Q&A: Sonia Manzano talks about her time as Sesame Street’s ‘Maria’ and diversity in media

Manzano, who will deliver the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address on Tuesday, Jan. 14, offers her take on a variety of topics in advance of her visit to the university.

Actress and author Sonia Manzano

For more than 40 years, Sonia Manzano inspired, educated and delighted children as “Maria” on “Sesame Street” after breaking ground as one of the first Hispanic characters on national television. An Emmy Award winner, she’s added to her accolades as an author, with children’s and young adult titles along with her memoir, “Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx.”

Manzano will visit Elon on Tuesday, Jan. 14, to deliver the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address, a talk titled “Multi-Racial Latinos & the Civil Rights Movement.” More details about her visit and about how to obtain tickets are available here.

In advance of her visit, the Elon University News Bureau reached out to Manzano for her thoughts on a variety of issues.

You’ve written about how your dream of becoming an actress carried you through turbulent times early in your life. What did it mean to you to first see your career dreams start to come true?

It proved to me that I had been right in thinking there was more to life than my parents’ hardship. I could escape my situation and go into a world of creativity.

When you joined the cast of Sesame Street as Maria, did you have a sense that the show would have the longevity and impact it has had, and that you would be an integral part of it for so long?

No. I could never have imagined the impact the show would have but I was immediately intrigued by its mission of helping underserved children.  I felt I had been one of those underserved children generations before.

What has been your favorite part about marking the 50Th anniversary of the show’s first broadcast? What kinds of things have you heard from fans?

I thought the 50th Anniversary Special was a perfect blend of the old and the new.

Over the years I’ve heard many touching stories from fans.  One woman told me her mother was mentally ill and one hour of Sesame Street a day provided her only moments of peace. Many Latinx people have said seeing me on television made them feel they played a bigger part in our society.

How do you view your role in increasing diversity within television and the influence you carried as one of the first Hispanic characters on national television?

I am proud of increasing the visibility of Latinos on television.  I thank Sesame Workshop for giving me that opportunity. But there are many more Latino stories I’d like to hear from more Latinx artists.

How has being an actress influenced your approach to writing, and vice versa?

I guess I see everything like a play or a movie so even my prose writing has huge sections on dialogue!

What do you hope people take away from your Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address about multi-racial Latinos and the civil rights movement?

First of all, I hope my listeners become aware that Latinos are multi-racial, and that race has nothing to do with culture. I hope to inspire them to embrace the philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most influential and greatest man of our times.