Sesame Street’s ‘Maria’ promotes education in Milwaukee

Sonia Manzano spoke at Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee gala

Actress Sonia Manzano, best known for her longtime role as Sesame Street character “Maria,” visited Milwaukee over the weekend to rally support for educational opportunities for Hispanic students.

Manzano was the keynote speaker at the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee’s gala at the Pfister Hotel on Saturday, an annual event that raises funds for higher education scholarships for Latino students.

Actress Sonia Manzano speaks with Griselda Aldrete, CEO of Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee.

HPGM is a nonprofit that formed in 2001 to provide development opportunities and support to Hispanic professionals in the Milwaukee area.

During her stop, Manzano stressed the importance of promoting early childhood education and post-secondary opportunities for low-income and minority students.

Manzano has advocated for education for more than four decades as an actress and writer with Sesame Street, continuing that work since her retirement from the show in 2015.  

When she joined the Sesame Street cast in 1971, Manzano was one of the first Hispanic characters on national television. She went on to win more than a dozen Emmy Awards for her writing contributions on the show.

Manzano recalled growing up in the South Bronx, where she described her early childhood education experience as “very weak.” Manzano said she struggled when she began attending a performing arts high school with her middle- and upper-class peers.

“Poor kids were taught to behave and memorize,” Manzano said. “Kids who weren’t poor were taught to interact and bring their own ideas to the table. I have firsthand experience with that. So when a group like (HPGM) wants to support education, I’m certainly there for them. And especially in the light of the mood of the country today.”

Having maintained only a C average in high school but determined to go to college, Manzano said she knew she had to rely on an audition to get into college. That proved to be her ticket into Carnegie Mellon University, where she received a scholarship.

During her junior year, Manzano starred in a production of Godspell. She was hooked on theater.

“They were inspiring people,” she said. “And most of all, when I  went to college, society was on my side. It was an idealistic America. President Johnson was going to create the Great Society, it was the civil rights movement. So America was supporting me to go to college. That support isn’t there now. So that’s another reason that HPGM is an important organization.”

At 21, she joined Sesame Street, sold on the show’s goal of closing the gap in early childhood education opportunities between low-income children and their more affluent peers.

“Sesame Street was so groundbreaking,” she said. “Before Sesame Street, kids didn’t even learn the alphabet until the first grade … With Sesame Street, inadvertently, kids were picking up the alphabet when they were two or three.”

Wanting more of a voice in the direction of the show’s “Latino content,” Manzano began writing scripts for the show.

Manzano’s 44-year-long run as “Maria” has made her an icon for multiple generations of Sesame Street viewers. She said she’s grateful to have paved the way for more women, and particularly minority women, in the industry.

“I  feel pretty good when young women come to me and say ‘I never would have gotten into broadcasting if i hadn’t seen you. I wouldn’t have gone into communication if i hadn’t seen you on television,’” she said.

Actress Sonia Manzano, best known for her longtime role as Sesame Street character “Maria,” visited Milwaukee over the weekend to rally support for educational opportunities for Hispanic students.

Manzano was the keynote speaker at the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee’s gala at the Pfister Hotel on Saturday, an annual event that raises funds for higher education scholarships for Latino students.

Actress Sonia Manzano speaks with Griselda Aldrete, CEO of Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee.

HPGM is a nonprofit that formed in 2001 to provide development opportunities and support to Hispanic professionals in the Milwaukee area.

During her stop, Manzano stressed the importance of promoting early childhood education and post-secondary opportunities for low-income and minority students.

Manzano has advocated for education for more than four decades as an actress and writer with Sesame Street, continuing that work since her retirement from the show in 2015.  

When she joined the Sesame Street cast in 1971, Manzano was one of the first Hispanic characters on national television. She went on to win more than a dozen Emmy Awards for her writing contributions on the show.

Manzano recalled growing up in the South Bronx, where she described her early childhood education experience as “very weak.” Manzano said she struggled when she began attending a performing arts high school with her middle- and upper-class peers.

“Poor kids were taught to behave and memorize,” Manzano said. “Kids who weren’t poor were taught to interact and bring their own ideas to the table. I have firsthand experience with that. So when a group like (HPGM) wants to support education, I’m certainly there for them. And especially in the light of the mood of the country today.”

Having maintained only a C average in high school but determined to go to college, Manzano said she knew she had to rely on an audition to get into college. That proved to be her ticket into Carnegie Mellon University, where she received a scholarship.

During her junior year, Manzano starred in a production of Godspell. She was hooked on theater.

“They were inspiring people,” she said. “And most of all, when I  went to college, society was on my side. It was an idealistic America. President Johnson was going to create the Great Society, it was the civil rights movement. So America was supporting me to go to college. That support isn’t there now. So that’s another reason that HPGM is an important organization.”

At 21, she joined Sesame Street, sold on the show’s goal of closing the gap in early childhood education opportunities between low-income children and their more affluent peers.

“Sesame Street was so groundbreaking,” she said. “Before Sesame Street, kids didn’t even learn the alphabet until the first grade … With Sesame Street, inadvertently, kids were picking up the alphabet when they were two or three.”

Wanting more of a voice in the direction of the show’s “Latino content,” Manzano began writing scripts for the show.

Manzano’s 44-year-long run as “Maria” has made her an icon for multiple generations of Sesame Street viewers. She said she’s grateful to have paved the way for more women, and particularly minority women, in the industry.

“I  feel pretty good when young women come to me and say ‘I never would have gotten into broadcasting if i hadn’t seen you. I wouldn’t have gone into communication if i hadn’t seen you on television,’” she said.

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