Sonia Manzano on Her New Book and Her Groundbreaking Role on 'Sesame Street'
The actress and author, who played Maria on Sesame Street, talks to People CHICA about why it's important to teach kids to respect and celebrate different cultures.
You probably know Sonia Manzano for her role as Maria on Sesame Street, but you might not know that she's also a successful children's book author. Her latest, A World Together, is out today. "I jumped at the chance to write a book about diversity," says Manzano, who was approached by National Geographic for this project. "There is a whole campaign of more diverse books out there that writers like myself want to contribute to. It's a terrible climate that we are living in. Frankly, we started talking about diversity in 1969 on Sesame Street. We had a diverse cast and it was groundbreaking. At that time, Mississippi didn't want to show Sesame Street because there was a Black little girl and white little girl sharing an ice cream cone. It's true! We were making these big strides and it breaks my heart that we're in this position now."
Maria, who first appeared on the show in 1971, made Latinx girls feel represented on the small screen. "They kept telling me to be myself. I remembered my own childhood growing up in New York — I had never been to Puerto Rico and I had never seen anyone who looked like me on television," recalls Manzano, who grew up in the Bronx. "You feel like you're not part of a society if you're not reflected in the media. I felt I was invisible. So when I got on Sesame Street, I left my hair natural so that kids would have somebody to relate to who looked like them."
Her new book compares and contrasts many cultures around the world, with photographs of real people of different backgrounds. "The book is for all children, so they see how many people all over the world experience the same things," she explains. "People cry and they feel happy, they share many emotions." Her hope is that the book inspires empathy for and appreciation of other cultures, and helps kids feel pride in their own backgrounds. "If you can put yourself in the shoes of the other person, you're at an advantage to understand their points of view a little bit," she says. "It's great for children to see other cultures and wonder, 'How do they celebrate Christmas? How do they celebrate New Year's?' Learning about other cultures makes you a stronger person. When you know more about your own culture, you understand your family better."
She discovered a lot about her own family and Nuyorican neighbors during her first trip to Puerto Rico. "I understood why my mother painted the bathroom pink and why our neighbor raised chickens," she jokes. She then realized how difficult it must be for Puerto Rican immigrants to adapt to living in small apartments in New York City's concrete jungle. "I understood my people better," she says. "I understood where they had come from and what they had to overcome."
Manzano is now working on the creation of a new animated series with the Fred Rogers Company. As a child, not feeling connected to the characters she saw in children's media was disheartening. "I was taught how to read with a series of books from the '50s called Dick and Jane. They were little blonde kids and they lived in the suburbs and their father went to work in a suit and their mother stayed home. Obviously it could not have been further away from my reality — it was like another world," she says. "My father went to work in laborers' clothes and my mother was working in a factory sewing and giving us coffee and bread for breakfast."
She loves to read books by authors like Sherman Alexie — who narrates what his childhood was like living on a Native American reservation — and says parents should encourage children to read stories that expose them to new worlds. "Kids should be fascinated by other people's lives and not scared," she says. "As adults we are scared of those who are different. That's why our country is in this terrible situation."