Carnegie Mellon University
July 24, 2015

Sunny Days for Sonia

Sonia Manzano & Big Bird

"Somebody come and play, somebody come and play today-ay," sang Sonia Manzano (A 1972), describing a scene from a "Sesame Street" film of a playful gorilla at the zoo. The scene was designed to help children use their imaginations. The actress, who's played Maria on the public access children's program since 1971, is retiring.

"I feel like I blinked and the years have gone by," Manzano said. "All of the outpouring of affection because of this inadvertent release of information has been a wonderful surprise."

Sesame Street
Sonia Manzano

Manzano mentioned she was retiring from "Sesame Street" during a speech at the annual conference of the American Libraries Association last month.

When Manzano left Carnegie Mellon in the late 1960s to star in the original Off-Broadway production of "Godspell," created by fellow CMU graduate Stephen Schwartz (A 1968), she knew she wanted to change the world with her art, but she wasn't yet sure how to make that happen.

"I think that I had the rare opportunity of falling into 'Sesame Street' sort of right out of CMU," she said. "'Sesame Street' was one of my first auditions in the city. I was coming of age at the time, it was the '60s; I wanted to change the world and so did 'Sesame Street.' I had an idealistic fervor and I was lucky to find a platform that embraced that and wanted to change the lives of children."

Sesame Street
Sonia Manzano with Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Maria Sotomayor

Manzano recalled the first time she saw "Sesame Street" on a TV in Skibo. It was a gloomy day in Pittsburgh and the sight of James Earl Jones reading the alphabet intrigued her. Then she saw the characters Susan and Gordon and the urban atmosphere they lived in and found herself relating to the scenario.

Reflecting on her childhood in the Bronx she remembers watching TV and never seeing her life experience reflected in the scenarios on, for instance, "Leave it to Beaver."

"I never saw any people of color on television and on some level I used to watch and wonder where I was going to fit into this world where I didn't see myself represented," she told me. "I didn't know that I was going to be such an advocate of children. 'Sesame Street' was an instrument of social change. The goal was to close the education gap and eliminate racism."

Manzano's work over the past four and a half decades has been tirelessly focused on this mission of bringing differing perspectives and views of the world to children. While she began as performer, her work on "Sesame Street" evolved and she began writing for the program. She has 15 Emmy Awards to her name as a part of the writing staff.

Sesame Street
Sesame Street Cast

Her retirement from "Sesame Street" represents a move in a more writerly direction. She published her first picture book, "No Dogs Allowed," in 2004, and has gone on to publish another children's book, a young adult novel and now her memoir, "Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx," will be released to the public on Aug. 25.

Manzano's best advice for young people upon her retirement: "I would say to be flexible. I didn't know I was going to end up on TV on a children's' show. I always thought I'd try to do regional theater. You have to be flexible with your talents."