Maria Week: Saying Adios to Maria

Published: July 27, 2015
Categories: Feature

Welcome to Maria Week – Celebrating over 40 years of Sonia Manzano’s work on Sesame Street!  We’re dedicating an entire week to her performance as Maria and the legacy she’s leaving with the recent announcement of her retirement from the show. Today’s article was written by Tough Pigs’ own Quinn Rollins.  Thanks, Quinn!

Maria4The news that Sonia Manzano was retiring should have made me sad. It should have made me think, “oh, that’s one more classic cast member leaving the Street, how many are left?” …it’s the kind of thing our people do. Part of our love of Sesame Street as adults is the nostalgia for the past, and Maria was so much a part of that past that it’s hard to imagine our favorite show without her. With Sonia’s departure in particular, instead of feeling sadness at her leaving the series, I’ve got something akin to pride.

When I was a pup, watching Sesame Street in Texas and then in Utah in the 1970s, it was a surreal experience. Yes, there were colorful puppets, there were cartoons, there were songs. But the real people, the humans of Sesame Street were nearly as exotic. I often say that Gordon and Susan were the first black people I knew. Because…they were. I was in a very Caucasian neighborhood, and it was unlikely that I’d be meeting kids who weren’t pretty much the same as me. Thus, Maria was the first Latina I knew. This diversity of race and culture and language had a profound influence on me as a child. Diversity wasn’t presented as a problem, but as a rich tapestry.

Maria6Maria not only spoke English, but she could understand and speak Spanish! To my young mind, it seemed like magic. Being able to access something that other people wouldn’t understand, but not guarding it as a secret—sharing it with others. To this day, if people ask me if I speak Spanish, I’ll say “well…Sesame Street Spanish—abierto, cerrado, calor, caliente…” and then they usually tell me to stop. I don’t mean to trivialize the Spanish I did learn—just that even exploring the very basics with children can help expand their horizons. Watching Maria explain her language, culture, and traditions to kids or Muppets on the street helped me to understand a world wider than my own personal experience.

When it came to the human cast of Sesame Street, I kind of thought of Mr. Hooper as a grandfatherly type, Susan as a mom, David as a friend…and Maria…well, she was one of my first crushes. She was darn cute. She’s still beautiful. In the 70s, Oscar would tease her relentlessly (and she got in a few good lines herself), and it seemed like Sonia was game for whatever was going to happen. Doused in buckets of water, or mud, or sawdust, or whatever they had in a bucket. She also seemed to play other roles more than the other cast members. You might see Sonia as Maria on the stoop of 123 Sesame Street, and then see her again a few minutes later as Charlie Chaplin. I’m sure her Chaplin was many of our introductions to the silent film star, and I looked forward to those little films as much as anything.

Maria1Sonia is one of the first cast members that I realized had roles behind the scenes of Sesame Street. For much of her career, she was not only an actress, but also a writer for the series. She expanded her own knowledge in education and curriculum, and thus became a teacher for millions of children. I often say that the beginnings of my own career as a teacher came because I loved Sesame Street – it’s because of the on screen and off screen accomplishments of Sonia and others like her that it was possible.

Her writing has continued beyond Sesame Street to include picture books, a novel for young adults, and this year an autobiography. She’s again sharing her own experiences as a Latina, and giving voices to those who are sometimes unheard. More than any of the other “humans” on the series, it seems that she’s grown over the last decades. Maria might not be comforting Big Bird, being teased by Oscar, or telling me how to say “open” and “closed,” but I’m sure Sonia has a long and bright future ahead. I said at the beginning of this that I’m feeling something like pride. It’s like Maria has graduated. She’s leaving on her terms, she’s moving away from a stoop and lamppost, she’s grown up. I’ll always cherish what Maria did for me as a child and adult—I’m excited to see what Sonia’s doing next.


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by Quinn Rollins

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