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Sonia Manzano Part 2 – The South Bronx

Your Hometown
Your Hometown
Sonia Manzano Part 2 - The South Bronx
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For more than 40 years, she was our neighbor, Maria, on Sesame Street, and she continues to connect her experiences and imagination through her new show for PBS Kids, Alma’s Way. In Part Two of her Your Hometown episode, she talks with host Kevin Burke about how she made her way from her coming of age in the South Bronx to Sesame Street and how the real and fictional maps of those neighborhoods – one real, one imaginary – overlapped inside of her and in the TV worlds she created for us. As a magical storyteller, Sonia knows just where to go in her memories for that powerful combination of laughter amid pathos – the funny in the sad, the lessons in the every-day.

”As I was reading, it struck me and I couldn't go on. And I thought of feelings and memories being like - getting into a crevice deep down inside you somehow, in a fold in your heart that you'll never find, like a needle in a haystack, but – until you do. Until you sit a certain way and it jabs you. Everything that I write, even for Ernie and Bert, when I wrote for them, had something to do with my life that I remembered, that I transformed to work for the Ernie and Bert story. But it came from me.”

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Show Notes

Music
“A Boy Like That” from West Side Story (1961)
Nina Simone, “Feeling Good” (1965)
“America” from West Side Story (1961)
“Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago (1996 Broadway Revival Cast)
“Just My Imagination” – The Temptations (1971)
Archival
Chesterfield Cigarettes Kinescope Tobacco Commercial from the Perry Como Show
Father Knows Best: “Bud Takes Up The Dance” – Season 1, Episode 1 (1954)
Louis Prima & Keely Smith – “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me”
Little Rascals: Our Gang of Follies of 1938
Original Godspell Cast on the Today Show
Godspell Cast performs at the Tony Awards (1972)
Sesame Street: Show Open Season One
Clip from Sesame Street Episode 0832 (1975)
Classic Sesame Street: “Maria’s Interruptions”
Classic Sesame Street: “Maria’s Present for David”
Classic Sesame Street: “Maria Discusses Her Jobs”
Classic Sesame Street: “Mr. Hooper Helps Gordon”
Sesame Street Unpaved: “Mr. Hooper’s Death”
Clip from Sesame Street Episode 2615 (1989)
Clip from Sesame Street Episode 3658 (1997)
Artwork
Illustrations – Tunshore Longe
Poem
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Recommendations
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: As I was reading, it struck me and I just, I couldn’t go on, I was so struck. And I thought of feelings and memories being like — getting into a crevice deep down inside you somehow, in a fold in your heart that’s — you’ll never find, like a needle in a haystack, but – until you do. Until you sit a certain way and it jabs you. Everything that I write, even for Ernie and Bert, when I wrote for them, had something to do with my life that I remembered, that I transformed to work for the Ernie and Bert story. But it came from – from me.
 
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] “A Boy Like That” from West Side Story (1961).
 
Kevin Burke (VO): Welcome to part 2 of my interview with Sonia Manzano, one of the most influential voices in the history of public television. For more than 40 years, she was our neighbor, Maria, on Sesame Street, and she continues to connect her experiences and imagination through her new show for PBS Kids, Alma’s Way.
 
When we left Sonia at the end of Pt. 1, she’d just gone to see West Side Story (the original film in 1961) with an elementary school teacher who was looking out for her at a tough time in her life. Up to that point, Sonia hadn’t really seen anyone like her, her family, or the people in her neighborhood on screen. But now she realized that her hometown life wasn’t outside of the world of art – it could be its inspiration. And that didn’t mean having to keep the love and joy while editing out the chaos and confusion. It was all part of the human condition.
 
In her own childhood, that condition had different rules for boys and girls, watchful and sometimes dangerous eyes in the neighborhood, and moments of connection, community, and tradition, as well as loneliness and alienation. Sadly, it also included domestic violence in her own house, to the point that she tried to help her mother divorce her father, only to realize that clean breaks aren’t necessarily happy ones, which you can read about in her memoir, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx.
 
Through it all, Sonia had a potent imagination. Movies and television were important source material, but so was New York City. In this hour, you’ll hear how she got from the South Bronx to Sesame Street, and how the real and fictional maps of those neighborhoods overlapped in her and the worlds she created for us.
 
Our conversation continues with me asking Sonia to share some of her stories from the wider city. As a magical storyteller, she knew just where to go in her memories for that powerful combination of laughter amid pathos, the funny in the sad, the lessons in the everyday.
 
Kevin Burke: We started tight in a window on a block on Third Avenue, but you also have New York, greater New York…
 
Sonia Manzano: Greater New York, yeah. I have to mention a little bit about Brooklyn, because my cousin Eddie, who was the son of my Uncle Eddie, my favorite uncle.
 
Kevin Burke: Your mother’s brother?
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah. And his, they moved to Brooklyn, to Bensonhurst, and they’re living in a brownstone. And Brooklyn to us was like no man’s land, you know? I mean, Brooklyn is far away. It’s hard to get to. It’s huge. You know, it’s this remarkable place. Somehow, we find ourselves in Brooklyn. And his mother was kind of— has a few loose screws— has decided that there’s gold in the basement and she’s digging for gold. And all of us are looking at each other saying, what if she hits like a ConEd—
 
Kevin Burke: She’s digging in the basement?
 
Sonia Manzano: She’s digging in the basement. But years later, I confront my cousin. And I said, What the heck was that all about? And he says, We did find something in the basement. What did you find? They found a scroll, like the Jewish, in a canister with Hebrew.
 
Kevin Burke: Wow.
 
Sonia Manzano: That’s what he said.
 
Kevin Burke: So, it had a history.
 
Sonia Manzano: It had something. So.
 
Kevin Burke: Not gold, necessarily.
 
Sonia Manzano: Not gold, but something was. It was, it was nuts. But that was a, that’s my Brooklyn story.
 
Kevin Burke: And other things in the city, like the subway, also became pivotal to you. You learn to read on the subway.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: I want to ask you about that. I mean, that’s so interesting.
 
Sonia Manzano: Well, in those days, they taught you to read from Dick and Jane primers and See Spot Run, if people know those books. And I, of course, could speed through it. And then another teacher, she didn’t let me go on. I had to wait for the class to catch up. I couldn’t turn the page. So, I found myself sitting there, often in class, looking out the window, waiting for the class to catch up. But that gave me the idea that reading was some empty exercise you did in school that had nothing to do with anything. They just made you. I had no idea how reading played in the world.
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: And so, I was in the train with my sister and, who was grumpy all the time. And I said, “What are the ads over?” I asked her what the ads over our heads said, and she said, “Why don’t you try reading them?” She was exasperated having to take care of me, probably. And I looked and all of a sudden all of this phonetic sounds, I just put it all together and all the words came into place. And I understood everything as quickly as you know, when you’re at Penn Station and all of the trains, information comes through on the billboard.
 
Kevin Burke: Yes. Yes.
 
Sonia Manzano: All of a sudden, I could read and it was like, fabulous. And then I read, you know. You know, how about Miss Subways 1957, that was a big ad all the time. And I read about how smoking Chesterfield Cigarettes was good for your health. [laughs] Those were the ads of the time.
 
[Tape] Chesterfield Cigarettes Kinescope Tobacco Commercial from the Perry Como Show. 
 
Kevin Burke: You were going to see your big sister, Aurea, you know, she’s eight years older, living on the Lower East Side. Thinking of that bohemian world.
 
Sonia Manzano: This is like before hippies, more of like the beatnik sensibility. And there was always all this discussion. They were always talking about Faulkner and playing Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone records. And, you know, they were so free. And, you know, my mother’s concerned about the tablecloths and the, you know, meaningless things. And I would go there and there was all this intellectual expression and exchange of ideas between her and her friends and her boyfriend who became her husband. And I was just I, I said, “This is for me.”
 
[Tape] Nina Simone, “Feeling Good” (1965).   
 
Kevin Burke: What was the best news you saw your family receive in your home when you were growing up?
 
Sonia Manzano: The best news?
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: I don’t know. I can’t recall. The thing that should have been was when they finally bought a house. If you know, if you know anything about migrants or immigrants getting the house.
 
Kevin Burke: Yes.
 
Sonia Manzano: And I remember our first night we moved in, and my mother was very excited. Then my father stepped out.
 
Kevin Burke: Where was the home?
 
Sonia Manzano: Throgs Neck. It was like very underpopulated at the time. There was like, woods in front of the house. They had just built these houses.
 
Kevin Burke: So this was, by any measure, the American dream. They’d gotten the home.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah, it was the American dream.
 
Kevin Burke: And your mom had pushed for it, it sounds like.
 
Sonia Manzano: Oh, my God. Her, it was all her. All of her. She was Anita in West Side Story, getting the washing machine, getting the—
 
Kevin Burke: Wow.
 
Sonia Manzano: —Joining the union, voting.
 
[Tape] “America” from West Side Story (1961). 
 
Sonia Manzano: If it wasn’t for her, he wouldn’t have gotten into the union. He wouldn’t have claimed that he was a veteran. He went to, he was a veteran.
 
Kevin Burke: I didn’t know that. He was a veteran.
 
Sonia Manzano: I didn’t know it either. I mean, you know. She was the one who was saying, look, “you got to be part of the system.” She’d come in, “good old New York.” She lived in Florida for a while, but she loved New York.
 
Kevin Burke: So, she gets this house and the first night your father, who was ambivalent about it, goes out. So, was her heart broken? Oh, wow.
 
Sonia Manzano: And I saw that. I was 16, 17, something like that.
 
Kevin Burke: So, what should have been the best night of her life…
 
Sonia Manzano: It should have been the best night of her life. But she was, you know, that was her. She would still hope that the next night would be the best night. I learned from that, “No, I’ll change the whole situation.”
 
[Tape] Father Knows Best: “Bud Takes Up The Dance” – Season 1, Episode 1 (1954). 
 
Kevin Burke: Thinking about all this going around in your world, Sonia, where was a safe place for you? Where would you go for safety in your home or in your world?
 
Sonia Manzano: I think I went in my mind.
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: I really did.
 
Kevin Burke: Say more about that because I think that’s an interesting part of you.
 
Sonia Manzano: I went in my mind— one time I had to be, somebody was going to babysit. I had to go to their house, the neighbor and she, she took a nap in the middle of the afternoon with her babies and she said to me, just sit in the chair. And I sat in the chair and in the chair I was very obedient. I didn’t stand up from the chair, but I used my feet to dance like I was a ballerina. I listened for the train and I made a song out of the train. I mean, I had this whole thing going. And I remember that dancing around or, you know, making believe that I was flying through the air because I saw stuff on Ed Sullivan [laughs] that I wanted to do. And so, I did find comfort in my brain, in my mind. I guess I would put myself in movies, in television.
 
[Tape] Louis Prima & Keely Smith – “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me.”   
 
Sonia Manzano: Louis Prima. I used to love to see the short with Louis Prima and Keely Smith, the comic Louis Prima and you know, and his deadpan wife. That was hilarious. Went to the movies a lot.
 
Kevin Burke: So, you would pull from them and you kind of placed, project yourself into those stories.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yes. And I decided then my Uncle Eddie was exactly like Robert Young, and it was Father Knows Best. You know, I used to always— remember The Little Rascals and they were always put shows on.
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: I used to try to put shows on like that and, you know, and I dragged some of my friends over, my cousins and I said, “Come on, let’s put on a little show.” I mean, but I don’t think, you know, it was like you were a kid and they felt that if they fed you, and you went to bed, that was all, that was all you were about.
 
[Tape] Little Rascals: Our Gang of Follies of 1938.   
 
Kevin Burke: Childhood also is full of insecurities. You know, what if I fail? What if I don’t make it? What if I don’t realize my dream? You know, it’s an insecure time, an awkward time of life. And I’m wondering, who are the people, Sonia, in your life who told you that you were good, who thought you had something?
 
Sonia Manzano: I have to tell you that it was my mother. And I don’t think she knew what I was trying to go for. She would just say, “You go, girl. You go. You keep going. You’ll get there. Don’t worry.” I don’t even think she knew where I was going to get, you know, and I didn’t know what I was going to get to. But I’ve always had the capacity to see the obvious. You know, when I went to college, you know, I only went for acting because I could go to college. My grades were so lousy. Well, that’s an example. I went to [the High School of] Performing Arts.
 
Kevin Burke: Yes.
 
Sonia Manzano: And I go from being an A student in the Bronx to being a C student in performing arts because—
 
Kevin Burke: Which is in Midtown?
 
Sonia Manzano: —I didn’t have the background that these kids had. A better elementary school education. I didn’t have basic— I didn’t know what a noun was. I didn’t know how to write. I mean, they were so — and I saw it. My grades plummeted. And by the time I got — I had to go to college, I said, OK, I’m not going to do it on grades. I wasn’t a stellar actress, so that they weren’t recommending me to Juilliard and all of that. So, I did it on my own. I said the only way I’m going to go to college is if I can audition. That way, I can “razzle dazzle ‘em” and they won’t look at my grades.
 
Kevin Burke: [laughs]
 
[Tape] “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago (1996 Broadway Revival Cast).
 
Sonia Manzano: It was a long shot, but it was the only shot I had. I wasn’t recommended by the teachers of the school. I went on my own to Carnegie Mellon University and I got in.
 
Kevin Burke: In Pittsburgh, yeah?
 
Sonia Manzano: Because I wanted to go to college. And it was pass/fail. And it was all acting classes. And you got in on an audition. And so that was like a really interesting thing to go to Pittsburgh. And then I thought, I’m not going to be like these, you know, I didn’t have the confidence that these kids had. And I thought I’ll, if I’m, with any luck, I can do Shakespeare in the boondocks because there’s more interracial casting in Shakespeare. That’s how that came about. But I guess, my mother would always say, “If it doesn’t— si no te sale por una manera, que te salga por la otra.” If it doesn’t turn out one way, go in another way. Be fluid.
 
[Tape] Original Godspell Cast on the Today Show.
 
Sonia Manzano: College was great because everybody was sort of the same.
 
Kevin Burke: And when you’re there, you mentioned 1970, you find yourself in what becomes an iconic show, Godspell, but you’re part of it from the ground up. College production, then it goes to—
 
Sonia Manzano: College production, yeah
 
Kevin Burke: —off-Broadway, La MaMa, and the Cherry Lane Theater.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah. I also got obsessed with Charlie Chaplin in college. Acting up until that time was like the method. You had to feel that, you had to feel it, you had to feel it. You know, Marlon Brando type stuff.
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: Everybody loved that. I couldn’t bear that. And then this mime teacher, we would watch Chaplin films and they were just, I loved it because it was sad and funny at the same time. And pathos, I thought that was cool. So, and kind of Godspell was in that — it was funny, but it was one of the saddest stories ever told. And I didn’t even know what this story was about until we got to the end and we staged it. And I said, oh, my goodness.
 
Kevin Burke: And you’re 20.
 
Sonia Manzano: And I learned two things: That certain things I did on stage would make people laugh. “Oh, this is something new.” And that there were moments on stage I felt like I was flying. You were completely free. And it was great — a great experience.
 
[Tape] Godspell Cast Performs at the Tony Awards (1972).
 
Kevin Burke: You’re now out of the Bronx. You’re in another place. You’re in Pittsburgh. And you have a roommate from Ohio. And she tells you you’re talking in your sleep one night and sort of that gets the ball rolling of her getting to know you, getting to know her. And you start telling her stories about your childhood.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: And there’s a point in your memoir which I circled — that struck me so, so much. Where you said that, “No memory is too traumatic, personal, or stupid to relate, and I never feel ashamed or angry while telling them because they become stories that happened to someone else. I even embroider them.” And I thought that—
 
Sonia Manzano: I don’t know. I don’t know. I thought it was odd. Believe me, a little part of me thought, Why aren’t you feeling anything when you’re telling these things? It’s like you’re talking about another person. And I didn’t feel it. And I, I, you know, I don’t know why that happened. But when I was recording the memoir that you’re referring to, a story I had told a million times and I wrote it and rewrote it and the editor looked at it. And I can’t remember what… In the reading I, something touched a nerve that I started to cry and I just, I couldn’t go on. I was so struck. And I thought of feelings and memories being like — getting into a crevice deep down inside you somehow, in a fold in your heart that’s — you’ll never find, like a needle in a haystack, but – until you do. Until you sit a certain way and it jabs you.
 
Kevin Burke: And do you remember the passage was?
 
Sonia Manzano: I don’t, I don’t. I think it was like after my mother’s divorce and I realized, you know, was it futile or was it not futile?
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: Did I make her happy or did I make her unhappy?
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: But everything that I write, even for Ernie and Bert when I wrote for them, had something to do with my life that I remembered, that I transformed to work for the Ernie and Bert story. But it came from — from me.
 
[Tape] Sesame Street: Show Open Season One.
 
Kevin Burke: What’s so fascinating about your career is not that long after Godspell, you do audition for Sesame Street and your ability to make stories out of the material of your life, what you did with the periscope, right? In your audition with John Stone, you turn it into a fabulous tale of the eye and you end up eating the eye and it makes you sick. You get the job on Sesame Street and in a sense, you get a second childhood in a way, because you lived and you arrive at adulthood and then you go into a show about childhood.
 
Sonia Manzano: Right.
 
Kevin Burke: And did it feel at times that you were — I don’t want to say getting a do over, but you’re—
 
Sonia Manzano: It is a do over. That’s exactly what I was going to say.
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: That’s exactly what— I mean, I couldn’t believe, I loved going to that set. I loved being on the fire escape. It was like Sonia could do it again, but, you know, without the danger, in a warm environment, in an idealistic environment. But I wasn’t going into Father Knows Best’s world.
 
Kevin Burke: That’s what I think is interesting. There’s a tension there between idealization, but also keeping it authentic.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yes.
 
Kevin Burke: And how to strike that balance.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yes.
 
Kevin Burke: And so there you are. You’re performing as Maria. You’re also writing. You won 15 Emmy Awards during your run on the show. So, you’re writing and you’re writing from experience, but you’re also presenting it in a way that presents it in a pure form. Because you had your own childhood, which was filled with danger, which was filled with—
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: —complexity, right? And instability and other things. “Love and chaos.”
 
Sonia Manzano: Right.
 
Kevin Burke: But you’re trying to create a world for kids in a kid’s world on Sesame Street that empowers them, that makes them feel safe and integrated—
 
Sonia Manzano: Right.
 
Kevin Burke: —part of the world. So how did you?
 
Sonia Manzano: Well, I think a lot of credit has to go to John Stone. It was his vision of—
 
Kevin Burke: Sure.
 
Sonia Manzano: —of having a real, a real place and, and getting everybody on board and telling me, I would say, what’s Maria like? “Just be yourself. We just want you to be yourself so kids can relate to you. So, the kids we’re trying to reach, underserved children, can see themselves represented on television.” And one time, they would put makeup on me. And I was like in my early 20s. And John Stone came in and he was… sometimes he had like a storm on his, I could see a storm in his forehead. And he took a look at me, grabbed me, took me into the makeup room and said to the makeup artist, I go through all the trouble of hiring a real person and you make her up to look like a Kewpie doll. He was furious. The makeup artist got really nervous and she starts taking the makeup off me. While this drama is going on above my head. I’m looking at myself in the mirror thing. I get it. I get this job now. I get it. They’re not kidding. They really do want a real person. They really do want me. And I sort of, I ran with it.
 
[Tape] Clip from Sesame Street Episode 0832 (1975).
 
Sonia Manzano: I can tell you I was stunned when I first saw myself on camera.
 
Kevin Burke: Really?
 
Sonia Manzano: I thought I was a tall, willowy blonde, almost.
 
Kevin Burke: [laughs] And what did you think?
 
Sonia Manzano: I was, I didn’t like the way I looked. I, you know, it took me a while to get used to it. Things were changing in the city. The Young Lords of the activist group took over Spanish Harlem. I was interested in that group. They were very serious. I wasn’t part of it, but I loved that they were – sort of everything Puerto Rican was beautiful. Your hair was beautiful. I started to let my hair grow natural and embrace the way I looked, embrace my nose, embrace,
 
Kevin Burke: But it took time.
 
Sonia Manzano: My skin tone. Yeah. I mean, you never saw people like me on television. When I was a kid, if you saw a person of color on television, you’d run through the building like your hair was on fire, calling, “Look, look, look, come on. There’s… won’t be on for long. Quick, quick.” You know, so…
 
Kevin Burke: And you’re really one of the path breakers on television, in doing that.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: But even for you, you’re saying seeing yourself,
 
Sonia Manzano: Right.
 
Kevin Burke: It took getting used to.
 
Sonia Manzano: And plus, I was, I remember thinking, how should I wear my hair? Should I put it in hair rollers so that it’s smooth or should I let it be as you’re looking at it now? And for some reason I thought the way I presented myself that first way was going to be the way I had to look for the rest of my life.
 
Kevin Burke: Maybe fixed.
 
Sonia Manzano: Fixed.
 
Kevin Burke: Frozen.
 
Sonia Manzano: Frozen. And then I remembered how I found comfort watching television and I said, so all of the children out there who are looking for comfort, watching television, that’s who I’m talking to. And in order for them to have that moment of peace, I have to be sincere or they’re going to, they’re not going to be fooled. And I mean, I got away with murder. I got to tell you, they [laughs] I mean, I was snarky to Big Bird every once in a while.
 
[Tape] Classic Sesame Street: “Maria’s Interruptions”.
 
Sonia Manzano: David— Northern Calloway, who played David, a young man who worked in Hooper’s store—and I were always, because we went to high school together. So, I knew him from high school.
 
Kevin Burke: Did you really?
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: Oh wow.
 
Sonia Manzano: You know, we were always kind of holding hands and kissing because that’s what I used to see in my neighborhood — where the young kids were, you know, leaning against the building and, you know, finding little places to make out.
 
Kevin Burke: Make out, yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: And so, he and I, you know, we put that in. I mean, I don’t think I, you couldn’t do that on a kid’s show now.
 
Kevin Burke: No.
 
Sonia Manzano: Outrageously flirting with each other.
 
[Tape] Classic Sesame Street: “Maria’s Present for David”.
 
Kevin Burke: How do you see — if you overlay the real map of your Third Avenue, let’s say, in your Bronx and overlaying on top of it is the map of Sesame Street, which is the world of pretend — it’s an urban space, but it’s an idealized space — how did you see those two maps laying onto one another and what did you try to bring from your map to that map? You know, you mentioned your mother can make dresses. You make stories.
 
Sonia Manzano: We used to be on the stoop in the summer outside. And then at a certain point, all the kids, all the neighborhood kids were there. My mother would say, OK, it’s time for us to go upstairs. And she’d make us go upstairs. And I was convinced that the minute we left, everybody really started to have a good time. And I always wanted to stay longer and she would say no. Well, one day she says, because I had a cousin, I said, “Please let me stay out with cousin Maria.” And she allows me and I’m thinking, “This is it. Now I’m going to see what goes on when we go to bed.” Well, you know what? They went home, too [laughs].
 
Kevin Burke: Right.
 
Sonia Manzano: So, nothing happened. Years later, I have to write a bit about imagination, and that’s what I write about. Big Bird, Susan and Gordon tell Big Bird he’s gotta, you know, turn the lights out in his nest. He doesn’t want to because he has an imagination. And in the imagination, circus performers come through and they do backflips. I mean, that’s what goes on in his imagination. Comes out of his imagination and, you know, Susan and Gordon watch the news. He says, oh, I’d rather go to sleep, I had more interesting dreams than… So that’s how we took, I took a little thing—
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: And, you know, used to tell this, this other story.
 
[Tape] Classic Sesame Street: “Maria Discusses Her Jobs”.
 
Kevin Burke: And then there’s the flipside of that, which is taking experiences where they were filled with emotion or danger, tornadoes,
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: And taking the tornado out.
 
Sonia Manzano: Right.
 
Kevin Burke: You weren’t putting the tornadoes in Sesame Street.
 
Sonia Manzano: No.
 
Kevin Burke: But you had, as a kid, experienced that. And that’s, that’s the amazing thing about a show like Sesame Street. It’s that it’s like the making the show and in viewing the show, there’s sort of an implicit understanding that we are all in our own lives experiencing what we’re experiencing, but for this hour, we’re going to try to focus on the way we want things to be. That’s part of the making of the art and receiving the art, but that doesn’t mean real life disappears.
 
Sonia Manzano: And that’s why Sesame Street was successful. It wasn’t inculcating kids with ‘this is what the world should be.” It’s like we’re going to give you tools so you could make the world what it should — what you want it to be.
 
[Tape] Classic Sesame Street: “Mr. Hooper Helps Gordon”.  
 
Kevin Burke: Every kid has their time to spend with Sesame Street.
 
Sonia Manzano: Right.
 
Kevin Burke: So, I was too old by the time you got married to Luis and had a daughter.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: I was there in that period of the early 80s.
 
Sonia Manzano: Right.
 
Kevin Burke: You know, ’81, ’82, ’83, having lost my grandfather and uncle, and then Mr. Hooper died.
 
[Tape] Sesame Street Unpaved: “Mr. Hooper’s Death”.
 
Sonia Manzano: It was incredible. And everybody wanted, and Dulcy Singer was a producer at that time and everybody wanted her to just say that he was recast, you know. He went to Florida and retired. And she said, why are we, our whole tenet is that, to show reality, and death is not a man-made evil.
 
Kevin Burke: No.
 
Sonia Manzano: It’s—
 
Kevin Burke: And I thought it was handled so well. And so anyway, that’s where I, that’s my piece of Sesame Street.
 
Sonia Manzano: I wasn’t a writer at the time and that’s, but that’s when I became most impressed with the organization.
 
Kevin Burke: Around that loss.
 
Sonia Manzano: When they handled that, I observed—.
 
Kevin Burke: Yes, yes.
 
Sonia Manzano: —them and I said, these people are — people of substance.
 
[Tape] Clip from Sesame Street Episode 2615 (1989).
 
Kevin Burke: Then you have all these kids who, of a certain age who grew up and you’re the mom on Sesame Street. What was that like for you?
 
Sonia Manzano: Oh, I really loved it. I love the kids. I had my favorite kids. I saw them grow up. I’ve, you know, now the kids that were on the show are like 40 years old, or 50 years old.
 
Kevin Burke: Isn’t that amazing?
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah, so they’re, and I’ve gotten wonderful letters from— heartbreaking letters. One person wrote to me who said my mother was schizophrenic and my one hour of peace was watching you on this show.
 
Kevin Burke: And as a kid, you had chaos in the house.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: And you had gone to TV for order.
 
Sonia Manzano: Right.
 
Kevin Burke: For orderliness.
 
Sonia Manzano: For order. And I saw order in Father Knows Best.
 
Kevin Burke: Right.
 
Sonia Manzano: It was order, and—
 
Kevin Burke: And now you’re creating it. You are creating the order for kids at home through that portal, as Maria on Sesame Street, as a mom.
 
Sonia Manzano: Exactly. I mean, it was great. I mean, I got another letter, you know, somebody said I was gay and in Philadelphia, I’m from a destructive household. And you were — and this is such a heartfelt letter, there was no return address. This person just wanted me to know this.
 
[Tape] Clip from Sesame Street Episode 3658 (1997).
 
Kevin Burke: And in your own life, with your own daughter and, you know, your own family, I’m picturing you now being in the role of, that your mother occupied when she was dying her hair. You were asking her for stories and she was sort of giving you a window into her past. Now, there are little ones, you know, your daughter or people in your life, who are going to look to you and want to access your memories because they can’t see it. They can’t see your, they can’t see your Bronx, they can’t see your family as it was. My question for you is, what do you want to allow them, or invite them to see? What do you want them to know about you?
 
Sonia Manzano: You know what? I want them to know everything about me. Now, whether they are interested in knowing everything about me is another story. [laughs] You know, I, I don’t think that parents are as interesting to their kids, no matter who they are.
 
Kevin Burke: Sometimes until it’s too late and you can’t.
 
Sonia Manzano: It’s too late. And I, to this day, I talked a lot with my mom and I’m sorry I didn’t ask her a lot of questions. I’m sorry I didn’t insist somehow to know about my father. I’m sorry, but there you are. So, what I want them to know — everything. I want them to know everything about me. But you know what? You know why they don’t want to know about you? And this is all in the grand design of things. If they took your lessons to heart, they would just go back to bed and not participate in society at all. They have to say, oh, yeah, you don’t know. I’m going to do it my way. That’s what keeps the young people moving on.
 
Kevin Burke: And in certain ways, you’ve given a gift to the world and to your family with the memoir because you have, you did struggle to put it down on the page.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: You give them—
 
Sonia Manzano: I had to, I had to put it out there. I had to, I had to have closure with my father. It made me visit my father. I hadn’t seen him in years. I just had to.
 
Kevin Burke: And why hadn’t you seen him in years? Had there been a break or was it sort of a…
 
Sonia Manzano: It was just kind of a, you know, if you’re not interested in your children when they’re little, you’re not interested, you know, when you get to be grown people. The most important years in a child’s life are the youngest ones, when you make the connection. When you wait ’til they’re sixteen, you’re maybe a little late. So, but I felt I had to sort of, you know, see what was seen. Take sort of like the schmutz out of my eyes and see him and see what, if he remembered things as I did. And he said, I still love your mother, but she always wanted to do what she wanted to do. [laughs] And this was the bugaboo, you know.
 
Kevin Burke: And did he take responsibility for the violence?
 
Sonia Manzano: No. It seemed like you were, I never even thought about you, Sonia, so what are you worried about? I think it was that. I mean, he didn’t articulate that…
 
Kevin Burke: But it sounds like he never really had the reckoning in that way.
 
Sonia Manzano: No, no.
 
[Music]
 
Kevin Burke: One of the things that jumps out when you’re reading your memoir is that you don’t talk about death.
 
Sonia Manzano: I don’t. My mother was her— she described her father her whole life as being this cold, you know, he sent his children out, didn’t care for his children, being a tightwad and all this kind of stuff. And he, to the point where I hated him because he was so mean to my mother and didn’t take care of my mother. And then it turns out he’s dying and he’s sick and she’s saying, “Oh, gosh, I have to, I have to go see him.” And I said, “What do you care? You just told me he was a terrible person. Why, why do you have to?” So that was confusing to me. So, she did finally go see him. And then when my grandmother died, my father’s mother,
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: Well, I think I look a lot like her. We have the same hands, I know that. So, she — they didn’t tell me that. I was in college and they didn’t tell me she died. And those are the only…Yeah. Except for my Uncle Eddie dying and then he died of Alzheimer’s, and that’s like losing, losing someone in segments. And my mother, too. And I knew, and I knew that something was wrong when she didn’t listen to music anymore. She loved music.
 
Kevin Burke: Oh.
 
Sonia Manzano: She would sing like The Temptations. She heard like Mozart like, she’d hum it like she’d know it. And she listened to Jethro Tull. “That Jethro Tull, he’s really good.”
 
Kevin Burke: [laughs] That’s amazing. So, she had an ear for music, so to see her lose that…
 
Sonia Manzano: She had a beautiful voice in that kind of hillbilly, you know, if there was a jibaro, that kind of plaintive, mountain voice.
 
Kevin Burke: And can you still hear her in your mind when you’re talking? That’s a beautiful thing.
 
[Tape] “Just My Imagination” – The Temptations (1971).
 
Kevin Burke: And so, they’re now both gone, your parents, so you have to live on the memories of them. And where does that world live inside of your mind? As you get older and you reached different ages, how do you find yourself reinterpreting or reimagining?
 
Sonia Manzano: You know, I mostly, now that you ask, you’re forcing me to answer, I think I mostly remember the good things.
 
Kevin Burke: That’s what you’re holding on to. And how would you how do you define those things? Is it the singing? Is it the—
 
Sonia Manzano: The singing, my mother, you know, going “Ta-dah,” you know, when she would come into a room sometimes. Mimicking scenes in movies, I remember her and my sister discussing whether a certain movie star was sexy, a male movie star, and my mother being exasperated and saying, “Oh, what do you know?” [laughs]
 
Kevin Burke: When you talk about how, as a kid, just the anticipation of her getting off that train.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: And seeing her wave up to you. I mean, can you still, in your mind see that movie in your mind?
 
Sonia Manzano: I can see it. She looked, I was the most beloved kid in the world, the way she looked at me. She was just charmed.
 
Kevin Burke: Think of the day that she put in. I mean, she was working in the factory. That’s not an easy day.
 
Sonia Manzano: It was terrible. When I first went to that factory, I couldn’t believe it because she used to leave the house in this beautiful little dress, with a little waist, very Mad Men, that era. And when I got there to the factory, it was so noisy. It was industrial sewing machines. It wasn’t like the sewing machine at your house. And there was thread flying everywhere and all the women took their clothes off. So, they looked great when they entered and when they left.
 
Kevin Burke: So, I mean, you saw her. She was literally sweated from her work.
 
Sonia Manzano: As a matter of fact, here’s another, if this was a visual, I’d say to mom, “So how was your day?” And she’d go like this, “Phew.” She’d wipe her brow with her—
 
Kevin Burke: Yeah.
 
Sonia Manzano: Like a cartoon character.
 
Kevin Burke: Think of how weary she must have been, getting off that train, and still, she had it in her to look up at that window.
 
Sonia Manzano: It was just great. It was wonderful.
 
Kevin Burke: And you were feeding her.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yeah.
 
Kevin Burke: Now, you know, as a mom, right. You can imagine being on the train,
 
Sonia Manzano: Yes, yes.
 
Kevin Burke: Coming home and seeing you in the window. It’s a beautiful image.
 
[Music]
 
Kevin Burke: I’d like to end every interview that I do with a passage from what Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and I ask every guest this, and I wanted to do that with you as well. And it comes from “Song of Myself.” And this is, of course, Walt Whitman, iconic New Yorker poet, And in “Song of Myself,” he writes this.
 
He says, “I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again, look for me under your boot soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, but I shall be good health to you nevertheless, and filter and fiber your blood. Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stopped somewhere waiting for you.”
 
And I have this idea in my mind that when I read these lines that, you know, someday when we’re no longer here, 50, 100, 200 years from now, there might be someone who comes along who grew up watching you, or sees you, and reads your memoir and wants to know you, wants to know Sonia, and comes to New York, comes to your hometown and wants to commune with you. Where should they look for you if they want to feel your spirit and stand in a place that meant a lot to you and just feel you wash over them in that mighty river of New York? Where should they go?
 
Sonia Manzano: I guess they should go to Third Avenue. I mean, even though the building isn’t there, the outcropping that I climbed is.
 
Kevin Burke: In Crotona Park?
 
Sonia Manzano: It’s no, it was on the street.
 
Kevin Burke: It’s on the street?
 
Yeah. They built a building over it, but you could still see it.
 
Kevin Burke: OK, so go to that outcropping.
 
Sonia Manzano: Go to that outcropping, because I loved it. They could see the whole world like I did.
 
Kevin Burke: And then, in terms of your own map Sonia, on that map, where would you say is the happiest place on your map to New York? When you think of just pure happiness?
 
Sonia Manzano: I think it has to be on the set of Sesame Street.
 
Kevin Burke: And where is the most haunted place on the map?
 
Sonia Manzano: Third Avenue, the outcropping. [laughs]
 
Kevin Burke: So, of the two places, right,
 
Sonia Manzano: It is full of conflicting feelings.
 
Kevin Burke: And that’s, I think one of the lessons you get from Sesame Street is that, as a kid, it’s reconciling sometimes feeling two feelings with the same thing.
 
Sonia Manzano: Yes.
 
Kevin Burke: You know?
 
Sonia Manzano: Right.
 
Kevin Burke: You’re happy and sad. You’re scared.
 
Sonia Manzano: Right, pathos. That’s why I love pathos so much. Humor, the best, the best humor comes out of sadness.
 
[Music]
 
Kevin Burke: Thank you for listening to Your Hometown, where the local is the epic.
 
This is a Kevin Burke Production. Visit YourHometown.org to subscribe to the podcast and our various social media channels. And wherever you’re listening, please drop us a review. Every star helps.
 
For information on live events that we do around the show, visit our New York City series page on The Museum of the City of New York’s website at mcny.org/your hometown- podcast.
 
Now, let me thank the team that works with me on Your Hometown, beginning with our executive producer, Robert Krulwich, our editor and sound designer Otis Streeter, our composer-performer Sterling Steffen, and our researchers Shakila Khan and Janmaris Perez. I also want to thank Tunshore Longe, Nick Gregg, and Charlotte Yiu for the vivid illustrations have given our show another dimension. Our social media manager is Mackela Watkins, and our website and branding design is by Tama Creative.
 
A special thanks to our partners this season the Museum of the City of New York; our lead funder, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and all our financial supporters for their commitment to this series. It’s because of them that we’re able to bring this series to you.
Thanks so much for taking this ride with me. And, remember – everyone’s from someplace, and everywhere is somewhere.
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Series one

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.

© Museum of the City of New York, 2021