Q&A: Sonia Manzano on identity politics, the Bronx, Bloomberg and raising kids
Sonia Manzano, 62, who has played Maria on Sesame Street for 39 years, has just come out with her third children's book and first young adult novel, "The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano." The mother of an adult daughter, Manzano lives on the Upper West Side with her husband, retired wildlife foundation executive Richard Reagan.
Q. What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?
A. For all those people to stop standing in the doors of the subway while other people are entering and exiting. And for all those people to turn down the music coming out of their head phones so I don't have to listen to it!
Q. Wait till all the trains get wifi. Then you'll have to listen to all those idiotic cellphone conversations.
A. I know! I don't want to sound like I hate New York: I love it.
Q. You grew up in the South Bronx, home of the nation's very poorest ZIP code. Would you say that the kids growing up there today have it easier or harder than you did?
A. I grew up around Third Ave. and Crotona. It seems like I grew up in nice, benign days. It's so different now. Everyone was poor, but they were working, and we didn't have a lot of teenage pregnancies: We had a lot of two parent families. There was a lot of family and a lot of community feeling. We didn't have 50 kids in a class. We didn't have classes taught in hallways because there weren't enough classrooms. We had recess! We had a bunch of racist teachers -- I remember one during Brotherhood Week in the 1950s telling us that everyone was either black or white. One kid asked, "what about brown people?" and she said there was no such thing. This was a week that was supposed to be about teaching diversity and she was telling us we didn't exist. But we had great teachers, too. One of the reasons I volunteer with the Bronx Children's Museum is that the Bronx is the only borough without one. I'm also involved with the Bronx River Alliance. It's tough for kids in the Bronx, but there's a lot of energy there.
Q. So what do you think about the Chicago teacher's strike, and the increasing activism of teachers' unions in general?
A. I go back and forth all the time. My own mother was so excited to become a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Each issue takes examination and has to be looked at separately.
Q. So who do you like for mayor?
A. I've been so obsessed with the presidential race, I don't know. I've been very happy with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though. Now we'll see if he gets run out of his party like all the other talented Republicans.
Q. Does identity politics still have a place in NYC?
An Identity still plays a role because of the Internet: We're not just reading about people, we're seeing them. We should vote for people based on their thoughts and qualifications and how we think they'll do the job, but instead, a lot of people say, "I'll vote for that person because he looks like me." It's often hard to find out what people really believe: Everyone is so careful about what they say because they're so afraid it will be misconstrued. That's why Bill Clinton (in his keynote speech for the Democratic Convention) was so wonderful. He made tough concepts really, really clear. He's not running for anything, so he can say whatever he wants now: He's unleashed!
Q What's the funniest thing a Sesame Street fan has ever said to you?
A If I'm out somewhere and ask a kid his name, he'll say, "Oh, Maria: You know my name!" They think I can see them (through the television) the same way they see me. I've been around so long, I'm a part of the collective subconscience. When adults see me, they remember being on their mother's lap and I remind them of all these other nice feelings. Yes, I'm kind of like public property, but I like that.
Q. Do you resist the burden of being a role model?
A. When I first started on Sesame Street, someone told me, "you're a role model for Hispanics." I thought, "I didn't want that job!" Now, I've grown into it, but it's not like I changed anything I was doing. When you're one of the only Latins on TV, you don't get to decide whether you're a role model. Other people decide whether you're a role model, -- or a leader.
Q. Are you a leader?
A. I prefer to have the reins in my hands.
Q. It does seem like you're your own brand: You've written oodles of episodes for Sesame Street and been involved in so many other things besides acting. Do you have any advice for young people starting out in the arts?
A. If you're an actor, you have to act. Act anywhere -- shopping malls, anywhere! That's how you learn your craft. The Internet has really opened up a lot of possibilities for people because you no longer have to go through the keepers at the gate (agents, casting directors, Hollywood moguls needed to greenlight a film, etc.). Now you can just write something and post it. You don't need a gatekeeper's vote because you can get the public's vote! As an actress, I had the least amount of power. I'm in a great position now because I write for the show. Back in the 1980s, Sesame Street wanted Hispanic content and felt it would be better if an actual Hispanic person wrote it. One of the reasons I wrote my book is we didn't have any Latina protagonists in books when I was growing up and I thought, "well, that's something I can remedy."
Q. In all your years writing for and acting for children, what have you learned about them?
A. They really are all born equal -- full of enthusiasm and energy and very adaptable. But by five, they start to take on the personalities of the people around them. Our job is to keep their enthusiasm going. A lot of time, people think they have to have the answers to their children. That's wrong. We don't have to have the answers: If we can just keep them excited and interested, they'll come up with their own answers.
Q. Tell us something about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor we don't already know.
A. We work on the Bronx Children's Museum together. I brought her on to Sesame Street. I wrote a bit for her about adjudicating between Goldilocks and Baby Bear and whether Goldilocks had the right to break in. I think she had Goldilocks fix a chair or something. She's a great critical thinker, but you probably knew that. We were honoring (salsero) Bobby Sanabria together at an event and she said that as a kid she always wanted to know how things worked. She was that kid who always pondered a leaf or where the wind came from that moved it.