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Sonia Manzano, Who Played Maria On 'Sesame Street,' To Retire


She has taught generations of children important lessons and read them a whole lot of books.


SONIA MANZANO: (As Maria) "Goldilocks And The Three Bears" - an oldie, but a goodie.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (As Character) Yeah.

MARTIN: Sonia Manzano has played Maria on "Sesame Street" for more than 40 years. Yesterday, she announced that she is retiring. NPR's Andrew Limbong takes a look back at her career.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: There's a scene in an old episode of "Sesame Street" where Maria is pacing back and forth in front of her job at the fix-it shop. She looks distressed, and Big Bird asks her what's up.


CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) I just wanted to find out why are you walking around like that, muttering to yourself?

MANZANO: (As Maria) Well, I'm trying to figure out the right way to go in there and ask Luis to give me a raise.

LIMBONG: This is an episode from 1980, and Sonia Manzano was a Puerto Rican woman on TV talking to kids about wages. She was at the center of a lot of "Sesame Street's" more sensitive moments, helping the gang process their feelings about love and life and even when your buddy lets you down.


MANZANO: (As Maria) No matter what, you and Big Bird will still be the best friends.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Aloysius Snuffleupagus) I don't know, Maria. What about today?

MANZANO: (As Maria) Well, why don't you come to Susan and Gordon's house and talk it out with Big Bird.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Aloysius Snuffleupagus) No.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) You can talk to me about it right now.

MANZANO: (As Maria) Big Bird.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Aloysius Snuffleupagus) Big Bird.

LIMBONG: But it was her work behind the scenes as a writer that netted her 15 Emmys, and it was this work that she found more important. This is from an interview she did with the nonprofit New York Women in Film and Television.


MANZANO: I realized about eight years into the show that the real power is behind the camera, not in front of it. And I wanted to impact what kinds of material was being written to explore the Hispanic community.

LIMBONG: There weren't exactly a ton of Hispanic people working in TV when she started, so the character Maria was a big deal for kids at the time. Graciela Tiscareno-Sato is a bilingual children's book author who grew up watching "Sesame Street." She says it was how Maria embraced leadership on the block that really affected her.

GRACIELA TISCARENO-SATO: 'Cause I didn't see my mom doing that. I mean, she wasn't gathering the neighborhood kids and the guy who lived in the trashcan (laughter) and telling stories, you know? That was on TV. She had that role of the neighborhood storyteller and that she could speak in Spanish, and then she would switch over and tell you what - how you say it in English. And I needed that.

LIMBONG: By the way, in that old episode, Maria ended up not just getting a raise. She became a partner in the business. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.