Anyone who grew up watching the acclaimed children’s educational television program “Sesame Street” will fondly remember this question. Repeated several times during the show’s theme song, it’s really asking how to get to a place where there’s “sunny days” and “friendly neighbors” and where “everything’s a-okay.”
But for one of Sesame Street’s most beloved residents, finding her way to this happy place was a difficult journey that challenged her own innocence.
Emmy award winning Sonia Manzano has portrayed Maria on “Sesame Street” since 1971. Originally cast as the local librarian, her character eventually married, became a mother and worked at a variety of jobs all while acting as a nurturing supporter and comedic foil to an array of colorful puppet characters. Now, after announcing her retirement at the American Library Association’s annual conference, Sonia reflects on her life in her new autobiography “Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx.”
“It was a tumultuous childhood,” Sonia said in an online video on the America Library Association’s YouTube channel. “My father was an alcoholic, and he was violent, and my mother was battered, and it was a topsy-turvy world of hope and despair, hope and despair.”
The book, which explores Sonia’s life up until she auditioned for “Sesame Street,” describes a chaotic world where a father can be comforting one moment and then kicking in a television in a drunken rage in the next, where neighbors attribute a husband bashing his wife’s head into a radiator as a sign of loving her so much and where a little girl discovering that she has ten fingers and ten toes gives her peace that “there is order in the universe.”
“And I found sanctuary on television, and I talk about that in my book,” Sonia said. “And I found sanctuary in stories when they were available to me. As I said, it was a very mean environment, and there was a lack of books.”
Although her first role on “Sesame Street” was a librarian, Sonia explained that she had very little experience with libraries growing up since as she recalled there might have been a small library in her public school, but it had very few books. Instead, Sonia remembers teachers being the ones who helped her discover literature.
“The teachers who showed us books are memorable to me,” Sonia said, recalling her fifth grade teacher’s expressions as he read “Charlotte’s Web” to her class. “I completely identified with Charlotte. I thought Wilber was just a…not my favorite character,” she smiled.
Although books and television gave Sonia, a first generation New Yorker by birth, a safe haven growing up, they also initially reinforced a sense of not fitting in because her Puerto Rican ethnicity.
“It’s very interesting for me and sometimes a challenge to get across to young people that when I was a kid there were no people of color on television,” Sonia said. “And there were no people of color in books either primarily. And I grew up wondering how I was going to contribute to a society that didn’t see me because I felt invisible somewhat. I mean, I couldn’t articulate that in my brain as a little kid, but that was the sensibility that I had.”
For young Sonia, however, everything changed when she saw the 1961 movie “The West Side Story.” Set in New York City, the musical is a modern day retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” where two rival gangs are fighting in large part because of racial differences. One of the gangs, The Sharks, was made up of immigrants from Puerto Rico, and for Sonia that was an eye-opening experience.
“It was the first time I had seen Latin people or Latin culture, and it was particularly and specifically Puerto Rican culture, which is what I am,” Sonia said, adding that she is a New York Puerto Rican or Nuyorican. “And it was fascinating to me.”
Beyond finally seeing her culture being depicted in a form of media, Sonia also began to understand what art is and how it can impact perceptions and sensibilities.
“What used to be ugly neighborhoods all of a sudden beautified because certainly that movie is beautiful to look at, and I think I had my first inkling of what art was,” Sonia said. “Art is taking something that’s banal and making it glorious. You know, putting your own sensibility onto it.”
Inspired by this knowledge and encouraged by her teachers, Sonia auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts, a place that Sonia described as being as alien to her as another planet.
“It might has well have been Planet X to go from the Bronx from an inner city school to this school in Manhattan that had kids from all over the city who had very good elementary school educations,” Sonia said. While Sonia had had limited exposure to books, she soon learned that her classmates had been around books their entire lives.
“I really saw how lacking my inner city education had been,” she said. “I had to do a lot of catching up.”
Although there were challenges, Sonia went on to excel at her career. In addition to being nominated twice for an Emmy Award as Outstanding Performer in a Children’s Series, she currently holds 15 Emmy Awards for her former work as a member of the “Sesame Street” writing staff, wrote for the Peabody Award-winning children’s series “Little Bill” and has written four books one of which was chosen as a Pura Belpré Honor Book. Other accolades include receiving the Congressional Hispanic Caucas Award in Washington, DC; the Hispanic Heritage Award for Education and the New York Women in Film and Television Muse award for outstanding vision and achievement. Sonia was also inducted into the Bronx Hall of Fame in 2004 and voted one of the most influential Hispanics by “People Magazine en Español” in February 2007.
And while the idealistic world of “Sesame Street” may seem far removed from Sonia’s chaotic childhood, the two are connected with the show being designed to help children who face unequal education opportunities like Sonia once did.
“‘Sesame Street’ as everyone knows was set in the inner city, and there was a particular reason for that,” Sonia explained. “Our first target audience were children in the inner city who were under served, and we thought that if they learned they basic cognitive skills, they could start kindergarten on an even level with their middle class peers.”
In addition, “Sesame Street” was designed so children would not feel that sense of “invisibility” that Sonia did growing up. One of the key gathering places on “Sesame Street” has always been the stoop, which as Sonia explained was purposely populated from the very beginning of the series with people of different races and backgrounds. She said this was done so the kids watching the show “could find somebody on television they could relate to and feel part of the community.”
But as much as these basic lessons about shapes and numbers and friendship, Sonia said she wants children to take away from her life in its entirety that they have the power to live meaningful, happy lives no matter what challenges they face.
“I didn’t become Maria in spite of my childhood. I became Maria because of my childhood,” she said. “Any life is worthwhile, and you can make something of it.”