Sonia Manzano – Maria from Sesame Street – was the featured speaker at the Children’s Book Council’s annual meeting held at The Center in Manhattan on September 24. Presenting to a full house of CBC members and industry professionals, Manzano spoke about her pioneering role on the beloved, long-running program, the future of children’s television, and about her new memoir, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx (Scholastic Press).

Jon Colman, who joined the CBC earlier this year as executive director, introduced Manzano, and played a video of highlights from her career on Sesame Street. Clips included Maria dancing with on-screen husband, Luis (played by Emilio Delgado), à la Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; Maria helping Elmo out of a building during a fire; Maria getting married to Luis; and Maria having a baby.

Taking the stage, Manzano joked that “I wanted to give you all an idea of what I have been doing for the last 44 years... reduced to three minutes.” Manzano is retiring from Sesame Street, a fact that she mentioned at the ALA conference in San Francisco this summer. Librarians tweeted about Manzano’s retirement and, by the time she had returned to New York City, “It was national news!” she said good-naturedly.

Looking back on those 44 years, Manzano reflected specifically on the state of the nation in the year 1969, when Sesame Street was first proposed to the Rockefeller Foundation for funding. It was the era of Vietnam and the anti-establishment movement, when “youth prevailed” on college campuses. In this “hopeful, idealistic, revolutionary time,” Manzano said, Sesame Street’s original intention was to offer programming to “underserved African-American children,” so that they may develop the same set of cognitive skills as their middle-class peers. Manzano emphasized how Sesame Street was truly born from activism, as it set out to “eradicate racism” through equal opportunity and representation.

She recalled the first time she ever saw Sesame Street, while she was in college. It was an episode featuring James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet in “a very deliberate matter.” Even more startling to her than seeing an African-American man on television – which didn’t happen often back then – was that she was seeing what looked like the streets of her South Bronx childhood on the screen. “What is my neighborhood doing on the TV?” she wondered.

As Manzano writes about in Becoming Maria, throughout her upbringing in her Puerto Rican family, she was witness to the “never-ending struggle” (or “La Lucha”) that her parents faced in learning English, navigating American culture, and making ends meet. Her escape, as a child, was through television, where she encountered “exotic lands that I later got to know as the suburbs.” She often looks back on her childhood self, watching such shows as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, in which loving mothers stay home every day to bake cookies (her mother left each morning to work as a seamstress). “On some inarticulate level that all kids process information, I must have wondered why I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” she said.

With her earliest encounters with book characters being Dick and Jane, she didn’t see herself represented on the page, either. However, it’s not that she didn’t value the books she read as a child: she simply interpreted them through her own lens of experience. For example, her view on Charlotte’s Web: “Wilbur was a total loser. I felt sorry for Charlotte for having to take care of him.” The reason she saw the book in this manner, she believes, is because in her own life, she was surrounded by mothers who were overwhelmed with the responsibilities of child-rearing.

As an adult and an actor, she searched for opportunities to “contribute to a society that didn’t see me.” The opportunity came in 1974, when she responded to a casting call for Sesame Street. As the show had first reached out to an African-American audience by casting actors to play the roles of Gordon and Susan Robinson, the call came to also represent Latino communities. Cast as Maria, she was informed that she would be doing more than just acting, but was charged with the task of “making sure the Latino content is appropriate,” calling it an amazing and overwhelming responsibility.

One of the intentions of Sesame Street in terms of conveying this “Latino content” was to show that Latino Americans experience life in ways that any other Americans would, and Maria was a representative of these experiences. In the show, said Manzano, Maria’s significant life events also closely paralleled her own. She got married around the time Maria did and when Manzano was pregnant, so was Maria: “Come to think about it, it’s kind of like reality TV,” she joked. In fact, many viewers believed that Manzano and Delgado were married in real life. When she informed one adult fan that they weren’t actually married, the woman paused, took a breath, and said: “Well, as long as you really love each other!”

Over the years, Manzano said, Sesame Street has provided a lens through which it its audience can interpret difficult events in their lives, communities, and in the world. For example, she said, following September 11, Sesame Street aired an episode featuring firefighters because viewers were likely seeing images of firefighters everywhere they turned. Sesame Street has a way of speaking “subliminally” to viewers, Manzano said. She recalled the episode in which the late African-American singer Lena Horne sings a duet of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” with Kermit the Frog. “Are they singing what I think they’re singing about?” Manzano thought. Of course, they were. But they were “also singing about being a green Muppet.” For Manzano, Sesame Street’s nonchalant portrayal of diverse characters on the screen at a time when no one else was doing it was in itself a powerful subliminal message to young viewers.

On leaving behind Sesame Street, Manzano touched on her fears concerning the future of children’s programming. Today, she sees that many shows for kids are highly “curriculum-driven,” which she believes reflects the way children are being educated in schools. “We are hounding kids with data,” she said. Unlike Sesame Street, with its “artistry and subtlety,” these shows come across as “animated textbooks.” As such, Manzano believes that books may be the last bastion for readers seeking to think and imagine freely, as well as a place to witness the experiences of others: “You can’t teach children empathy by telling them to be nice to their friends,” she said. “But you might be able to do it through books.”

In seeking works to publish for new generations of readers, Manzano urged publishers to find books for children who don’t see themselves reflected, books that will endure by speaking to “the beginning of experience and not the end.” She added that readers become a part of a book’s universe; part of their power is in the way each child interprets them, arriving at conclusions that may defy and surpass our expectations.