February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Video: Daniel José Older Talks to Sonia Manzano, Sesame Street’s ‘Maria,’ About Her Memoir

Becoming Maria: Sonia Manzano in Conversation with Daniel José Older from School Library Journal on Vimeo.

School Library Journal had the unique opportunity of pairing two Latino authors—Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper (2015), and Sonia Manzano, the Pura Belpré Honor award-winning author for The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (2012) and acclaimed actress who originated the iconic role of “Maria” on Sesame Street—in a videotaped conversation about Manzano’s first memoir Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx (2015, all Scholastic). Check out the video above and the transcript of the entire conversation below.

Daniel José Older: This is your first memoir—not your first book but your first memoir. Why now?
Sonia Manzano:
After being on Sesame Street for 44 years and recently losing my mother to Alzheimer’s, it seemed like as she was forgetting her memories, I was looking back. I wanted to look back into the past. One day I was thinking, “How on earth did I get to Sesame Street from where I came from?” If you would’ve told me I was going to be on television when I was a kid, I would’ve told you to commit yourself at the nearest insane asylum. So I wanted to examine that journey that got me to Sesame Street and the result is this memoir.

DJO: Was there a moment when you said, “I have to write a memoir,” or was it throughout the course of everything that happened?
I love the memoir form. It was introduced to me by Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was a Puerto Rican (Vintage, 1994). That book opened up a world to me, because I had never read about Nuyoricans or Puerto Ricans before her. And then I read Frank McCourt’s book, Angela’s Ashes (Scribner, 1996). I just loved that he could tell this terrible story and make you laugh. I try to find humor in things, that’s just part of my personality. I thought I could do the same thing with my family [story] because it was pretty tragic, but there was [also] a lot of humor in it.


Photo by Edward Pagan

DJO: That’s what I love about this. It’s very accentual and experiential. You’re telling this very large story, but you’re doing it through these moments and you make each moment matter and then fit into this greater story. How did you pick which moments would go in the book?
That was really hard because you start writing a memory book and you start writing down every thing that happened to you and it could be a very dull story. I decided on what I thought the theme of the book should be, and I picked the anecdotes that would support that theme. And it was about self-discovery. I grew up in the days when people did not talk to kids; they did not explain anything to children. You just absorbed and tried to figure things out by yourself. And I tried to give the book that feeling.

DJO: There’s this moment in the book where you go see West Side Story. It just jumped out; the moment is so vivid and it seems to be this turning point for you. Is that something that determined the course of your life?
It really did. First of all, I think I was depressed. I didn’t realize it at that time. But it was something [akin] to sleeping all day, which was something I used to do. This teacher takes me to see West Side Story, and all of a sudden, I’m seeing this crummy neighborhood that looked just like my neighborhood, except it was gorgeous. The schoolyard fence was like a modern art painting. The colors were vibrant. The altar in the bedroom that every Puerto Rican had in their house, in the movie, it was beautiful. I thought on some level, I don’t know if I articulated this, that this must be what art is: you take a banal thing that you see every day and you exalt it. Somehow, that made me disengage from the turmoil of my family. And I think it was seeing the artistry of that movie.

DJO: I think you articulated that perfectly. The book changes after that moment. There’s this sense that you’re trudging through up to that point and after that, it’s like, “I got this.” And it made me think about representation and visibility. You’ve given that gift to millions of people. I felt like there was a lot of connection between that moment for you and that moment that your whole career has been made out of.
I found comfort in shows on television. It used to be shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, taking place in this suburban environment. I didn’t even know where this place was. When I got onto Sesame Street I always remembered myself watching television as a child and finding a sanctuary. I’m sure there were children out there watching Sesame Street who needed to see order in a place that was familiar to them.

DJO: Me [Chuckling].
SM: [Laughing] Yes, you were one of them. It [presented] the inner city and the stoop and people of color on television, albeit they were surrounded by these idiotic lovable puppets. And we were real people.

Daniel Jose Older

Photo by Kevin Kane

DJO: Yes, that was powerful. So in that moment, that was also another piece that really struck me. There was this great contrast between the life you were living [and] seeing on the screen, [while] you were… in Manhattan versus your life in the South Bronx. It seems like almost for the first time, your eyes are open to a brand-new side of the city. Can you talk about that contrast?
I thought if I could get into the High School of Performing Arts—it was on 46th Street at that time—and come into Manhattan, [it would be] such an experience. You saw these diverse people, because everyone in my neighborhood was the same—and it was exciting to me to be out in the city. You saw a lot of Jewish people the jewelry district there. One block away was the percussion shops where they sold instruments. It was all in this congested area and I found that exciting. It was around the time that Sweet Charity must have been playing at the [Winter] Garden with Richard Burton [who had] a tattoo. I thought that was fascinating: are there people singing and dancing every night in there?

DJO: At the same time you bring a lot of life to the South Bronx. A lot of representations that we read about the Bronx are all about the trepidation, and [that] it’s horrible, and people are dying, and you show those harsh realities. But you also give it a lot of love and life, and there’s this beautiful constant language and dialogue and interplay happening all around you. How did you do that world-building?
I remembered the beauty of the bodega and seeing everything from the five-year-old point of view and the colors that went around and the food that was for sale under various coverings. I just focused on the beautiful things that I saw there as a kid, even though there was a lot of harshness. That’s the point of my book: every life is worthwhile, no matter [how] hard or difficult it is. You can make something of it. For all of the insanity that went on within my family and the community, my family was musical and I really latched onto that.

I actually thought that all Puerto Ricans could sing and play guitar. I did. With my uncles around, Friday night was always (guitar strumming sounds) all the time. I finally understood that not all Puerto Ricans could sing, but my parents did.

DJO: And I loved that your father would be picking up the guitar throughout the book and start playing. There’s this sort of danger to it because you don’t know if that’s going to turn into him getting drunk and getting violent, or it could become a beautiful community moment. Or, both of those things could happen in an overlapping way. There were also conversations happening on top of the music, which I found to be very true, because music is a part of “being present” in different Latino cultures.
When you’re in those situations you feel two things at the same time, and I think that’s what I really wanted to represent. How could I love my father’s guitar playing and not like him when he’s drunk. A kid likes to see things in yes or no and black or white. There’s good guys and bad guys. It’s not bad guys who play the guitar really well and make you laugh. You can’t reconcile that. But I think kids are—and we’re all—in those situations, often.

becoming maria coverDJO: It’s not just kids. Literature tends to like to see us—people of color, Latinos—as black and white. There’s the noble savage or the evil savage. That’s another thing that I found so refreshing: you don’t let us have these simplistic ideas of who people are. Your father is a lovable character in the book and a terrible character in the book. From your experience of him, we get that. All of that love and all of that fear comes through.

SM: And my mother is really smart and clever but on the other hand, she somehow justified this and could live with it.

DJO: But in a very human way, and that comes through. Your other book, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, has memoirlike moments to it, but it’s also a protest novel. There’s so much happening there. It’s a wonderful book. How was the process for you different to write a memoir versus the novel?
SM: Well, when you’re writing a novel, if it gets boring, you could always make up an explosion or a dead body under the bed.

DJO: Yes, I do that all of the time.

SM: And you do it so well in your books. In that book, the moments in my real life that I loved being Puerto Rican was what I mined for The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano. So that was the emotional through line of that—when the Young Lords took over the church in El Barrio. This was the first time Latinos made a political statement. It was the Black Panthers; it was the white students at Columbia University. In ’69 everybody had a platform, but you never heard [from] Latinos. I would kind of slide in with African Americans and go to connect there. The Young Lords was the first time that I saw Latins making a political statement about their situation. It was way above my head.

DJO: But you captured it. This is 2015, and here we are marching in the streets and doing takeovers and the #BlackLivesMatter movement is happening in a very vivid way. I was reading this book that takes place decades ago, and it was speaking so truly to what is happening right now. It’s a powerful thing.
It’s sad. I started Sesame Street in ’69, as well. It was a big year. People were walking on the moon. A lot of things were happening in America. I really thought, naively, that we were going to end racism. Everybody was aware of it—done. I figured that we were going to close the education gap. That this is happening now, saddens me, obviously. I thought that there would be a million TV shows with a million Latin people and a million movies with Latinos in it by now.

DJO: One of the things that I loved about Sesame Street and the work that you’ve done on it, is that it’s one of the few shows that explicitly says, “We’re here to end racism. We’re here to stop poverty.” Where even now, you don’t see a lot of that explicit messaging. People are afraid to be political or preachy sometimes. But Sesame Street isn’t preachy; it’s very real. Watching it, you felt like it was reality; it wasn’t someone trying to push something down our throats. This is what it is. To me it’s always seemed like it came natural to you—to just express exactly who you are. And it was what was needed. Was that a challenge for you?
First, I wanted to know what “Maria” was like. How should she be? They kept saying, “We want you to be just exactly who you are so that kids relate to you as a real person.” It’s very hard to “act” that. It’s easier to be a character. I finally embraced it. The first “Gordon” was an actor named Matt Robinson, and he said to me, “You’re not here to just to be an actor. You have to make sure that the Latino content is appropriate.” When did I become a spokesperson [for entire people]? So I rose to the occasion, when there was a fruit cart on the show—bananas and pears. I went to the producers nervously and I told them, “You know if this is really a diverse neighborhood, there should be some coconuts and platanos on that fruit cart.” And guess what, the next day, they [were] there.

DJO: That’s a beautiful thing. So, I ask you this as someone who has spoken up about diversity. That fight continues today. Here we are in 2015, just trying to get the basic truth of our world represented in children’s books and on television. What should we do?
What should we do? Wow. We have to continue to write as you’re doing. Your books certainly have a unique take on spiritualism, which is very vibrant in our culture. Why are there all these vampire books out and not about us? We own that spiritualism stuff! In Shadowshaper, you really touch upon that.

DJO: Thank you, I appreciate it. Yeah, I guess there’s something to be said about just keep moving. You also wrote for Sesame Street, beautifully. How was that process different from writing in prose?
I know the characters [already]. And it’s dialogue. Plus, they were short bits. I picked my favorite characters, which was always Oscar the Grouch. You can’t have drama if everybody is so agreeable. You can count on him to be the negative guy. And you could do some funny stuff. I love the skit form too—the variety show, pie-in-the-face kind of humor.

DJO: Do you feel like you have a first language artistically? Is it writing scripts? Is it acting? Is it writing novels?
SM: I love to perform. I love to ham it up. But, I think I would’ve been a writer if I had been exposed to it. There was no literature in my house. I must be the only person who just read To Kill a Mockingbird [by Harper Lee]. Apparently, it was taught in schools. I always tell this crummy joke about my father, and it’s in the book. My father had to write down a phone number and he grabbed my mother’s eyebrow pencil and wrote it on the wall, because there were no pencils or paper in the house.

Writing was something intellectuals did, not us. It never occured to me to write stuff. But when I was on Sesame Street, the writers would ask me, “What do you think about this bit?” That’s how you know you could do something: When someone does something and you say, “You know, they should’ve done it like this, and they could’ve said that. This would’ve been better.” That’s when you know that you have a talent for something. Whereas I could look at a director, and I never think of anything he could do. That’s not what I can do.

DJO: So in a sense, you’re in the midst of a [writing] career.
Yes, I’m using less words. When you start writing, you use a lot of words and you read your reading aloud, and eventually [say], “Could I have used any more words, Manzano?”

DJO: Yes, I’ve been there. So, what’s next?
I have a few ideas bubbling around in my head that I’m not going to share at the moment, as you can understand.

DJO: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much.
Thank you.


Sonia Manzano and Daniel José Older; Prepping for the interview: l. to r.: Manzano’s Scholastic publicist Jennifer Abbot, Sonia Manzano, Older’s Scholastic publicist Saraciea J. Fennell, interviewer Daniel José Older, SLJ Senior Editor Shelley Diaz; Manzano, Older, and Diaz.

Sonia Manzano and Daniel José Older; Prepping for the interview: l. to r.: Manzano’s Scholastic publicist Jennifer Abbot, Sonia Manzano, Older’s Scholastic publicist Saraciea J. Fennell, interviewer Daniel José Older, SLJ Senior Editor Shelley Diaz; Manzano, Older, and Diaz.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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  1. Well done. Loved this.