STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. David Greene recently spoke with an actress who, for more than four decades, had the role of a lifetime.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SESAME STREET THEME")
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Sunny day, sleeping the...
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Since 1971, Sonia Manzano was one of the lucky humans who got the live on "Sesame Street." As Maria, she guided Big Bird, Elmo and the gang through life's lessons, large and small, like urging Cookie Monster to try some healthy snacks.
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SONIA MANZANO: (As Maria) Cookies and cupcakes are good sometimes, but I want everyone to realize that treats like this can be tasty too.
DAVID RUDMAN: (As Cookie Monster) Oh, Maria.
MANZANO: (As Maria) Oh, come on.
RUDMAN: (As Cookie Monster) This very disappointing.
GREENE: Also disappointing, Sonia Manzano recently announced her retirement. But her dedication to help kids continues. She's written a poignant and difficult new memoir that's meant for teens and adults. Her own story begins growing up in a Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx of the '50s and '60s. There was love, but also violence brought on by her father's drinking. On some nights, Sonia Manzano's mom actually had to hide the kitchen knives.
MANZANO: And I'd say, why are you putting the knives in the oven, mom? And she'd say, oh, no reason at all. (Laughter). But as a kid I'm thinking, are we going to get hurt? Is there a possibility that he's going to use the knives? So it was all this kind of confusing take on what was going on. And I think that I had to have a sense of humor about it.
GREENE: You're a little girl feeling like you need to have a sense of humor to deal with this?
MANZANO: Well, I think it was a way of dealing with it. And when the furniture would be broken because my father would throw the chairs around, my sister would say, look at this, this is great. We're going to have all new furniture by Monday morning, (laughter) which we did. It was this complete cycle of violence, hope, violence, hope.
GREENE: And you would intervene sometimes, I mean, especially when you became a little older, I mean, to try to protect your mom.
MANZANO: Sure. Now, my brothers did not. They would find someplace to hide. I found myself always being in the middle of them, trying to protect her.
GREENE: There was one moment that really stuck with me, where you were standing there almost confronting your father and worried that he might hit you. But you describe as him just looking past you, like you weren't even there.
MANZANO: He just sort of didn't focus on me and did not recognize me in that moment I think, you know, and I had to like bash him over the head (laughter) with a figurine. But I also think, as an adult, what he lived through to result in that kind of behavior
GREENE: What do you mean?
MANZANO: Well, when my mother would tell me these stories about Puerto Rico during the Depression, the poverty. She was one of five orphans and one of her brothers said to me, we used to hang around someone's house and if they gave us a scrap to eat, we'd stay. You know how dogs stay around if you throw them a bone? And she would tell me these horrible stories, and she would say that my father had gone through similar things. He never shared that.
GREENE: But it sounds like there is some amount of forgiveness there.
MANZANO: There is - I had interview yesterday with somebody, and I found myself almost defending my father. Which I'm not doing that, and, I mean, I'm not going to defend that kind of behavior. But to understand something - I don't know if it means you forgive it or condone it, but understanding something is important. And to behave that way, I can only imagine that his upbringing was very miserable.
GREENE: I just think of "Sesame Street," and such a safe place for kids to learn and to live and what a contrast to what you were going through as a kid.
MANZANO: But, you know, I found a lot of comfort on television when I was a kid. I would love "Father Knows Best," and "Leave It To Beaver." So I think it's interesting that I ended up on a show that offered a bit of comfort to children who lived in the inner city and it was better than "Father Knows Best," because it was an environment that they recognized. Here is a moment, an hour, where there's order, where there's humor, where there's love in a place that looks like your home.
GREENE: Well, so take me to that moment when you first saw "Sesame Street."
MANZANO: Oh, I couldn't believe it. I was angry that I was in this play about clowns that hadn't even been written yet. And I walked into the student union at Carnegie Mellon University, and there on the television screen was a very young, very bald James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet. (Imitating James Earl Jones) A, B, C.
GREENE: That's great. I love that.
MANZANO: This very deliberate manner and the letters flashed over his head. And I said, what is this? I thought it was a show that taught lip-reading or something like that. And then I saw the street, and that's when I flipped. Susan and Gordon, this beautiful black couple from this - from tenement doors. The trash cans were like the trash cans in my neighborhood. Mr. Hooper's store was just like the Jewish store owner on Third Avenue. And then they went to this zany - I think it was Wanda the Witch for the letter W with this crazy narration. And I remember - thought I could do that.
GREENE: This is probably an impossible question to answer, but I'm going to throw it at you anyway. You think back on 44 years on "Sesame Street," I mean is there moment or two that just stands out for you?
MANZANO: Well, I - there are so many.
GREENE: I know. I'm sorry.
MANZANO: I know. I know. But there was a moment when Stevie Wonder came on to "Sesame Street," and he did "Very Superstitious."
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STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Very superstitious writings on the wall...
MANZANO: The whole studio rocked out and it was great because white people, black people, young people, old people, everybody was on the same page for that two minutes that he sang, and that really stands out.
GREENE: What was the lesson from every one of, you know, all races, backgrounds being on the same page?
MANZANO: Well, it was a moment of clarity I think that, you know, we started the show - we thought we were going to end racism, we were going to close the education gap and, you know, we had big dreams. And moments like Stevie being on the show gave us a glimpse of the way things could be.
GREENE: Well, Sonia, it's been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.
MANZANO: Well, thank you.
GREENE: Sonia Manzano's new memoir is called "Becoming Maria." And we did ask her about the news of "Sesame Street's," move to HBO. She said she didn't know enough about the details but that she would, quote, "support anything that will keep the show on the air."
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