Like a lot of kids growing up in the 1950s, Sonia Manzano watched shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best because she found them to be safe half-hour havens from the reality of daily life in her South Bronx neighborhood.
What she didn't find in those weekly childhood sagas were people who looked like her and lived where she did. This was something she decided she was going to help change when the opportunity arose.
Manzano, known to several generations of viewers as Maria on the Public Broadcast System's beloved program Sesame Street, shared her story during a talk Thursday, Sept. 17, in the University of Delaware's Trabant University Center.
The presentation, "From the South Bronx to Sesame Street," was part of the University's Latino Heritage Month Extravaganza 2015.
Following a warm and rousing Blue Hen welcome from an appreciative audience, Manzano noted that she has two UD connections.
"My sister graduated in 1976, many years before many of you were born. She was in the first graduating class of the computer science department. At that time, it was an absolutely new field," Manzano said. "My other connection is probably the most influential theatrical professor that I ever had at Carnegie Mellon University, where I was a student. He also happened to be a professor at this school, and he has just been awarded an honorary doctorate, and it is my pleasure to reconnect with Dr. Jewel Walker and his family."
Having recently retired after a nearly 45-year career as an actor and a writer on the iconic show, Manzano noted that Sesame Street was decades ahead of today's reality shows.
"During many of my years on Sesame Street, we were the first reality show, only without the whining," Manzano said. "When I became a writer, I found it to be very challenging to break down the big ideas into tidbits that preschoolers could understand."
She said the examination of that journey to Sesame Street resulted in her latest book, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, published by Scholastic Press.
"Maria parallels my real life every step of the way," Manzano said. "I had the desire to know where I went right and where I went wrong. There were so many paths I could have taken."
This journey began when her parents came to the Bronx to escape the grinding poverty of their native Puerto Rico.
"They struggled so much, and this struggle peppered so much of my daily life," Manzano recalled. "Mostly, my parents struggled with each other. My mother struggled with my father's drunkenness and violence, and my father struggled with his inner demons."
In the midst of this sometimes confusing and conflicting home environment, Manzano found temporary relief by watching the popular childhood shows of that era.
An eye-opening moment and respite from the day-to-day world for Manzano came when her fourth grade teacher took the class to see to see the movie West Side Story.
"That moment of realization put me on a higher ground" Manzano said. "I believe that art is doing everyday things, with one's own perspective and feeling."
Manzano's journey took her from the High School of Performing Arts in New York City to Carnegie Mellon University, where, as a junior, she starred in the first run of the Broadway show Godspell.
When told by the producers of Sesame Street that she should make the character of Maria reflect her real life, Manzano said she strove to imagine herself as a child growing up in the South Bronx.
"You can make something successful out of your childhood experience, and you can use a difficult upcoming to be successful," Manzano said. "I hope my book will enlighten people who will then go on to enlighten the world."
After her talk, Manzano fielded questions from the audience on topics ranging from early childhood education to working with Muppets creator Jim Henson.
"Jim was concerned with the true well-being of every creature in the galaxy," Manzano said. Jim's sensibility is something that is greatly missed."
George Morales, a junior engineering major and president of HOLA, a registered student organization, served as master of ceremonies, for the program, and Camila Sosa, a senior political science major, introduced the evening's guest speaker.
Musician Rafael Pondé performed to open the event.
The program was sponsored by the Center for Black Culture, Residence Life and Housing, the Department of English, the Department of Women and Gender Studies, the Latin American and Iberian Studies Program, Campus Alliance de la Raza and HOLA.