Actress and Writer Receives MEC Award for
Sonia Manzano, who played “Maria” on Sesame Street for over 40 years, received the 2017 Latino Trailblazer Award from Medgar Evers College last week.
The award, which coincided with the beginning of Latino Heritage Month, went to Ms. Manzano for her groundbreaking work as an actress, screenwriter, author and speaker. There were far fewer African-Americans and Latinos on TV when Ms. Manzano created her beloved character in 1971, and she was hailed as an icon, a pioneer, and a role model.
“You have to figure it out as you go along,” Ms. Manzano said in accepting her Trailblazer Award. When it comes to success, there is “no secret path everybody knows but you,” she added. She recalled growing up as a young Puerto Rican girl in the South Bronx in a home wrecked by domestic violence and receiving an early education where little was taught. She was fortunate enough to begin acting at a time when women and people of color were demanding to be seen and heard.
“I didn’t know what I would contribute to a society that didn’t see me,” Ms. Manzano said of her early years. But her unexpected charge on Sesame Street was essentially to be herself, she said. Her own life and Maria’s life were “neck and neck,” she said, and her own daughter played her daughter on the show.
Sesame Street was an opportunity for children from all walks of life to get an education before ever setting foot in school, in much the same way that middle-class and upper-class children are exposed to learning.
As Maria, Ms. Manzano cavorted with the muppets Elmo and Big Bird, and other creatures both real and imaginary in a neighborhood that looked as real and careworn as some inner-city areas.
Ms. Manzano was also a writer for Sesame Street and won 15 Emmys for that work. Her creative credits include a novel and children’s books, and acting in such shows as The Vagina Monologues.
At MEC, Ms. Manzano recalled how her little world broadened when she entered New York’s fabled School of Performing Arts (the “Fame” school that is now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts. She then went off to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She knit it all together when she faced the Sesame Street cameras.
“She put our language on TV. She put our culture on TV,” Rosalina Diaz, MEC’s
Deputy Chair & Associate Professor of Multicultural Childhood Education in the School of Education said in introducing Ms. Manzano. Dr. Diaz is also the faculty advisor for the Association of Latin American Studies (ALAS), a MEC club.
“You are an icon to us all,” Moises Perez, a Biology major and the president of the ALAS told Ms. Manzano. The former Maria attracted an audience of adoring adult fans and children from MEC’s early childhood center. The event was captured on News 12 Brooklyn and can be seen here.
“I’m thrilled that I mattered,” Ms. Manzano said.