Arts & Entertainment

Manzano is a national role model for Latinas

February 19, 2016
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Sonia Manzano’s usual audience is children, but she’s got a powerful message for the adults attending the Business Journal’s 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan event.

Named one of the country’s 25 Greatest Latino Role Models Ever by Latina Magazine, Manzano is well known for her role as Maria on “Sesame Street,” a part she played for 44 years.

She will be the featured speaker at this year’s Influential Women event, scheduled for 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m., March 8, at the JW Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids.

The world of television was not necessarily a welcoming place for minorities almost 50 years ago, but Manzano advises that perceived barriers often can be opportunities.

“Get help, ask questions and remember that people hire you so you can solve problems for them,” she said.

“Women have helped me. Why wouldn't I want to help others? If I could give myself advice when I was starting out, it would be ‘pay attention and stop being so self-absorbed.’ Of course, being self-absorbed is a quality of youth.”

One of her first auditions in New York was for a role in PBS’s critically acclaimed “Sesame Street.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

The New Jersey-born, South Bronx-raised actress of Puerto Rican descent spent the next 44 years playing the role of Maria, watched by millions of children over the long run of her career. One of the show’s longest-serving human characters, Manzano was twice nominated for an Emmy for her role as Maria and earned 15 Emmy Awards as a writer.

Looking back on her career, Manzano said she was “very lucky.”

“(It was) really being in the right place at the right time. I was in a show created at Carnegie Mellon University entitled ‘Godspell.’ It was brought to New York and it was a big hit. ‘Sesame Street’ was one of my first auditions,” she said.

“Maria changed as I changed, thereby keeping the character fresh. (It was) fun, challenging, idealistic, sad, endless and short-lived — a lot like life is.”

Manzano started working on “Sesame Street” in 1971, playing a teenager who worked at the lending library. It was a rare opportunity, given there was little representation of the Latino community on public television at the time, said Manzano.

“The folks at ‘Sesame Street’ were looking for possible Hispanic role models for the show, as they already had role models for the African-American audience,” she said.

“Growing up at a time when there were no Latinas on television, I felt quite marginalized. I believe my presence on television has sent the message that Latinas exist, that we can contribute and that we will not be denied. We should work toward having more Latinas working behind the scenes in television and movies.”

According to Manzano’s “Sesame Street” bio, she also has performed on the New York stage in shows such as The Vagina Monologues,” “The Exoneratedand “Love, Loss and What I Wore.” She is the author of numerous books, including “No Dogs Allowed,” which was turned into a children’s musical at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables, Florida, and the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City.

Manzano received the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Award in Washington, D.C., and the Hispanic Heritage Award for Education in 2003. She was inducted into the Bronx Hall of Fame in 2004, according to the website.

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