Emmy-winning writer and actress Sonia Manzano, who played “Maria” on Sesame Street for more than 40 years, talks to host Kevin Burke about growing up in the South Bronx and how she draws on the “love and chaos” of her childhood to teach children—something she’s still doing through her new animated series for PBS Kids, Alma’s Way.
Filmed in Manhattan and Queens, Sesame Street wasn’t that far from Sonia’s own hometown in New York City. Sesame Street is a fictional place that evokes city life from the stoop to the subway and apartments above stores. But Sonia grew up in the very real place of the South Bronx—most vividly on Third Avenue near Crotona Park. How different was Sonia’s New York from the one she helped to create as Maria? On our TVs, Sonia gave us something we needed: a feeling of love and safety, empathy and imagination. Where did she find these things when she was a kid?
This is a two-part episode. In the first part, Sonia takes us from the world of Sesame Street—actually, her audition—back to her beginnings in the South Bronx. And in part two, she explains how she got from the Bronx to Sesame Street and lived a second childhood as an adult with experiences to share. So, “come and play” and “sweep the clouds away” – by listening to one of the truest teachers you’ll find in New York or any hometown.
“...And she took me to see West Side Story, buys me a poster, the poster of them kissing on the fire escape. And I got home and I remember my mother said, “So how was the movie?” It was like, I am so unhappy, and it's my unhappiness and I'm not going to share it with you because this is my beautiful, full of feeling, and I crushed that poster to me and laid down in bed with it and cried into the crumpled up poster. I made it a part of me and I felt empowered. My misery made me strong because I was part of the, the human condition.”
SHARE THIS EPISODE
Sesame Street: “I Can Remember (Bread, Milk, Butter)”
“Guajira Guantamanera” by Josiéto Fernandez (1929)
“Esta Navidad”: Puerto Rican Christmas Song – Unspecified: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings / Folkways Records (1958)
“Tonight – Quintet” from West Side Story (1961)
“Tonight” from West Side Story (1961)
Sesame Street: Show Open Season One
Clip from One Touch of Venus (1948)
“Whistling” Sound from Opening Scene of West Side Story (1961).
Final Scene from West Side Story (1961)
Illustrations – Nick Gregg
Recommended Viewing: Alma’s Way and Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
Recommended Reading: Sonia Manzano, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx
Special thanks: Gloria Bonelli
Our co-presenter this season is the Museum of the City of New York. For more, including information on live events, check out our NYC series page at mcny.org/yourhometown-podcast.
Kevin Burke (VO): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York, with generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at YourHometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Sonia Manzano: Whenever Denise was going to beat me up, Shirley Pellman would magically appear— the teacher. So, she decides to take me to the—me and a couple of girlfriends. She just had to ask my mother. And she took me to see West Side Story, and she buys me a poster, the poster of them kissing on the fire escape. And I got home and I remember my mother said, “So how was the movie?” [laughs] It was like, I am so unhappy, and it’s my unhappiness and I’m not going to share it with you because this is my beautiful, full of feeling, and I crushed that poster to me and laid down in bed with it and cried into the [laughs] crumpled up poster. I made it a part of me and I felt empowered. My misery made me strong because I was part of the, the human condition.
Kevin Burke (VO): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked—a lot. But the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us and what happened to them there— before we met the world and the world met us. I’m Kevin Burke, and this is Your Hometown.
[Tape] Sesame Street: Show Open Season One.
Kevin Burke (VO): Growing up, a lot of us found our way to Sesame Street. It mattered most to me back in the early 1980s. I was a kid going to a babysitter’s house each weekday morning because my mom had to go back to work full time. I counted on that hour of TV as an escape from my homesickness, even though, really, I was a few blocks from home. The characters on that show—the Muppets and the humans alike— really did make the air feel sweeter somehow.
My guest was one of them: Sonia Manzano. You know her. She was Maria for more than 40 years on the show. When she was young, she used to hang out at Mr. Hooper’s store. Then she was hired at the Fix-It Shop and she ended up marrying Luis and they had a daughter. Now, turns out, Sesame Street wasn’t that far from her own hometown. Both are neighborhoods in New York City. Sesame Street is filmed in Manhattan and Queens. It’s a fictional place that evokes city life from the stoop, to the courtyard, to the subway, and apartments above stores. Sonia, though, she grew up in the very real place of the South Bronx, most vividly on Third Avenue near Crotona Park. All of this made me curious: How different was Sonia’s New York from the one she helped to create as Maria? How has she drawn on her childhood to teach us things? It’s something she’s still doing with her new show called Alma’s Way.
On our TVs, Sonia gave us something we needed: a feeling of love and safety, empathy and imagination. Where did she find these things when she was a kid? The title of her memoir is Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx. Chaos. That interested me. We don’t see a lot of chaos on Sesame Street. We’re going to find out here where that came from.
Sitting down to record this interview at the Museum of the City of New York, Sonia knocked me out with her storytelling, which comes from the most generous of places: to teach children from her own life. The funny, the scary, the raw.
Now, this is a two-part episode, and in the first part, Sonia takes us from the world of Sesame Street, actually her audition for the show, to her beginnings in the South Bronx. And in part two, she explains how she got from the Bronx to Sesame Street and lived a second childhood as an adult with experiences to share. So, “come and play” and “sweep the clouds away” by listening to one of the truest teachers you’ll ever find in New York or any hometown.
Kevin Burke: I found it interesting that when you auditioned for Sesame Street, the executive producer of the show, John Stone, asked you to tell him a scary story and to tell it to him as if he were a kid. It was unexpected. And your mind went back to the place where you grew up, Third Avenue in the Bronx, and you told a story. And I wanted to ask you how it riffed on an original dream or experience that you had as a little girl.
Sonia Manzano: Right, exactly. Boy, you’re really jarring my memory at this moment. But I watched a lot of television as a kid, and this is before people were very interested or concerned and didn’t realize the impact that that some violent cartoons might have on children. So this was a cartoon that had to do with World War II. And there was a periscope that came out of the submarine in the cartoon with a big eye on it. And it was, you know, bearing down on the enemy. So I then had a dream or an experience where this periscope eyeball was chasing me around the Third Avenue apartment we lived in. And I was, I remember being very scared at that moment. So when John asked me to tell a story, that’s the story I remembered.
Kevin Burke: What was it about that eye that scared you?
Sonia Manzano: It had very long, like Snuffleupagus eyelashes. You know, very wet. And it was just an eye at the end of the periscope. It didn’t have a face to go with it. So it was very ominous.
Kevin Burke: And that feeling of being watched, is that something that you can remember feeling as a kid?
Sonia Manzano: No, I never did. The only, I guess the only connection to watching is that I watched so much television. Nothing else to do.
[Tape] Sounds of television.
Sonia Manzano: I formed my view of life from the window to the television — that’s where reality existed. And at that time, the Third Avenue elevated train was up.
[Tape] Sounds of television and elevated train.
Sonia Manzano: You know, I’d look out the window and there was all this activity going on, and then I’d connect those images and feelings and stories with what I was watching on television. And I reconcile some of that and then go back to the window.
Kevin Burke: And that train, was it a comforting sound at times? Was it an annoying sound?
Sonia Manzano: I loved it. I still love the subway. I love when it goes underground. I love when it comes up. I love that my sister said to me, we’re going to take the subway and we’re going to go to this place called Orchard Street and we’re going to buy pickles from a barrel. And I said “No.”
She said, “Yes, and we’re going to get knishes.” “What’s a knish?” “It’s like a big square potato that’s fried and you can get them with mustard inside.” I went, “No!” It was like I always compared the subway to, in front of my house – like a river was always flowing and it took me places and people came and you got on and then you got off and, you know, you sat in those straw seats and you got down to a different world within a day. I loved it. And I would wait for my mother to come home from work and she’d get off the train and she’d wait for me and she’d wave to me and then I’d watch her walk down to the end of the station and down the stairs and past the shoeshine boys— ooh, I wanted to be a shoeshine boy so badly.
Kevin Burke: Why did you want to be a shoeshine boy?
Sonia Manzano: Because they had power. Boys had power, girls had to stay indoors. But the boys could be out making money. [laughs] But, you know, I actually tried, you know, tried it with my parents and they didn’t go for it. They wanted me to be in. I was a girl. Stay indoors, protected. Boys had power.
Kevin Burke: And what about your little brothers? Your two little brothers?
Sonia Manzano: They could go out more.
Kevin Burke: So it really was a girl-boy thing?
Sonia Manzano: Oh, yeah. And I remember my friend Marion Uble, she lived on Fulton Avenue right across from Crotona Park, and there was a rock outcropping. I love the rock outcroppings in the Bronx and I could climb it. And then I could see kind of Fulton Avenue and Third Avenue. I’d say to myself, “You know, actually, Marion Uble and I live in the same building.” Of course, we didn’t. But in my mind, I would say, “Well, see, that building is connected to that building, which is connected to that building, and those two buildings are touching. Therefore, you can say we are living in the same connected area.”
Kevin Burke: One of the things that jumps out when you’re reading your memoir is that you yourself were a set of eyes. What do you see when you think of that little girl in you and what she was observing of the world through those windows as portals?
Sonia Manzano: I made sense of the world that way. I put two and two together. I would watch the lifestyles of the guy who owned the grocery store downstairs.
Kevin Burke: This is Don Joe’s bodega?
Sonia Manzano: Don Joe’s bodega, right, you know. And going down there and stealing something.
Kevin Burke: [laughs]
Sonia Manzano: I’m a thief.
Kevin Burke: What did you steal?
Sonia Manzano: I stole a coconut macaroon. See, my parents were always arguing about money and how, you know, they never had enough money and money was so tight and money was so tight. My mother gives me five cents to get myself a treat. So I go downstairs and I see that Don Joe is distracted. So I take the macaroon and I take it upstairs and we’re eating it. My mother and I are sharing it. And I said, “And not only that, Mom, I saved us five cents because I stole it.” Because I did what she— Well, she said, “Oh, you know, you’re not supposed to do that. You know, we’re not that bad off that we have to steal. The Virgin Mary cries every time kids steal, and that’s why it rains.”
Kevin Burke: So there’s a watchful eye, the Virgin Mary.
Sonia Manzano: I know, oh, gosh. Oh, so then, you know, she said, “You have to go downstairs and you have to apologize and you have to pay for it.”
Kevin Burke: And so what did you do?
Sonia Manzano: I went downstairs. I didn’t have the nerve to apologize, but I made do. I kissed the two cents up to heaven and left it on the counter and ran out. That was making my peace. I couldn’t face him and go through the whole rigmarole of talking. Plus, if I had something to say to the grocer and he interrupted me, I’d forget what I was supposed to buy.
Kevin Burke: Right.
[Tape] Sesame Street: “I Can Remember (Bread, Milk, Butter).”
Kevin Burke: What were some of the laws of the universe that you were noticing? And where did you see little Sonia fitting in?
Sonia Manzano: Well, first of all, the first time I saw the discrepancy was when my father took me to his boss’s house in Yonkers.
Kevin Burke: He would work on roofs. He would tar roofs.
Sonia Manzano: He would tar roofs, yeah. And so we went to his bosses house, who called my father Chico and I said, “Who the heck is Chico?” I didn’t realize at that time that was a kind of boy, calling him boy. And I thought they were so rich. Now, this is probably a little, you know, some middle-class, little house. But to me, it looked like, like Windsor Castle or something because it had glass doors and a deck and everything like that. But I do remember specifically thinking, how could these two men be in the same world in that they interact with each other every day or, you know, he calls my father, my father has to call him, and we live so differently. I just was stunned.
Kevin Burke: Any kids’ parents, they loom large. And then when you see them interacting in the world, they can surprise you.
Sonia Manzano: Right. I remember a cop stopping us for traffic. And I was thinking, “Oh, boy, this cop is going to get it now.” My father’s gonna really give it to him.” And I saw my father, you know, get smaller in his seat and, you know, speak broken English with it, with fear. So it was all of a sudden that was different. And then I had this terrible teacher, Mrs. Whitman, who said— she was awful, she hated us— and she said that that we were poor. She told the class that we were all poor. And I thought we were middle class because to me, poor was like Calcutta, like, you know, kids sleeping in the street and like that and not having a place to, a roof over their head. You know, three meals a day, we ate every day. And I and I said so I went home and I said to my mother, “Are we poor?” My sister said, “We’re poor.” My mother said, “We’re doing all right.” But I could see how hurt she was by that question.
Kevin Burke: And it’s a judgment that’s passed swiftly, in a word. “Poor.”
Sonia Manzano: “Poor.”
Kevin Burke: And the nuances that you as a kid were trying to figure out, you know, where are you in this pyramid? And you’re getting the sense you’re at the bottom.
Sonia Manzano: And I remember one time my mother came home from work. She worked in a factory.
Kevin Burke: She was a garment industry seamstress.
Sonia Manzano: Yeah. She worked on Tremont Avenue and she came home and she was, she was so angry. She was so flustered. And she was— and we’re going like, “What, what?” And she said, “My boss, he just didn’t treat me—” and she couldn’t find the word. And then she said, “Like a person.” That told me a lot. That told me how she felt about herself.
Kevin Burke: That she saw herself as someone with worth.
Sonia Manzano: She saw herself as somebody who’s of worth.
Kevin Burke: Yeah. You’re picking up on these things, as you say, looking out that window, looking at how the world works, who’s got power, the shoeshine boys, the bodega owner … or the pharmacist you describe in the book who offers you a free box of crayons.
Sonia Manzano: Well, my mother finally — going to school in September was great because you got notebooks and, you know, you got your composition notebook, and you got pencils and a bookcase and all this kind of fun stuff. And so she, I couldn’t wait and I said, “Please let me go down there and get this stuff. I can’t bear it. I can’t wait another minute.” And she said, “Oh, okay, I’ll let you.” So I go downstairs and I start, look, I buy what I’m going to buy, but I can’t help looking at those big boxes of Crayolas that had all the exotic colors. And I’m caressing the box and the pharmacist comes out from behind the counter and he starts talking to me and offering me the box and asking me if I’d like it. Well, of course I’d like it. And slowly he starts to grope my breasts as I’m wondering about the box. I’m so confused. I’m thinking I don’t know what’s going on. I want the crayons. He’s being very nice, except for this uncomfortableness. And then all of a sudden this huge cop with a nightstick comes to the door and bangs on the door jam and he says, “Hey!” Well, the pharmacist looked like he had condensed into a little rat and he just scurried behind the counter so fast, so fast, I thought he was going to fly over the counter. And, you know, his legs, talk about putting your tail between your legs — his whole body was between his legs. And he went back behind the counter. And that’s when I knew, oh, what this guy is doing is totally, totally wrong because I saw the reaction, his reaction and the cop’s anger. And then, you know, it was like I just I grabbed my stuff, went upstairs. I didn’t say anything to my mother because I thought if I tell her, she’s going to say, “I told you, you shouldn’t go out by yourself and you’re not going to go.”
Kevin Burke: Now, let’s turn that gaze inside into the interior world of your home. What’s the visual and emotional map of that space for you?
Sonia Manzano: I thought the position of women, you know, women would get married and then a year later, they’d say, did he turn out good like? Did it— like it was a crapshoot.
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
Sonia Manzano: And the woman had no choice. So it seemed that you were, you were either this good woman who took a chance or you were a woman of ill repute. The word was called “le hicieron el daño” The daño is the wrong. And then you know, I’d ask about that. And when they were married and they got pregnant, Mom would say, “Oh, God saw that they were married and sent them a baby.” When they weren’t married, they were the wrong, you know, they got wronged.
Kevin Burke: In thinking about the title, the subtitle of your memoir, which is Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, what was the chaos that you were observing in the house? What were you seeing as a kid that you’re watching and taking in?
Sonia Manzano: Well, my father’s violence against my mother when he would drink too much. You know, the first image where she was, she had gone out with her brother and he came home and he was absolutely in a rage. And I think a chair was thrown into the television set or something huge, like you could imagine you’re— I mean, I think I was in diapers, I was a toddler just standing there. I think my sister had gone into her room to hide. She’s eight years older than I am and I was just frantic and my father leaned down to soothe me because his issue was only with my mother. It wasn’t, you know, we just happened to be standing around there in the wrong place at the wrong time. You know, it kind of set the pace for it, for everything else was kind of like, there’s these kids here that are sort of in, you know, in the way and attached to the mother. And this man really doesn’t have that much to do with us kids except how he interacts with, with my mother.
Kevin Burke: I think in the book you describe the fact that your mom would sometimes hide the knives in the oven because — just for fear that he might grab, I take it — that he might grab them.
Sonia Manzano: I know. And then I’d say, “why do you do that?” She’d say, “Oh, no worries.” [laughs]
Kevin Burke: Just an insurance policy of like, let’s, let’s not make that—
Sonia Manzano: “No worries, don’t even worry about it”. So, you know, I always, you know, in my work with kids, they do pick things up.
Kevin Burke: All the time.
Sonia Manzano: Because they’re kids, don’t think they don’t. They pick up more. That was hilarious. That was what I was going to name the book — Knives in the Oven — but, that was the original title.
Kevin Burke: It’s one of the images that really stands out in the book. Because just think about that.
Sonia Manzano: Oh, it was. It was just unbelievably crazy to say “Why are you doing that? Do you think that?” “Oh, no, that would never happen.” “Well, why are you doing that?” That was the obvious.
Kevin Burke: What was dangerous to you? What did you know, “This is danger”? As a kid knows instinctively, they learn, don’t go there. This is dangerous.
Sonia Manzano: I thought it would be that, that it would be an accident. That, that like that movie with Denzel Washington, I think it’s called He Got Game, where he’s in jail because he pushes his wife and she hits her head on the table and dies. So he didn’t mean to kill her, but accidentally, that’s what I thought.
Kevin Burke: The tornado effect.
Sonia Manzano: A tornado.
Kevin Burke: Wow.
Sonia Manzano: So that was quite specific. So, I, I think I grew up always looking for what accidents— you know, how mothers put little guards on the edges of tables when they have kids?
Kevin Burke: Yes.
Sonia Manzano: You know, you’re, you’re anticipating what could go wrong here. I think I grew up with that sense. I still have it.
Kevin Burke: When the tornado did hit and you mentioned and you write about instances where your father would come in and he would throw things or hurl something, or actually hit somebody, where did where did little Sonia go?
Sonia Manzano: I would stand right between them.
Kevin Burke: You would? Thinking that you could prevent it from spiraling?
Sonia Manzano: Yes. Yes. This one terrible time where I actually did get a weapon and, and, you know, was able to smash it off of my dad’s head. In that moment, in that moment where I distracted him long enough to allow my mother to escape.
Kevin Burke: That was the goal. Let her get away.
Sonia Manzano: Yeah. So, I mean, it was like, it was very a very popular, 1950s piece of decoration. It was a black panther. It’s very like, mid-century. You see them all the time, mid-century, and it’s a black panther and some of them have clocks in their stomachs. But anyway, this was, and that’s the, that’s what I used for a weapon. And he was so stunned. It was like, “What? How did that happen?” And that gave her a chance to escape. And I thought, “Oh, now, now I’m dead. He’s going to kill me.” But he didn’t. He just kind of went off, tried to find her. And, and then things settled. And I remember the policemen came and they said, “Oh, we can’t do anything because we didn’t witness any violence.” Meanwhile, the house looks like a tornado hit it.
Kevin Burke: Right. [laughs] You can put two together pretty easily.
Sonia Manzano: [laughs] These Irish cops are saying, I’m going, “What are you, blind?” I think after that one time I got a, I fell into a I had a crying jag. I started crying at some point and I simply could not stop. And both my parents came up to me and said, “What’s the matter with you?” You know, it would just go on. And then, you know, ultimately when I, you know, when we all got old and we talked about it and they said, “Well, but what does this have to do with you? We were arguing amongst ourselves.” When you grow up and become a woman, you understand that people fall in love and love is crazy. You don’t, you don’t know that when you’re a kid. You just see, you know, it hurts when I go like this, the answer is so don’t go like that. You know, that’s how a kid solves the problem. So, I was thinking, well, this is a weird marriage that she obviously doesn’t want because she said so. I didn’t see the behavior that she remains in it as to. Wasn’t till I was older and I spoke to cousins in Puerto Rico. “Oh, she always talked about how much she loved him” and I’m like, “What?” You know, but here’s where my mother was really funny.
Kevin Burke Yeah.
Sonia Manzano: She, my father’s name was Bonifacio Manzano, and he didn’t like that name, so when they first met, he said that his name was Jose Luis, which is very romantic. And then later she found out his real name. I said “Mom, Mom. The fact that he didn’t tell you his real name, didn’t that kind of indicate to you that it was a duplicitous kind of personality here?” And she said, “Well, actually, if my name was Bonifacio I would have lied about it, too.” [laughs] It was so confusing because I loved him.
[Tape] “Guajira Guantamanera” by Josiéto Fernandez (1929).
Sonia Manzano: And so,
Kevin Burke: He sang, he played guitar.
Sonia Manzano: He sang, played the guitar, he could wiggle his ears, and
Kevin Burke: You would scratch his back, right?
Sonia Manzano: Yeah, I would scratch his back. And then, and then when he, I remember one time, I, I guess I had a cold or something and I was sick and he came home and he was loaded. But it was a, he was overcome with sadness. And he was he sat on my bed and he just wept so profoundly. And I thought, “I’m not that sick.” And then I, I could see that he carried some deep sorrow that, you know, was there when he was five years old.
Kevin Burke: Yeah. Thinking about that eye again, you know, as a kid, there are things that you can’t see. And one of them is other people’s memories, other people’s histories, and you can only sense them. And so, I was going to ask you about your parents in this way, starting with your dad. How did you sense his story and what sense you got from him of his own origins in Depression-Era Puerto Rico, from things like the sobbing by your bed or singing guitar and singing the old songs, what did you imagine about his past based on what you were seeing?
Sonia Manzano: Well, I, he didn’t say a lot about it. I remember one time he was crying so, he just was begging forgiveness and weeping. And I wanted mom to be strong and not forgive him, but I was forgiving him because I felt so sorry for him. His mother was very stern. And since we’re talking about New York, she lived in Harlem, in Spanish Harlem.
Kevin Burke: Right.
Sonia Manzano: And at that time, that was like Puerto Rican central. And I thought, oh, why can’t we live in Spanish Harlem? Why do you have to live in the Bronx? It’s not even famous. Anyway, she lived there and she was a cold. She was, she was a cold woman. And I think she was very harsh. And my mother said that when he was a boy, he pilfered a piece of fish, a piece of fish from a codfish, bacalao, and that his mother was so angry she smacked him, picked up the fish and smacked them on the face with it.
Kevin Burke: Wow.
Sonia Manzano: I think there was a lot of beating of the children in there. And I asked my father once, well, didn’t your father, your father come to your aid when your mother was beating you? He said no. He’d cheer her on.
Kevin Burke: Oh, wow. You described how in school you were reading Charlotte’s Web as a class and storytelling is an important part of that, and your teacher basically said everyone’s got stories to tell. So, you come home and one day your mother is getting her hair dyed and you put her on the spot and ask her to tell you a story specifically about your grandmother, Encarnación Falcon, and whom you didn’t know personally, but you knew you’d lit candles to her in church.
Sonia Manzano: Right.
Kevin Burke: And so, I want to ask you, what did your mother allow you to see about her own back story in that moment?
Sonia Manzano: She’s, she was a great storyteller. And she would tell me when her mother died and left these five children as orphans— I mean, she painted a picture as if the woman died and went up to heaven and then took the last child with her and then the children that they were like indentured servants, and how she was with one family who were so poor, they lived in a house. She had to babysit their baby. She was like seven and she had to take care of the baby in this house that was on stilts. And there were mongooses under the house and holes in this, in the floor. And she was afraid the baby would fall through the hole and get taken away by a mongoose.
Kevin Burke: Oh, my goodness.
Sonia Manzano: And obviously, it’s an overwhelming thing for a little girl. And she said, so what I did was I did it as long as I could. And then I— they used to leave some rice for her to give to the children, she said— and for herself— she said, so I, I just gave the children the rice and I wouldn’t take any for myself. And I covered up the holes with furniture so they wouldn’t fall through. And then I went away, you know, she walked wherever she could find.
Kevin Burke: She left them in that, in sort of what she thought was a safe.
Sonia Manzano: She did. Yeah, she did the best she could. But so, all of a sudden, my mother becomes, in my mind, this heroic person. And then she said, and then I had one Christmas, I had to see my sister, but she was on the other side of the bullpen. And I crossed the you know, where the bulls were.
Kevin Burke Actual bulls, like in a bull fight? Oh wow.
Sonia Manzano: Actual bulls, like gored.
Kevin Burke: Gored. Right.
Sonia Manzano: And I crossed because I wanted to see my— once again, it was, oh, what a resourceful person she is. I mean, she lived with these other people, she was convinced were going to spackle her into the wall. You know, that was the same fear of an eye following me. She had this idea—
Kevin Burke: Exactly.
Sonia Manzano: —that she was going to be spackled into the wall.
Kevin Burke: The other thing you did with your mom, which I thought was interesting, just like your audition for Sesame Street, you asked her one story that was real, and then you asked her to make up a story for you. The day that she was having her hair dyed, you ask her to improvise a story just like you are going to be asked by John Stone. And she told you a story, a make-believe story that involved her.
Sonia Manzano: I know, that, that’s so funny. I mean, it’s like a scene in a movie, isn’t it?
Kevin Burke: Yes.
Sonia Manzano: And you know, and she, and so as soon as she says, “It’s winter, it’s very cold in Crotona Park and this woman lives there with her children.” So, I’m imagining an igloo.
Kevin Burke: Right.
Sonia Manzano: There’s an igloo in Central Park and there’s this poor woman. Her husband beats her every day and her children grow up and save her. Well, she gave me sort of my M.O.D. That’s my identity. That was what I was supposed to do. And she kind of gave that.
Kevin Burke: It was like a scene of instructions.
Sonia Manzano: It’s a scene of instructions. It was a template. It was, you know, you know, take it from here. And there were always stories about people, women who endured hardship in Puerto Rico and here only to be saved when their children grew up and became policemen, or teachers or, you know, they came to America and they saved their mother. It was like our job.
Kevin Burke: Yeah. And you eventually you do, do that and it doesn’t work out the way that you think it’s going to work out. Does it?
Sonia Manzano: No, No.
Kevin Burke: In the sense that you, you actually try to save her in the courts, in the legal system, through an actual divorce proceeding, and you realized that your intervention didn’t actually make them happy.
Sonia Manzano: It wasn’t, it wasn’t in that, you know, and the.
Kevin Burke: They wanted to be together.
Sonia Manzano: Yes. Yeah. They did want to be together. And, and I, and I understood the meaning of the proverb, I think I guess it’s a Chinese proverb, once you save someone’s life, you have to be responsible for their whole life. Because I felt that, you know, I had, I had, I thought I saved my mother, but I also cut an anchor she had and now it’s up to me to be the anchor. Now what do I do? That was my life.
Kevin Burke: And her having been an orphan as a kid, she probably is even more sensitive to being feeling alone.
Sonia Manzano: To being alone.
Kevin Burke: So, what was the love that you were watching in that very same space?
Sonia Manzano: There was a lot of music. I, I used to think that all Puerto Ricans could sing and play the guitar. And then I went to Puerto Rico and I met some who… didn’t have that particular talent. I used to love aguinaldos, which is traditional Christmas music.
[Tape] “Esta Navidad”: Puerto Rican Christmas Song – Unspecified: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings / Folkways Records (1958).
Sonia Manzano: We used to do parrandas, and it was a tradition on the island. You know, we’d get all dressed up and my mother would wear heels and they’d carry food, and, you know, and then here at school, they’re telling you that everybody should go to bed on Christmas Eve and Santa Claus is going to come down a chimney. He’s going to give you presents. And I’m living the exact opposite of that. But I used to figure it out in my mind. Well, what happens is that Santa Claus comes down the alleyway and magically breaks open the window, leaves the presents, magically leaves, and that’s why we get presents. Oh, and the reason he leaves a present for me at my aunt’s house is because he got rushed, because all us Puerto Ricans are up all night and he had to get our presents [laughs] delivered before so he just said, oh, I’ll just leave this here for Sonia’s aunt, to give her. Kids could have a terrible childhood, but they could find beauty in it. I thought it was beautiful when we went to buy fabric and there were all these bolts of fabric, you know, because my mother was going to make me a dress and she’d like, you know, negotiate with the guy, how much, you know, to pay for a yard. And then when he used to take it and unfurl it and it would be like… this ripple, this theatrical, it was like being at the Metropolitan Opera, you know, some scenery unfolding in front of me. That, that was beautiful. I loved to see my mother cut a dress on the table. You know, I could hear the scissors going [cutting sound]… across the table. And she was, like, very efficient.
Kevin Burke: And did she make you things?
Sonia Manzano: Oh, yeah, everything.
Kevin Burke: Wow. Did you – and you got to wear things your mom made for you.
Sonia Manzano: Yeah. Everything, everything she made me. And, and I, you know, I would say I saw this movie once called One Touch of Venus. I love this movie. And it was Ava Gardner playing Venus.
[Tape] Clip from One Touch of Venus (1948).
Sonia Manzano: And so, I wanted to dress with a drape in the back, you know and she’s, my mother was trying to explain to me, but there’s no way of, it, it can’t stay on your body if it’s floating around. And she did it.
Kevin Burke: Wow.
[Tape] Sound of elevated train.
Kevin Burke: You’ve got the periscope eye, right, which is watching you, but there’s the other side of it, which is you are invisible, you are not seen.
Sonia Manzano: Right.
Kevin Burke: And so, talk about that. When did you feel the most invisible as a girl?
Sonia Manzano: Oh, I guess, I guess I, I guess it was in the fourth grade where I was just, really felt invisible and sad. And we ran away. For some reason we were, my mother decided we should run away, she would have those moments and we ran away. We moved to Colgate Avenue. That was the first time I didn’t live in a tenement building and I hated it. It was like a project. I couldn’t bear it because it was so sterile to me. And you couldn’t look out the window, you know, there was no activity. It was one of those you don’t know who your neighbor is.
Kevin Burke: Right.
Sonia Manzano: So it was terrible. And I had to go to school. I had to cross Bruckner Boulevard, the overpass to go to the school, and I was just, I was just reacting to their life. I was one of those things swirling around in the tornado.
Kevin Burke: You’re talking about highways.
Sonia Manzano: Highways. It was all wide.
Kevin Burke: Wide boulevards, cars, austere.
Sonia Manzano: You didn’t know anybody.
Kevin Burke: Yeah. And so, if you have to channel sort of a feeling of alienation as a kid, that’s where you go. That overpass.
Sonia Manzano: Yeah, that overpass was just, I was… thanks to Robert Moses, whereas a school was right across the street. But you had to go over an overpass.
Kevin Burke: Wow
Sonia Manzano: Because it was a highway.
Kevin Burke: You can still see that in your mind.
Sonia Manzano: Yeah, yeah.
[Tape] Sound of highway traffic, followed by the “whistling” sound from the opening scene of West Side Story (1961).
Kevin Burke: For you, one of those pivotal moments of clarity, of coming into view as a young woman, as a girl in New York was a movie, West Side Story. And you mentioned this teacher, Shirley Pellman, who is your teacher at one of the junior high schools that you went to and she had this idea that she wanted to take you and a few other classmates to see West Side Story.
Sonia Manzano: She was like my fairy godmother. This teacher was always— I was bullied in her class. Denise, her name was Denise. And I don’t know, I was just her target. But whenever, whenever Denise was going to beat me up, Shirley Pellman would magically appear, the teacher.
Kevin Burke: She was watching.
Sonia Manzano: Watching me every second. So, she decides to take me to the, me and a couple of girlfriends, she just had to ask my mother and she took me to see West Side Story, and I was watching this, and all of a sudden
Kevin Burke: And just to set the scene, by the way, this wasn’t just the local theater. You were going to New York downtown. This was the Rivoli Theater in New York. It premiered October of 61 and it played there for 77 weeks. Isn’t that amazing? I seized on it, Sonia, because the movie is so important to my dad. He grew up in Pennsylvania and he came into New York from Pennsylvania and saw it 18 times.
Sonia Manzano: Aw.
Kevin Burke: He loved it that much, West Side Story. So, you don’t know what you’re in for. She just wants to take you see this new movie, West Side Story.
Sonia Manzano: There’s Puerto Ricans in it, you’ll probably love it. You know, feel good about yourself.
Kevin Burke: So you go, and you mentioned that your mother made you a dress when you were a kid. And there in the movies, Anita makes Maria a dress.
Sonia Manzano: Yes. I mean, they really nailed that, that sensibility. They just, they just nailed it. Yes. It’s I could still get— and Rita Moreno was,
Kevin Burke: Oh, my goodness.
Sonia Manzano: She was so Puerto Rican. I can’t believe.
[Tape] “Tonight – Quintet” from West Side Story (1961).
Sonia Manzano: At some point in the movie, I was so touched that I start crying and I simply cannot stop. I’m just hyperventilating.
[Tape] Final Scene from West Side Story (1961).
Sonia Manzano: You know, when the injustice, when the good guys, you know, when you’re feeling for both the Jets and the Sharks.
Kevin Burke: Yes.
Sonia Manzano: And, and she took me down. She was all nervous because she was going to do a good thing for me. And she puts water on my face and she buys me a poster, the poster of them kissing around the fire escape.
[Tape] “Tonight” from West Side Story (1961).
Sonia Manzano: And at that moment, I remember my mother said, so how was the movie? It was like, I am so unhappy and it’s my unhappiness and I’m not going to share it with you because this is my beautiful, full of feeling, and I crushed that poster to me and laid down in bed with it and cried into the crumpled-up poster. [laughs] I made it a part of me and I felt empowered. My misery made me strong because I was part of the human condition.
[Tape] Final Scene from West Side Story (1961).
Kevin Burke: You described earlier in, in real life, you were having to cross this overpass and now you’re seeing it on the big screen. There’s a rumble under the highway. Their landscape, their streetscape in New York, the West Side, is a place that you can recognize.
Sonia Manzano: Yes. Well, that was obviously, it was the first time I saw the banal things in my neighborhood exalted. The fire escape, the graffiti.
Kevin Burke: School gym, yeah.
Sonia Manzano: The, the school yard fencing, was like, you know, a Matisse or something. And I realized that that’s what art is. I mean, take a famous painting of rotting flowers and for hundreds of years, people are looking at the, the painting because he’s taken a banal thing and somehow presented it in such a way you can’t take your eyes off it.
Kevin Burke: You said something in the book about the fact that seeing it taught you that something like that can be made. People can make that.
Sonia Manzano: People make that, yeah.
Kevin Burke: And that maybe you can make something of your own self.
Sonia Manzano: Right.
Kevin Burke: Of your own materials, of your own life.
Sonia Manzano: Right.
Kevin Burke: But also, the fact that you are going to go on to play Maria.
Sonia Manzano: Yes.
Kevin Burke: You are—
Sonia Manzano: In a place that looked, with the Hooper Store, it looked like, you know, the store in the West Side Story, which looked, which in my mind, I made it into Don Joe’s store and the Sugar Bowl where I used to go on Third Avenue. And the tenement and the fire escape, where important decisions are made. And all of a sudden, you know, I didn’t think there was anything beautiful in my neighborhood, but there is. There was. There’s beauty everywhere.
Kevin Burke (VO): I had never thought of West Side Story and Sesame Street as points meeting on a map until Sonia shared her epiphany with me. She lived in this New York. A scene, a setting, a neighborhood she’d grown up in, but hadn’t seen as a hometown that mattered on screen until then. Her journey to becoming Maria was underway.
To find out how Sonia got from the world of the Jets and Sharks to the land of Bert and Ernie, from one Maria to another, hers, listen to part two of our interview whenever you’re ready. It’s available right now. So really, this is just an intermission.
Thank you for listening and remember, everyone’s from someplace and everywhere is somewhere.
New York City
Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.