Sonia Manzano, who spent more than 40 years playing Maria on Sesame Street, often gets asked by kids if she’s rich. It all depends on where you came from, she told me. Compared to Jennifer Lopez, she’s “poor as a church mouse.” But compared to where her parents started, she said she's well off.
Born into a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx, Manzano grew up with an alcoholic father and a mother who bore the brunt of his abuse but refused to leave him. "I was always standing between them," Sonia told me. "When I was five, six, seven, and eight, I was standing between them." As an adult, Sonia cut her father out of her life and pushed her mother to get a divorce. "I asked her about…why she allowed it to go on. And she said, 'Well you know, I just thought that when you guys grew up, you'd understand,'" Sonia remembered. "And I remember thinking, 'You might understand, but you don't gain the childhood back.'"
Sonia got a scholarship to study theater at Carnegie Mellon, and it was there that she first saw Sesame Street on television, with James Earl Jones’ booming voice reciting the alphabet. Several years later, she was cast as Maria on the children's show, as part of an effort to put more Latino actors on television. When Sonia married and got pregnant in her late thirties, Maria's character got married and pregnant as well. "We were going to show Latin people with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else," Sonia said. "You wanna get married...you wanna have a baby, you wanna look for daycare, and you want your child to have an education."
I spoke with Manzano, who recently wrote a memoir, about growing up in the South Bronx and what she’s learned about marriage and parenting—both from her parents’ experience, and her own.