Sonia Manzano, best known to many as Maria from "Sesame Street," reveals in her new memoir all of the heartache she faced as a child growing up with an alcoholic father and domestic abuse — things which she overcame and led her to eventually become an inspiration to millions of children when she joined the show in 1971.
"I watched television a lot for comfort, to get information and try to figure out why we weren't like those people on television," said Manzano in an interview with NBC News. "I always think there's a kid out there that's just like me, confused, no one's talking to them, and I could offer some an hour of peace and tranquility and order in a world they recognize."
In many ways, Manzano was exactly the kind of child that the show aimed to reach when they launched. The show's purpose was to close the gap between affluent children and their lower-income peers; studies released in 2015 have shown that "Sesame Street" improves school readiness and is also as effective as the Head Start program for economically disadvantaged children and families. Boys and non-Hispanic black children experience the largest benefits from watching "Sesame Street," according to research from the University of Maryland.
Manzano announced in June at the American Libraries Association annual conference that she was retiring from "Sesame Street" after 44 years on the show playing the beloved character.
But Manzano's career trajectory wasn't always so ambitious — and she had no idea when she joined the show that she would stay for 44 years. She revealed in the interview with NBC News that when she was a child, she wanted to be a secretary because she didn't want to be a "good girl" who married young like a cousin of hers who was engaged at 16, or a "bad girl."
"I didn't want either, so I thought the middle road would be to be a secretary," she said. "You don't know what to dream if you don't see anything."
She credits good teachers with directing her to attend a performing arts high school she never even knew was an option, and setting her on a path that eventually led her to "Sesame Street."
At the time she joined the show, Latinos on television were "always the butt of the joke," Manzano said in the interview. But she focused on making sure the show included positive images of Latinos, and cultural cues about Latino neighborhoods and day-to-day family life, in order to make it more educational and progressive. Her concerns about the Latino content spurred the show's producers to incorporate Manzano as a writer on the show, where she went on to win 15 Emmys for TV writing as well as other awards.
Manzano said despite no longer appearing on "Sesame Street," she will continue to write and try to make the lives of children better in whatever ways she can.