Every year, to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, 1010 WINS speaks with several prominent and local Hispanic icons to not only honor their accomplishments but to examine why their success matters to the communities they come from.
Of all of this year’s guests though, Sesame Street’s Sonia Manzano stands in particular because she has both a real and fictional community that looks up to her.
For over 40 years, Manzano starred on the popular educational children’s television series. While it’s always been a groundbreaking display for diversity, when she joined she wasn’t quite sure how she could contribute.
That is until fellow co-star Matt Robinson (who played Gordon) told her, “You’re not here to be the cute little Latina. You have to make sure the content is accurate.”
That’s when it dawned on her. “What he said stayed with me,” Manzano tells WINS. After that she recalls telling herself, “I have to remember that there are kids watching me and looking to me to be the person that they saw on television that is like them.”
Interestingly enough, Manzano’s character Maria wasn’t modeled after anyone.
“I actually created her,” she shares, “I had no role models to emulate...so I went with it. I just went with myself.” It worked.
Who is Manzano though? Throughout the years she appeared on the series - and even in the time since her departure - the 71-year-old has tried her hand at writing and singing too. She’s also served on the board for several prominent institutions including the Peabody Awards.
Above all, she remembers her roots as a Puerto Rican girl from the South Bronx.
Despite growing up in a primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood and constantly hearing secondhand stories about her home island from family and neighbors, Manzano confesses it wasn’t until later on in life that she finally understood what it meant to be in tune with her culture.
“When I read Pedro Juan Pietro’s poetry, when I read "Puerto Rican Obituary" and I met him I embraced my Puerto Rican-ness.”
While she’s proud that Sesame Street highlighter her culture, she really hopes the series’ overarching message is something that stands the test of time.
“A diverse society comes up with better solutions,” she says. In regards to Hispanic Heritage Month, she adds, “I hope that someday cultures are celebrated as one [and] you don’t have to designate one over the other.”