Actress and author Sonia Manzano is perhaps best known for her ongoing role as Maria on Sesame Street; she joined the cast in the early 1970s. But she has also won 15 Emmy Awards as part of the show’s writing staff, and in 2004 she published her first children’s book, No Dogs Allowed!, illustrated by Jon J Muth (Atheneum). Another picture book, A Box Full of Kittens, illustrated by Matt Phelan, followed for Atheneum in 2007. Her new title, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (Scholastic), is something of a departure: a YA novel about a Puerto Rican girl awakened to political activism and to her cultural heritage while living in Spanish Harlem (El Barrio) in 1969.
Why did you want to write about the Young Lords, a short-lived Puerto Rican activist group in 1960s-70s New York City?
I thought it important to write about the power of youth. I remember seeing footage of Juan González [one of the group’s leaders], who is now at the [New York] Daily News. The group would shout things like ‘We think Puerto Rico should be independent –and kids should eat oatmeal!’ There was a sense of ‘We can do all this stuff!’ I’d forgotten about that. Kids do have a lot of the answers but they can’t always move things forward. There was so much youthful indignation: ‘What?! People are being unfair?!’ What they were doing seems so revolutionary. And they looked like Castro. I think people were afraid of them because of the way they looked.
How does the group fit into your latest book?
I have always been fascinated by things that were happening in 1969. Coincidentally, Sesame Street first aired in 1969 and one of the main curriculum goals of the show was that American children should know that Latins lived in America, and the Latin child should know that he is important in the world. Latins were totally invisible at the time. 1969 was the very beginning of Hispanics being public. It started with the Young Lords [they set garbage on fire to draw attention to a lack of sanitation services and occupied a church from which to offer the community help]. Everyone had a platform then; it was a time of idealism and change, and the status quo was being challenged. That small event had great impact. It feels like a perfect time to bring attention to it.
There seems to be a renewed spirit of activism in our country, reflected in the various Occupy movements over the past year or so. Do you have a philosophy about activism that you hope to convey to your readers?
Well, the Occupy movements seem to be about general discontent and not very specific. But there is a harshness in society nowadays. People are uncaring of other people; there is an incivility. It’s not the kind of society we would like to think of ourselves as being. If it [the book] makes kids look out for the other guy, that would be a good thing. There is also a great lack of critical thinking these days. People can’t see the gray in things; everything is black or white. [In the book,] at first Evelyn is thinking “either my mother is right or my grandmother is right.” But in the end, she says she hopes they are both right. Each has something she can take.
Your descriptions of El Barrio are particularly evocative. What is your personal experience with the neighborhood?
My grandmother lived on East 111th Street, right across from the church [First Spanish Methodist Church] seized by the Young Lords. I was raised in the Bronx, but we visited her often. When we would come across the Willis Avenue Bridge it was like Puerto Rico Central. I remember the food sold in the street; it was so exotic seeing all those fried foods. And I remember the congestion of people at the time, and the sadness of people gazing out the window. My grandmother’s maiden name was Serrano and she lived with my cousin Evelyn. Using their combined names in the book is another personal connection for me.
In addition to Evelyn’s political awakening, your book explores Evelyn’s connection to her heritage and cultural identity. Does this reflect your own experience?
I remember becoming politically aware and seeing myself in the big world, separate from my parents. I was 21. Evelyn is much younger, 14. The way she begins to see her family is because of her issue about being Latin. It reminds me of that movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when the main character recalls that she was the only kid in school with sideburns because she was Greek. It’s a universal problem that people from many cultures can relate to. [But] when you know your past, you can have a stronger future. You can at least understand your parents and grandparents better. My parents would always paint our kitchen turquoise and I wanted everything to be beige. When I went to Puerto Rico and saw all the bright colors, it hit me that my family was from the tropics. I realized how hard it must be for them to be indoors all the time in New York. We have so many old family photos taken up on the roof – it was just like West Side Story. It was my family’s way of being outside as much as possible.
Before becoming an author, your first professional success was as an actress on Sesame Street. How do the two art forms – acting and writing – compare for you?
When one acts there is a feeling of recklessness. “Know your lines and be ready to go” is something I learned from a Muppet person. I had always wanted to practice everything over and over. But this person said, “Let’s just go and not practice.” You can know the lines but still have room to just go with it and improvise some things. It worked really well on camera.
With writing it’s just the opposite. You ponder the word, look at the sentence, leave it alone for a while, then come back to it. It’s very particular – do I use an exclamation point or not?
You first entered the children’s book world as a picture book author. How was it to shift gears and write for an older audience?
I don’t have to spell everything out for older readers. They can infer and guess and put their own lives into it. I’m still learning the genre, but I’m happy to have such a wonderful editor in Andrea Pinkney.
What’s up next for you? Any new book projects you can talk about?
I love to write and I have been working on a memoir for a while. I’ve also been working on another memoir with a family member.
And I just did my first event for the new book, at La Casa Azul Bookstore on 103rd Street – a few blocks from where the Young Lords were demonstrating.
So it sounds like we’ll be learning more about Sonia Manzano. Is there any of you in Evelyn Serrano?
Yes. There is a lot of me in all the characters I write. There’s even some of me in Big Bird and Ernie and Bert when I write for them!
The Revolution of Evelyn Serranoby Sonia Manzano. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-545-32505-9