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Long After Sesame Street, Sonia Manzano Is Still Teaching Children About Racial Equity

When I was a little girl growing up in Boulder, Colorado, these were the Latinas I knew: my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, and Maria from Sesame Street. I’m certainly not alone in that, which was kind of the point of Sesame Street, after all. Though writer and actor Sonia Manzano retired from the series in 2015, after playing Maria since 1971, she hasn’t stopped teaching children about the many kinds of people there are around the world and what they all share. Her latest children’s book, A World Together, does just that with the help of National Geographic Kids and some gorgeous photographs showing children all over the world.

We’ve long loved Manzano’s many kids books, and upon hearing about this latest one, 4-year-old me was jumping up and down like Elmo at the chance to talk to “Maria.” Fully grown-up me was also pretty hyped, because she has excellent timing, releasing this book just as so many parents have questions about how to teach our children about racial equity, cultural diversity, and cultivating empathy for others. Manzano is such a pro, she was able to speak to both my inner child and my mom self without even indicating that I was gushing just a little too much like a Sesame Street fangirl.

SheKnows: Hi Sonia! I’m ridiculously excited about speaking to you today. There are not many celebrities I’ve interviewed that have been with me since basically before I had memories.

Sonia Manzano: Sesame Street is part of so many people’s lives. I realized how long the show was on when we met Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. Usually when we met presidents, they were adults when Sesame Street happened. But Barack Obama and Michelle were kids.

SK: Did you think when you first started that all these years later, people would still be calling you Maria?

SM: No, I think that that is just wonderful. I have a connection with television. I was raised in a household ruled by domestic violence, and I found comfort watching television. It was the days of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, all those kind of orderly shows and movies, and I was fascinated by television and fascinated by my mother’s reaction to comedy shows. … While I was on Sesame Street, I always remembered that there might be a kid just like me trying to find comfort on television. I always felt you have to be sincere because they’ll be able to tell if you’re not and that I was talking to them. And I’ve gotten letters. Somebody tweeted the other day, “Oh, my God, I was raised in a miserable childhood, and I was so happy to see you on television.”

 

SK: How did you wind up writing A World Together?

SM: I jumped at the chance when National Geographic asked me to write a book on diversity. They had written some books on diversity with Sesame Street characters, and they wanted another point of view. This was at the height of all the immigrant bashing that was going on in the media, so I wondered how I could impact that.

I was always charmed by the notion, as a kid, that we all looked at the same sun and there was only one moon, and no matter where in the world we looked, that’s one thing that we had in common. What draws the book together for me is trying to illustrate to children that we have the same feelings, and that is what draws us together.

SK: What was it like to work on this as a book of real photography, rather than illustrations?

SM: I would send in a draft, and then the photo editor would look at photos [to use]. It was a real collaborative effort. I thought to myself, what do photos mean to me? Then I remembered how [as a girl] I was struck by these photos of my mother and sister in Puerto Rico, because I had never been there. I would look at them and caress them and try to understand this place that they had come from. They would say how horrible and how poverty-stricken it was, and they had to escape. But then they would sing songs about it like it was a beautiful place.

Photographs have another life somehow. We’ve all looked at photos of our ancestors and fantasized about them. So, I’m hoping that kids have a lot to look at. Maybe they can latch onto that a little bit more.

SK: Did you have a favorite photo?

SM: There’s picture of all those kids in school [in India], sitting in straight lines in the sand, and some are looking at the camera and some are not. Some of the kids say, “I’m going to look right at you.”

SK: And that one girl is giving such a side-eye!

SM: Also the sad photo of the boy — it looks like his father is going off to be deployed or something.

SK: That one has my favorite quote, too: “When people feel scared, they sometimes forget that deep down we’re all the same.” It’s so relevant right now.

SM: Yes. It’s hard to introduce these notions to kids without scaring them. What stuns me about what’s going on today is the anger that is out there, this rage that people are feeling about [things like] wearing a mask. That’s about people being scared. It’s a tough thing to have to have to explain to children.

SK: These are all concepts that I remember Sesame Street teaching me as a kid, though. How would you say the approach to teaching about racism has evolved over time?

SM: When I was growing up, you never saw people of color on television. You certainly didn’t see Latinos. … In the beginning, what we did [on Sesame Street] was sort of stunning and groundbreaking. … We never spoke of skin colors or the fact that we were diverse. That didn’t happen. We were just going to present it. Then years later, we got more overt and started saying, “My skin is dark and I love my skin.” We just pointed those differences out, and we didn’t really try to explain them.

Nowadays, I think people are trying to explain them and in ways of that create empathy. … We try to hit it right on the nose, and we’re not subtle about it like we were in the old days. That’s both good and bad, because if a kid starts to feel like it’s a boring lesson about empathy, how we all have to like each other, they get turned off to it.

Certainly a way to handle that is to not shy away from sad stories. I used to love The Little Match Girl because it was so sad. She went to heaven and met her grandmother! And I used to love Cinderella because I used feel so bad for her. I used to think, “Oh, if I find those ugly sisters, I’m going to punch them right in the nose!” It made me feel empathy through the story.

If they feel powerful or if they feel sad about a fairy tale, let’s say, they feel like a part of a bigger tribe. I think that’s a way of nurturing  feelings of empathy and seeing how we’re all in this human condition.

SK: Do you feel like we’re sheltering our kids a little too much from sad and scary stories?

SM: Yeah. I’ve known people who don’t want to read Beatrix Potter to their kids because it’s scary, or Charlotte’s Web because Charlotte dies. I think those are missed opportunities to sit with their kids and say, “What about Mr. McGregor’s pie? I hope Peter Rabbit gets out!” You start rooting for him. We take away things that give them grit, and then want to teach it to them. It’s kind of like when we take vitamins out of food and then repackage them.

SK: Some of the experts I’ve talked to have said that to teach kids about racism, we need to talk about differences as well as the things we have in common. It’s interesting that the text of this book is about the feelings that we share in common, while the photos show such different worlds. How did you come to the conclusion to do both?

SM: We did that at Sesame Street: Everybody’s the same, but we’re all different, too. You have to present both. You want to say everybody’s the same, but Latinos like to do the mambo and they speak Spanish, which is different from non-Latinos, obviously. When we cry and when we feel good about something, and when we’re hungry, we’re the same in the human condition. … But the culture changes, much to our enlightenment and joy.

SK: I’ve talked here about the problems and opportunities with “Hispanic Heritage Month,” which is going on right now. Many think “Hispanic” is the wrong term because if its connection to colonialism. It’s also still uncomfortable to fit such a broad category of people’s history and culture into one month. How do you feel about it?

SM: [We need to] keep building on it. I would say, never take away. Using the word Hispanic has irritated many people. When I was I was campaigning for Barack Obama out in the Southwest, I was told not to use “Latin,” to use Hispanic, because a lot of those people were proud to be descendants of Spaniards. … I wouldn’t spend my own time worrying about the names. I obviously wish we didn’t have to segregate ourselves for one month of celebration, but… I think we’re getting there.

We going to see a real racial reckoning, since George Floyd’s death, that nobody can deny. My optimistic friends say, if there’s anything good about what’s going on today is that nothing is hidden. The horrible truths are coming out about society.

SK: Are you that optimistic too?

SM: I despair often, but you have to keep doing things. Like James Baldwin said, I’m alive; therefore, I’m hopeful.

SK: I wonder if even he thought it would take this long for progress to be made.

SM: I know. Sesame Street, when it came out in ’69, it came out of the Civil Rights Movement. … I really thought in my youth that all these racist people would die, and that’s it. Ya, se acabó… Can you imagine, at my age now, thinking, oh, my God, we’re going through this again and even worse? If people say, “What have you learned from Sesame Street?” then my answer is always going to be that don’t think because you address something in one generation that it’s taken care of in the next one.

SK: Does creating work for a young audience give you hope, despite that?

SM: I find strength from kids. You see Syrian kids on the news, in the worst possible situation they could be in, and they’re looking at the camera smiling. They are resilient. They solve problems. You learn things from them because they see things in their own way. They’ll come up with things that are different than you could have imagined. If I said this to my daughter once, I said one hundred times, “Where did you get such a notion — to fill the fish tank with water from two feet away?”

I hope this book provides moments of open-ended conversation, not lessons, just conversations about the images that they see.

SK: And what are you working on after this?

SM: I’m doing some books with Scholastic, some picture books and some young adult novels — I can’t reveal any more information. The thing that’s very exciting for me, which I can only be coy about is that I’ve partnered with Fred Rogers Productions. I have created a show, an animated series. We’re in the middle of recording it and doing the animation for it. And I can tell you that it takes place in the Bronx and that it’s very personal.

SK: I can’t wait to see it!

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