'I became what I needed to see myself as a kid': 'Sesame Street' star Sonia Manzano reflects on Latinx representation in TV

There have been many cast changes on Sesame Street over the decades, but kids could always count on at least one beloved character: Maria, played by Sonia Manzano for 44 years.

And while it was a role she was excited to play right from the start, it's not one she had expected to be so enduring — mainly because it was so popular, she thought it would crash and burn.

“I got cast in the third year as Maria,” Manzano tells Yahoo of the role, which she played from 1971 to 2015. “I didn’t think it was going to last at all. By the time I got on, it was [being satirized] on Saturday Night Live," she recalls, and featured on the Tonight Show. "Those are the top shows in the media, those are the top experiences you can have. I thought it was going to be over."

During her tenure on Sesame Street, Manzano also won 15 Emmy Awards for writing scripts, allowing her a venue to channel her passion for children’s storytelling — something that started when she was just a kid in the Bronx, disappearing into her imagination in order to navigate her tumultuous home life and neighborhood. Now, those early experiences have inspired Manzano to create a new animated children's series: Alma’s Way.

“I just remember going into my mind and escaping there, and saving myself there, and finding refuge there. That's everything that I'm bringing to Alma's Way, because it's a show about a little girl who thinks, who goes into her mind at various times," explains Manzano.

Born and raised in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Manzano was one of the first Latina actresses on television. Growing up, she remembers watching shows like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, but never seeing anyone who looked like her.

“The fact that you weren’t reflected in the media or the world made you feel invisible," says Manzano. "I think I became what I needed to see myself as a kid, and I think that’s why I was successful as Maria."

Sonia Manzano as 'Maria' on Sesame Street (Photo: Everett)
Sonia Manzano as Maria on Sesame Street. (Photo: Everett)

Part of becoming Maria encouraged Manzano to be more herself. She was just 21 when she took the job on Sesame Street, and was a proud Nuyorican — a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent — who had never been to Puerto Rico. When a writer from the show declared that her character Maria was born on the island, Manzano decided to speak up. “I thought, don’t let me say anything because I’ll be more authentic if they think I’m from the island. And then I said, wait a minute, what is that about? What’s wrong with saying you’re Nuyorican? That’s what you are, you have to embrace yourself. Once I did that, I felt powerful, I could contribute to the show, I said this is how it is in my neighborhood," recalls Manzano.

“Remember," she adds, "that if you don’t accept who you are, you’re going to fail."

Producers on Sesame Street also wanted Manzano to have a more natural look by encouraging less make-up. “I said, 'I understand this now,' and stopped straightening my hair and stopped trying to fit what I thought was a nice little TV actor.”

When it came to creating characters for Alma’s Way, now airing on PBS Kids, Manzano wanted to inject that same level of authenticity. The series is centered around 6-year-old Alma Rivera, a smart and confident little girl who lives in the Bronx with her family among a diverse group of close-knit friends and community members. Geared towards ages 4 to 6, Alma’s Way encourages children to express themselves, show empathy, and seek out answers on their own.

Alma's Way (Photo: Fred Rogers Productions)
A scene from Alma's Way. (Photo: Fred Rogers Productions)

“It’s all about thinking, that’s the main thing — but as it’s seen through the lens of this family, as their culture is revealed," she says. "I made them Nuyorican, Puerto Rican, because that’s what I am.”

Through food, language and music, Alma’s Way explores different aspects of Latino culture. In one episode, Alma tries to make mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish. In another, Alma learns to dance the Bomba, a traditional Afro-Puerto Rican dance.

“This is maybe one of the few times people are going to see Afro-Latinos," says Manzano. "Alma’s father is Afro-Puerto Rican, her grandfather is a little lighter. All of the characters, I want them to be like a buffet of humanity."

Latinx representation on TV has increased since Maria debuted on Sesame Street. Still, it's nowhere near where it should be: While Latinos are more than 18 percent of the population, they made up only 5.3 percent of the share of broadcast TV roles in the 2018-19 season, according to the 2020 UCLA “Hollywood Diversity Report.”

So it makes sense that Manzano sees plenty of room for more. During Hispanic Heritage month, the actor and screenwriter hopes that Alma's Way will inspire other creators to share their own original stories with the world.

“There just has to be more stories. Lena Waithe said, ‘The doors open a little bit, they let a few people in, and then they close the door again. And we get one story.' We just need a lot more," says Manzano. "And people would be interested in a lot more stories."

— Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove