For over 30 years, Sonia Manzano has played the beloved role of Maria on the beloved children’s television series, Sesame Street. The Bronx-born Sonia has earned an impressive fifteen Emmy awards in Writing, is an accomplished children’s book author…but don’t ask Sonia to fix a toaster! Celebrity Parents spoke with Sonia about Sesame Street, being true to herself as a mom, and why her character Maria is Sonia…on purpose.
Sonia, how did you get your start?
I was doing a show called Godspell. I was in the original production, and we brought the show to New York. It became a big hit. My first audition as a professional actress was for Sesame Street. I got the role, and I thought, “Why do people say that show business is so difficult?” [laughs] I was 20 years-old at the time, and I was very lucky. I was truly at the right place at the right time.
What was your first year like on Sesame Street?
I was doing both Godspell and Sesame Street at the same time. I was really thrown. On the stage, you practice often. When I was on Sesame Street, there were directors talking to each other, talking to me, and cameras coming from the back of my head and from the side! I think during the first six months of Sesame Street, people only saw the back of my head! It was an intense learning process. I remember telling Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird and Oscar: “Caroll, I’m so nervous.” He said, “Don’t worry! There’s just going to be millions and millions of people watching this!”
No pressure at all.
Yes, but I still love him!
What did you find appealing about Sesame Street at age 20 and then now over 30 years later?
I’m Puerto Rican, born in the South Bronx. I watched a lot of TV growing up and nothing on television looked like my neighborhood, or the people I knew. Or even me. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I wondered: “Where do I fit into this society? Where is my place?” If you don’t see yourself reflected, you can’t see how you’re going to contribute.
When I first started Sesame Street, and I saw that brownstone, I couldn’t believe it. They gave me a fire escape, like the one I had at home. There were tenement doors, and it was so familiar. I saw Susan and Gordon, and I was happy. They seemed to know what my experience might have been like. They were wonderful role models for the African-American community, and now I was going to be the role model for the Hispanic child. Sesame Street allowed me to be what I needed to see for myself as a child. It felt like home, but a way to relive my life in a parallel universe. That was so fabulous.
Today, the world has changed so much more for the better. There are a lot of Latins on television, And now, Sesame Street has grown to include the world. Desmond Tutu was on Sesame Street in the South African production. The show has grown to an international environment and that’s amazing.
It’s practically unheard of for a program to run for so many years featuring the same cast members.
That’s one of the main reasons the show is a success. We’ve been allowed to age on screen. When I started on the show, I played a teenager. On Sesame Street, I fell in love with Emilio Delgado, who plays Luis. We got married on the show, and had a child. If anything, it was more like reality TV! My own daughter, Gabriela, played my daughter for a while on Sesame Street.
Another reason for the show’s success is that we’re very real. Bob is Bob, Roscoe is just like Gordon. I’m like Maria, except that Maria is a better person than me.
Why do you say that?
Maria is Sonia on purpose. Maria can take more time when Elmo has a problem. Maria can handle it, perhaps better than Sonia could. Maria is calmer than I am. Obviously, it’s a made-up environment, but it is still me, Sonia, soothing Big Bird or Elmo in my own way.
I love that line, “being you on purpose”. It’s so poignant.
That line comes from the movie The Color of Money. It’s a wonderful line; I use it all the time!
How has your character grown?
Maria was a teenager, who was working in the second hand bookstore, which then became the Fix-It Shop.
Okay, here’s the $64,000 question. Do you know how to fix a toaster? [laughs]
No! I don’t. Don’t tell anyone, though. [laughs]
When feminism became more prevalent in the media, Maria got a job at a construction site. She fell in love, got married, and had a baby. Maria even nursed on the show. Maria has gone through every stage in a woman’s life.
Let’s talk about your daughter Gabi being on the show with you.
Everyone said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you take your child to work with you?” It seemed that way, but it wasn’t. I was so tense and it affected my performance. I wanted Gabi to do what was expected of her. Very early on, though, Gabi showed that she was not interested in Sesame Street. When I would do a scene with another child and they wouldn’t do what they were supposed to, I’d laugh and say, “Oh, isn’t that funny?” When it’s your own child, it’s different. We would have to stop tape; Gabriela would be eating her hair! [laughs] Big Bird is coming at her and she would scream, “Nooo!!!”
When Gabi was 5 years-old, she stopped doing Sesame Street. We didn’t need the added pressure in our lives. I didn’t want Gabi to feel that she had to be on Sesame Street. It just wasn’t natural for her.
What is Gabi doing now?
Gabi is 21 and she’s a fashion major. She’s deciding what she wants to do. The fashion industry is large with many components. Her dad and I tell her to relax; she doesn’t need to know what she’s going to do right now for the rest of her life. She’s very visual; I think that’s why she didn’t take to television.
We do. Gabi is great to go shopping with! She can spot amazing things a mile away! I could trip over it and not know! I’m not visual like she is. Even as a writer for Sesame Street, I was happily surprised when the director would
make the scripts into 3-D. I would have a character come in from the side, and the director would make it come in from the camera.
When did you start writing for Sesame Street?
In the 80’s. I didn’t know I could even write. I began writing because I had questions about the Hispanic content of the show. It seemed to only be about food or music. As if culture was something in a museum that didn’t live, breathe, or change! Someone suggested I write; I didn’t want to at first, but I grew to love it.
And now fifteen Emmy’s later…
Yes, 15, but who’s counting?! [laughs]
That must give you a tremendous sense of pride. Never would you have imagined…
When I speak to young kids, I always tell them that you never know what you’re going to do unless you try. You can’t sit and think about what you’re going to do. You just have to do it.
Sesame Street just had its 40th anniversary. What does that mean for you?
I know we’ve touched a lot of lives. When we had the celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary, I re-understood that.
How do you take all of that in?
The most overwhelming moment was when I met Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And she said, to me, “I am in awe meeting you.” Me? It was quite touching. I’ve been able to inspire others, and by the same token, they have inspired me.
I think it’s because you and the cast help to bring back our childhoods. I feel like I am 4 again sitting here next to you.
It’s because you felt real emotion. Wherever you were, sitting on your mother’s lap, you felt that connection to us and the show. Emotional connections are where it’s at.
Having played the same role so many years, how did that affect your career?
When I first started, every other part that I went up for was either prostitutes or cleaning ladies. All stereotypes. They wanted me to have an accent, and I was very self-conscious about that. I didn’t want to do it. All my Anglo friends were going up for parts that were them. I stopped being interested in going up for auditions. I kept finding myself more and more comfortable at Sesame Street.
I love being on stage, though. I did Vagina Monologues, and I did Exonerated. I cannot stand auditioning. I take it personally, even though you’re not supposed to. What do you mean you don’t want me? [laughs] There are a lot of great actors who don’t work. Many are called but few are chosen.
You were chosen for Maria. That’s the role of a lifetime.
That’s true. And I love being on Sesame Street. I’ve also continued writing, which I love. I have my children’s books: No Dogs Allowed, and A Box Full of Kittens. I’m also working on my memoir, and I might write a one-woman show.
Sonia, Sesame Street has taught us so much. What has Sesame Street taught you?
I think, as parents, we are so worried about what we’re going to teach our children, in a world that keeps changing even for us. Kids bring their own talent to the table. They see things differently; they’re more flexible. We don’t have to have all the answers for our children. Look to them, and they will have their own answers.