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'Sesame Street's' Maria Shares Memories of the Show Ahead of A Trip To Milwaukee

Richard Termine
Sonia Manzano joins her Sesame Street pal Rosita on set.

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Almost anybody with a television and free time afterschool for the last 50 years has become friends with the characters on Sesame Street. About a year ago, Big Bird and the gang said goodbye to Maria, one of the most beloved neighbors on the block since the early 1970s -- and one of the first Hispanic characters on national television.

Sonia Manzano played Maria for 44 years before retiring last year. Now, she’s a children’s book author and public speaker. 

Manzano will visit Milwaukee in May, to be the guest speaker at a Five-Star Gala hosted by the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee. She says she looks forward to working with a group that values the importance of school. 

Manzano grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in the south Bronx. She says her own experiences struggling with a "substandard education" are what motivate her to help young learners.

Credit Tom Simpson/Flickr
Some of Manzano's fellow castmates from the early days of Sesame Street.

"I was an excellent student, because very little was expected of me," she remembers. "I had such an inferior elementary school education, and I spent a lot of my time [in high school] catching up. So that's a reason that I'm passionate about this area. We really have to offer a helping hand to kids who are trying to get a good education."

That passion lent itself to action once Manzano joined the cast of the classic children's television show in 1971. The actress remembers feeling a responsibility to be a role model, as one of the only Hispanic characters on TV at the time.

"We were so invisible, we didn't exist in the media, or in books or newspapers," she laments. "So imagine my feeling when I got to Sesame Street -- these people wanted to show a real Latin person!"

"Matt Robinson, who was the original Gordon, said to me, 'you have to represent people! You have to make sure that everything that this show does is correct, as far as your culture goes'," she remembers.

Diversity has long been a focus of the casting and messaging of the show.

Earlier this week, Sesame Street producers announced they'll add a new Muppet to the cast -- "Julia," a four-year-old character with autism. 

Manzano says the addition is very much in the spirit of the show, which promotes inclusion. 

"I think that's because the impulse of the show came out of the Civil Rights movement," she says. "It was very exciting, this idea that African-American children could get cognitive skills from television, so that they could start school on an even level with their middle class peers. It was groundbreaking! And I think because the show began in that atmosphere, it continues to find new things."

Despite its long history, Sesame Street has made quite a few headlines over the past couple of years. 

"I don't know how we're going to expect kids to grow up and think outside the box, and be entrepreneurs...without having that experience of fantasy."

In fall 2015, the show moved from its longtime home on PBS to HBO. New episodes would air first on the premium cable channel; PBS still carries these episodes, but only after nine-month delay.

When the change was first announced, many people wondered how it might impact the viewership. As Manzano herself points out, Sesame Street was originally targeted to underserved, often low-income children.

But, she adds, the modern media landscape allows kids to access the program in a number of different ways.

"We live in a time when people get their media whenever they feel like it," she says. "It's not like watching it every day in the morning and at 4 o' the only time when it's on. Kids think, 'oh, I think I'll see it later, or I'll get it on my phone.' I don't think it makes much of a difference nowadays."

Politics has also brought Sesame Street back into the news in recent weeks. President Donald Trump's current federal budget proposal slashes funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- the non-profit organization that channels funds to PBS. [NPR and WUWM also receive funding from the Corporation.]

Manzano says she hopes the government continues to fund public broadcasting, so children can access programming aimed at helping them learn.

"Nowadays, the arts are needed more than ever in children's [lives] because there's a lot of stress on them in the school systems to pass tests," she says. "I don't know how we're going to expect kids to grow up and think outside the box, and be entrepreneurs...without having that experience of fantasy."

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