Sonia Manzano spent most of her life adult hanging out with children and Muppets.
The Emmy award-winning TV writer, actor and author starred as “Maria” on Sesame Street for 44 years.
Four decades on the children’s television show gave Manzano a unique perspective on the how kids learn and the importance of early education.
Even though she’s no longer on Sesame Street, her love for children, her dedication to education and her joy of reading have never waned.
“It’s thrilling to me because I found refuge in books when I was a kid,” Manzano said. “I grew up in a chaotic environment, and if it wasn’t for books I don’t know what would have happened.”
Manzano came to Pensacola Tuesday as part of the Public Square Speakers Series presentation. Her visit was sponsored in part by Gulf Power Co. and was scheduled in conjunction with WSRE’s participation in American Graduate—public media’s long-term commitment to supporting community-based solutions to help keep youth on the track to a high school diploma and beyond.
Her first stop was to read to students at Ensley Elementary School.
Ensley’s Principal Jayne Cecil said seeing Manzano in person brought back childhood memories. Manzano’s Spanish heritage was an added bonus.
“It’s exciting because she’s one of the people I grew up with as a child and learned so much from,” Cecil said. “With us being an ESAL (English as a Second Language) center she was able to connect with the children by sharing the different words in Spanish and having the kids practice them. It made a true connection.”
Perched on small chair in front of about 40 pre-K and kindergarten pupils in Ensley’s media center, Manzano read to them from one of her children books, “A Box Full of Kittens.”
“It’s kind of a story about my life,” said Manzano, waving her arms and raising her voice for dramatic effect. “This is my neighborhood that I used to live in in South Bronx.”
Growing up on the gritty streets in New York City, her acting career was inspired by teachers who encouraged her to audition for the High School of the Performing Arts. That’s where she got her start, and while a junior on scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University, she starred in the original off-Broadway production of “Godspell.”
Within a year, she joined the production of “Sesame Street,” where she eventually became the first Latina leading woman on TV and began writing scripts.
Manzano retired from “Sesame Street” last year as one of its most recognizable faces and a role model for generations of young girls and women. She had won 15 Emmy Awards for her writing on the show and was nominated twice for her role as Maria.
In May, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences honored her with the Emmy for Lifetime Achievement.
She also has written for the Peabody Award-winning children’s series, “Little Bill,” and for Sesame Workshop with the online parenting column, “Talking Out Loud.” Her 2004 children’s book, “No Dogs Allowed!,” was turned into a children’s musical and followed by “A Box Full of Kittens” in 2007.
Other books include her first young adult novel, “The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano,” in 2014 and both her memoir, “Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx,” and picture book, “Miracle on 133rd Street,” released in 2015.
For the children gathered around her on the floor at Ensley, their parents, and more likely their grandparents, grew up watching and listening to Manzano’s thoughts on the way children are taught school and life lessons, the impact of how children are shown on TV and how 9/11 affected children’s curriculum on “Sesame Street.”
For so many children for so many years, Sesame Street has been among their first introduction to early learning.
In fact, a recent study showed that a Sesame Street education is nearly as helpful in the academic long term as attending the federal pre-kindergarten program Head Start, especially among economically disadvantaged children.
The Wellesley College and University of Maryland study found Sesame Street has a big impact on how well kids do in school. Children who watch the show are less likely to fall behind in later grades.
In nearly a half century, Manzano saw the show change to meet the changing times.
“We designed the show for kids watching at home with one parent, and now we know that kids watch it in groups,” Manzano said. “And the show changes according to the needs of American children.”
For Principal Cecil, Manzano’s visit to Ensley and her career as TV star and writer is a great example for children to model.
“This shows kids that you can be anything you want to be,” Cecil said. “You can go from being on TV to being a writer and sharing stories about your life. So, I think it’s great that she came here to share her love of reading.”