Original article:  http://www.wsj.com/articles/sonia-manzano-a-k-a-maria-on-sesame-street-on-her-real-life-bronx-childhood-1463499087


 Sonia Manzano in her New York City apartment. Photo: Juliana Sohn for The Wall Street Journal

Sonia Manzano in her New York City apartment. Photo: Juliana Sohn for The Wall Street Journal

Sonia Manzano, 65, played Maria on TV’s “Sesame Street” for 44 years. She won 15 Emmys as a writer for the show and one for Lifetime Achievement. She is author of “Becoming Maria: A Memoir” (Scholastic). She spoke with Marc Myers.

When I first walked onto the “Sesame Street” set as Maria in 1971, I felt at home. Everything reminded me of my South Bronx neighborhood, including the set’s stoop, fire escape, candy store and garbage cans. In truth, my home life and neighborhood were a lot grittier. On the show, I imagined I had a chance to relive my life but make it nicer.

Ms. Manzano in a 1968 graduation photo from the then-High School of Performing Arts in New York City. Photo: Sonia Manzano

Ms. Manzano in a 1968 graduation photo from the then-High School of Performing Arts in New York City. Photo: Sonia Manzano

I spent my early childhood in a tenement building at 3858 Third Ave. near Crotona Park in the Bronx. Family life was hard and vibrant.

We lived on the fourth floor, and the elevated subway line ran past our windows. I liked the predictability of the train’s rumble every 10 minutes and watching my mother get off the train and wave to me.

I spent my early childhood in a tenement building at 3858 Third Ave. near Crotona Park in the Bronx. Family life was hard and vibrant.

We lived on the fourth floor, and the elevated subway line ran past our windows. I liked the predictability of the train’s rumble every 10 minutes and watching my mother get off the train and wave to me.

One of my earliest memories is my father coming home drunk and tearing up our apartment because my mother wasn’t home. She was out with her brother. When my uncle dropped her off, my parents argued in the street. To me, from our window, it looked like theater—a show they would put on over and over again. Between my parents, it was crazy love.

Our apartment was tight. My mother had a clothesline out one window and in another. My older sister had one tiny room, and I shared a small room with my two younger brothers. The stress at home was horrible, but I had hope.

My father, Bonifacio, was a laborer. He was the foreman of workers who applied tar to the roofs of apartment buildings. He made good money thanks to my mother, Isidra, who was a garment worker and had encouraged him to join a union as she had.

Our neighborhood wasn’t particularly safe. We had a police lock on our front door—a metal bar that ran from the top though a slot in the middle of the door to the floor. It had a medieval sound. Of course, my life wasn’t as bad as my parents had it in Puerto Rico during the Depression.

One day, I told my fourth-grade teacher that we were middle class. She said, “No, no, no, you are all poor.” I told my mother. She said, “We’re doing all right.”

My parents struggled. They kept fighting and splitting up and coming back together and not really moving forward. I thought they were like oxen, never looking up. I didn’t want to be a part of that. I always felt there was a bigger world out there.

A turning point for me came in 1961, when I was 11. One my teachers, Miss Shirley Pellman, took me and two girlfriends to see the movie “West Side Story.” I loved the film. It exalted every banal icon in my neighborhood and made everything seem beautiful.

Seeing that film had a profound effect on me. The beauty of the movie made me cry uncontrollably in the theater, and I couldn’t be consoled. I scared my teacher. That’s when I realized what art is.

 The actress in the early 1990s in her role as Maria on the set of ‘Sesame Street.’ Photo: PBS/ Everett Collection

The actress in the early 1990s in her role as Maria on the set of ‘Sesame Street.’ Photo: PBS/ Everett Collection

I began acting at Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts and then attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on a scholarship. One rainy day in 1969, I was in a foul mood and went to the student union. On the TV was Burt Lancaster counting to 10 and James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet. The show was “Sesame Street.”

At college, I was cast in “Godspell,” which started as a student project at Carnegie Mellon. When the musical moved to off-Broadway in 1971, I went to New York and continued in the role. Later that year my agent sent me on an audition for “Sesame Street” and I won the part. At first, I thought I was supposed to play a role on the TV show, but they insisted I just be myself. They wanted a real person who inner-city kids could relate to.

It took me a couple of years before I was comfortable being myself on purpose. It happened when I realized I couldn’t compete with the Muppets. I was the straight man.

Today, I live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. My husband, Richard, and I live in a two-bedroom apartment on the 14th floor of a prewar building.

After 44 years on “Sesame Street,” retiring in 2015 was hard, but it was time. I think Maria’s legacy is that she helped kids accept the reality of their lives. I always imagined that children watching the show wanted an hour of comfort and sanctuary. I could only give it to them if I was myself.