with problems such as death.
Sesame street has tackled several issues that kids might be dealing with like staying over in a hospital, bullying and more. There is a co-production of Sesame Street in South Africa that has an HIV-Positive muppet. After the September 11th, terrorist attacks they created a 4-part video titled “You Can Ask,” which dealt with ideas such as loss, prejudice, diversity and the role of firemen. Manzano says that the Muppets were their secret weapon when it came to explaining social issues to the children. Of course, the show handled more joyous occasions in real life too. In 1987 when Sonia became pregnant with her daughter Gabriella, the show decided to marry her character to Luis. The show followed “Maria’s” pregnancy all the way up to the delivery room, which was certainly an interesting experience for the television audience of a children’s show.
She also spoke about the environment behind the scenes of the show. It was after the 60’s and everyone was looking for compassion. She recalled thinking that Emilio Delgado was an activist before she knew he was an actor on the show because he was pinning “Boycott Grapes” buttons on everyone’s shirts in support of the Agricultural labor strikes at the time. Manzano herself has written a book dealing with community activism called The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano which won the 2016 International Latino Book Award. The cast and creators of Sesame Street probably choose to deal with cultural ideas and themes because of their own rich and diverse interests.
The show started with their characters, Susan and Gordon, who helped reach out to African American children. Manzano was added to the show along with Emilio Delgado, who played Luis, to represent the hispanic audience. As mentioned before, representing the diverse audience is a big part of what Sesame Street does. “Not seeing myself reflected in television made me feel invisible,” Manzano recalled, later relating herself to the character in Ralph Ellison’s book “Invisible Man.”
Manzano suggested that the show should do more to reach out and to reflect the hispanic community than just talking about food and music. So, the show encouraged her to write pieces for the show that she thought would help explore the culture. Manzano and Sesame Street’s efforts certainly were not in vain. She has said before that people come up to her and thanked her for being the first hispanic female role-model they ever saw on television. Sonia Manzano has made several appearances in other movies and television shows such as Law and Order: SVU. She has appeared in live theatre productions like The Vagina Monologues. She has written three picture books in addition to the others mentioned. She has written for other television shows and has made several contributions to the world of entertainment. This year, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award for her role on Sesame Street at the 2016 43rd annual Daytime Emmy Awards.
Manzano has served as an inspiration and role-model for several generations of children by teaching them not only their ABC’s, but also how to be friends and showing them that they weren’t alone. Sesame Street was very revolutionary and the night she gave her speech in the WSRE studio, a woman stood up and told Manzano that she watched the show with her son every morning back in the early years of the show. She told her that as a white person in a rural southern town, many of her colleagues tried to discourage her from letting her son watch a show with “all kinds of kids” on it. Manzano nodded and said that when the show started it was banned in many Southern areas. The lady smiled and thanked her for being a part of a show that was necessary. She thanked her for not only helping to educate her son, but even herself as an adult as well when it came to the more social aspects of the show. Many times people say “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Well, Ms. Manzano has made a career out of that very idea.