A Conversation with Sonia Manzano: Sesame Street's "Maria"
Montessori Life, Winter 2017
by Molly Foran Yurchak
Born in the early ’70s, I grew up watching Sesame Street. When the editors of Montessori Life asked if I would interview Sonia Manzano, who, for 44 years (1971–2015), played the role of Maria, I actually didn’t even say yes right away, because I thought, I don’t know if I can talk to her. She means so much to me.
Recently, Sesame Street has gone through some changes. After 46 years on public television, its new episodes are now broadcast on HBO and made available on public television 9 months after their first airdate. Additionally, the formerly hour-long episodes now run only 30 minutes. And, the week before I interviewed Sonia, news broke that three longtime cast members, Bob McGrath (“Bob”), Emilio Delgado (“Luis”), and Roscoe Orman (“Gordon”), had been cut from the show.
I ultimately decided to take the assignment, because I knew I’d never forgive myself if I passed it up—and I’m so glad I did. Sonia was as warm, frank, thoughtful, and intriguing as I could have hoped, and it was a distinct pleasure to get to know the real person behind the icon of my childhood. We discussed a range of issues—children, learning, politics, entertainment— as well as her transition to a writing life, through her several children’s books and her lyrical and captivating memoir of her Nuyorican Bronx childhood, Becoming Maria.
MOLLY FORAN YURCHAK: I don’t know if you saw the news last week, with Bob McGrath. But now I’ve seen that, because of all the public outcry, they’re going to have some new negotiations.
SONIA MANZANO: Yes.
MFY: And there was a recent piece in the New Yorker, by Sarah Larson, in which she suggested that she and other members of her generation feel that as Sesame Street changes to appeal to today’s children, it is losing its heart and getting away from what made it so special in the first place. I read it and thought, I’m part of that generation.
SM: I think she really nailed it. The bad feeling that you’re feeling—it’s people your age who were mostly affected by the show. It’s remarkable.
MFY: I grew up in Buffalo, New York. Divorced family, not very much money around, and I would watch the show and think, That street, that’s our life. It felt very real to me. I went to a public Montessori school from age 3 through eighth grade. I had my Montessori experience, I had Sesame Street, we had Free to Be…You and Me, and it was very much, all of it, simpatico. All of it delivering a message that the world may look one way, in our day-to-day experiences, but there were all these adults reaching out and talking to us and trying to give us new messages that kids hadn’t had before. When I think back about Sesame Street, I can’t really separate it from my childhood, from my Montessori experience. Throughout the years, I have described my childhood as being in the center of a movement. It was thanks to people like you.
SM: I remember Montessori from when I was a kid, way before Sesame Street. I remember this whole concept of kids learning at different stages, having three age groups in one class and they would help each other. All that was very wonderful, creative thinking and opening up new worlds. You were
very lucky to be raised in that era of opening—as opposed to the closing that seems to exist now.
MFY: Speaking of that, as we are talking now, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for president, and we have [Donald] Trump on the other side. It’s such a dichotomy. We’ve got this feminist moment, this historic moment— and then we’ve got, Let’s build a wall.
SM: Yes. It’s a world of extremes.
MFY: I recently read your memoir, Becoming Maria, and I feel like what you’re hitting on in your book is the reconciliation of extremes and dichotomies. You talk about growing up in your household, splintered as it was by alcoholism and physical violence, and struggling to understand, as a child, how you could see that and also admire your father?
SM: Right. I was very happy when I learned the word ambivalence. I said, “What? There’s actually a word for this?”—which means other people feel it. We can feel two things at the same time. I think that’s very hard for kids. They want a right answer and a wrong answer. But it’s wonderful to give them a tool, to show them that you can feel two things at the same time, and it’s okay.
MFY: The first section of your book is entitled “Fragments.” Maria Montessori writes that it is the work of the very young child to take all the fragments of sensory information that are coming in and make order of them. And the Montessori classroom and materials are structured so the young child will figure out how to put them in order and make sense of the world.
SM: Right. And it’s his order. It’s not your order or my order. Every child will see it differently. It’s the way each individual connects the dots. [Today there is] this whole testing obsession, where no one is interested in [children’s] thoughts or the way they connect the dots. We’re all interested in them spouting out some information that they would probably pick up on their own. We want kids to learn all at the same level. We want them to learn the same thing in the same exact moment as their peers, not even six months later or a week later or a semester later.
MFY: This is antithetical to the Montessori “learn at your own pace” idea. Have you noticed this shift in Sesame Street—when it comes to the way children are taught these days?
SM: Sesame Street [has gone through] a big kind of philosophical change. I am not a spokesperson for the show, but my thoughts are that, in the beginning, we wanted to give children tools to manipulate their world. This is how the world works. The sun rises. It sets. Things grow. People eat. Things die. These are facts. You do with [them] what you will and create your own world. Now we’re telling kids, These are the tools you need to succeed in the world we’ve created.
MFY: Do you want to say anything about the show’s change in format and move to HBO? For me, I’ll just say there’s a sadness. Again, growing up poor, there was a lot I didn’t have, but I still had access to Sesame Street. I guess kids will still have access, but it’s delayed.
SM: It’s a reflection of the times we live in. There’s not a natural feeling of compassion. It’s like a sign of weakness to help somebody now, not that Sesame Street is not helping people. I think that it takes a lot of money, and we’re not living in the environment where the money is forthcoming without some sort of payback, I suppose. Let me plug Hillary [Clinton] here. I was on a panel with her years ago—when she was First Lady— along with Peggy Charren, an advocate for responsible children’s programming. I remember Hillary said, “Couldn’t we as a society just decide that kids are too young to be sold to? If we could just all choose to do that, that there shouldn’t be any marketing on children’s programming.” That’s why she’s got my vote.
MFY: I can remember Sesame Street being brought to you by the letter C, for example, and knowing, as a very young child, that compared to anything else I was watching on TV, that you guys out there on the Street were wanting us to know that we were worth that.
Here’s a question I have from your memoir. You talk about feeling invisible as a young child. Even in your own house, with your own family. And it took my breath away when your teacher said, “There’s no such thing as brown people,” in a room full of brown kids. Holy cow. But then you got to a point when you felt you became visible. You learned to read, and it was this discovery that changed the way you saw yourself. How do you think you got to the point of asserting yourself or doing whatever you did to have people take note of you?
SM: It was a scary feeling. I’m standing right in front of you. Don’t you see me? I could just see through it, I guess. I didn’t buy it. I asked my mother, once, why there was war, and she said, “War happens when one group of people want something that another group of people have.” That’s pretty basic, and I understood that idea from the playground.
She was the only working mother. At that time, there were no working mothers. I said, “Why won’t you stay home with us?” I thought she didn’t want to. We were on the bed, and she said, “Nothing would give me more pleasure than staying home, but we just can’t make ends meet with just your dad working.” I was part of the tribe then. I understood. It wasn’t like Let’s keep this from her. Maybe that has something to do with it. I don’t know.
MFY: You are known for having a way of speaking to children. In your Sesame Street audition, you were asked to tell a scary story. I can imagine that a show today made for children isn’t going to tell a scary story. That used to be okay. I think that’s why my generation, looking back, is just so crazy about Sesame Street—because we appreciated that the show taught us it wasn’t all just pretty.
SM: They were very intent on not looking down, no syrupy voice, no I teach you everything and you are just nothing. No fake attitudes. It was supposed to be real. The real world is not beautiful.
MFY: I had a friend who was terrified of the bit when the baker falls down the stairs with a tray of pies. She couldn’t watch it. She was so scared for him.
SM: You couldn’t do it now, no. But at that time, if you did something and got two letters that said, “My kid is afraid of this,” it wasn’t enough to take it off the air. It was, “You have to manage that at home.” Now they take it off the air. If it’s a total democracy, where you take everyone’s opinion, you’ll have nothing.
MFY: Do you consider yourself a feminist? An activist?
SM: I do consider myself an activist but not on purpose. I just kind of fell into it.
MFY: You can’t fall into something and stick with it for 44 years if it doesn’t have personal resonance. What are the things that you’re an activist about? What was your mission over that time?
SM: It always comes back to kids, to somehow improving their lives in some way. There are going to be a lot of Latin [American] kids in this country, and they might be coming from war-torn [areas].…They might have been dodging bullets before they got here. I think the more diverse the pool of people, the better solutions we’ll come up with, because people will look at problems from a different point of view.
I’ve worked with the Bronx River Alliance, to clean up the Bronx River, which connects one of the richest segments of the East Coast, Westchester County, with the poorest, the South Bronx. At their meetings, there are a lot of different kinds of people. We all want to clean the river, that’s the goal, but there are single mothers, poor people from the South Bronx, [people who want to go] fly-fishing. I think that when we get together, it’s all about, How can we solve this? I think when different people work on the same problem and come to a solution together, that might be a strong way of getting people to really know each other.
MFY: You grew up in the South Bronx. I wanted to talk to you a little bit more about that.
SM: I really wanted to get out of the Bronx, and now I can’t stay out of the Bronx.
MFY: Because you write about the Bronx. You’ve turned to writing in a pretty major way.
SM: As you write, you want to be truthful. When you write, you want to get to the kernel of [things]. The more truthful you are, the more people you’ll reach. The more generic you are, the fewer people you will reach.
MFY: You were brought on Sesame Street because they wanted Latin [American] representation, but you weren’t just reaching Latin [American] kids, you were reaching all of us by being you.
SM: I think it’s related to the fact that I seemed real to them, just like the people around them were real to them. I was specifically me.
MFY: You went to Carnegie Mellon University, to study acting, and you started your career in the original production of Godspell. From there, you went to Sesame Street. Looking back on your career now, do you think, I would’ve liked to have done other roles?
SM: I just came to grips with that. With Godspell, right after that I had a lot of attention, and I got a lot of big movie opportunities, and I failed at every single one. For years, I kicked myself for it. Recently, within the last year, I said, “You know, Sonia, you just weren’t ready. You didn’t know what it meant.”
I would have these big movie auditions, and I would think, I have to come in in character, instead of just coming in and saying, “Hi, how are you?” I just didn’t know the ins and outs of it. I’m letting myself off the hook now and saying, “Don’t regret it. You just weren’t ready. You have to do things when you have to do things.”
MFY: What has your mother thought of your success?
SM: She’s always said, “You got it. You got it. You got it.” She was always completely supportive of everything, even though I don’t think she understood what I was trying to do. She was very proud. Our greatest moments were watching Ernie and Bert together. She
had a great sense of humor, and at that time the jokes were not topical. They were classic. It was classic Bud Abbott and Lou Costello comedy routines. We all understand it, all cultures. Even a woman who only went to the eighth grade or whatever. We all got Ernie and Bert and why that was funny.
MFY: Over the years, Sesame Street tackled so many topics, and you personally were involved in so many of those, pregnancy and motherhood, breast-feeding. Was there a backlash to that, to your breast-feeding your daughter on the show? Somehow breast-feeding has become more controversial now than it’s ever been.
SM: Not at that time. At that time, it was cool, and La Leche League was like, Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MFY: You guys weren’t flooded with letters that this is inappropriate for children to see?
SM: No. Buffy Sainte-Marie did it before I did it, when she had [her son] Cody. She’s cool. She’s the boldest woman I know.
MFY: You were on the show for so many years with so much talent. Who’s the person that you learned the most from along the way?
SM: I think the person I watched was Raul Julia. I was really nervous, and I would just say the lines, and he had a way of taking control. When kids would say something unexpected, he’d look into the camera and he knew how to handle it. If a kid said something unexpected to me in the beginning, I wouldn’t have known what to do.
And I learned from the producers, Jon Stone and Dulcy Singer. They could get everybody on the same page. Dulcy would say, “I want people to come up with something I didn’t think of. If I thought of it, I wouldn’t need to hire you.” About producing television shows, she said, “Hire the people you can afford with your budget. Get the best people for the money that you’ve got and then stay out of their way.”
MFY: The Montessori philosophy is to follow the child, and the teacher sees herself or himself not as a teacher but as a guide. Getting out of the way is essential, but it can be the hardest thing to do. You have to trust the process.
SM: I’ve seen some parents on the bus, and they’ll say to their 2-year-old, “Where do you want to sit?
Do you want to sit here, or do you want to sit there? Do you want to sit here, or do you want to sit there? Do you want to sit there?”…until the kid is a nervous wreck. That’s when you would do the kid a favor. Know when to…let them pick, but don’t give them a nervous breakdown about having to make a decision that they’re not ready to make.
Many cultures value obedience. Americans do not value it at all. We think about thinking outside the box, and [being] the squeaky wheel. A lot of cultures, the best kid is the quiet kid who does everything that he’s told, and that’s the key to success. Our challenge is how do you, without insulting this culture, let the child feel his [oats]. Because we tell inner-city kids to dream big, so they all think they have to be Beyoncé, as opposed to, you can press the elevator button and pick the floor. You get to take the trash out. It’s the little moments that say, I know what it is to succeed. I took the trash out. I’ve got this. That’s a familiar feeling.
MFY: Your memoir ends with your Sesame Street audition, and you haven’t heard yet whether you got the part. The last line is, “Then I go home because there is nothing else to do but wait for the next thing to happen.” That’s a beautiful way to end a book that summarizes a chapter of one’s life. What’s the next chapter for you now? Are you waiting to see, or now that you’ve had all this experience, do you know what it’s going to be?
SM: I think it’s going to be writing, to take all of this experience that I’ve had. Now the more I write, the more I understand the craft is learning the tools so I can put down a lot of these thoughts. Writing is wonderful, and you can do it by yourself. You don’t need a team. Television, you need a team to want to do the same thing you want to do.
MFY: Do you love to write?
SM: I do love it. I do it every day. I get up in the morning and I write. I write at airports. I can really be a little obsessive about it. I just love it, and I think it’s because I came late to it. I show everybody my writing, anybody who will read it.