For 44 years, Sonia Manzano lived where the sun always shines and the air is sweet. The Emmy award-winning writer and actress, known to children everywhere as Maria from “Sesame Street,” retired from the show in 2015. Here, she tells “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” how she helped give Latinos a voice on the beloved children’s show.
When Manzano was growing up in the South Bronx in the mid-’50s, she says she didn’t see anyone on TV who looked like her or lived in an urban Puerto Rican neighborhood like hers.
“The first time I saw ‘Sesame Street,’ it must have been about 1969, and there on the screen was a very young, very bald James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet in a very deliberate manner,” Manzano recalls. “Then, when they cut to the street, this beautiful inner-city street with this beautiful African-American couple in Susan and Gordon, talking to me from a neighborhood that looked very much like the idealized urban neighborhoods that I had grown up in, I was flabbergasted. I was thrilled.”
The show’s first target audience, Manzano says, was African-American children. It wasn’t long before the show expanded. “Everybody had a platform in the ’60s, and all of these Latino activists on the West Coast got together and said to ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘We think you should have role models for the underserved Latino child,’” Manzano says. “And, therefore, I got cast as Maria and Emilio Delgado got cast as Luis, my husband.”
Later, Manzano took on a much larger role in the production. “So, I was on the show for eight years, and I wanted to contribute more, and I had opinions about the Latino content,” she says. “And I would say, ‘I think you should do this. Why are we only doing this?’”
The show’s producer told Manzano that she should take a stab at writing. “You know, ‘Put your money where your mouth is, Sonia. You don’t like it, do something about it,’” she says.
And that’s exactly what she did. Mazano went on to write many scripts for “Sesame Street,” including the story line for Maria’s marriage and the birth of her baby, played by Manzano’s real-life daughter Gabriela.
“Oprah: Where Are They Now?” airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.