“Actors weren’t actors,” she said in a 2004 interview with the Archive of American Television. “We were cast because of who we were — the people we were.”
Manzano, whose parents came from Puerto Rico, became one of the first Hispanics to appear on national television, in many ways, helping to break down racial and gender barriers. She built a 44-year career playing Maria, a character loosely based on her own life. She was nominated for two Emmy awards for her acting and won 15 others for her writing on the show. Now, she is stepping down.
Manzano grew up in the South Bronx. She went to the High School of Performing Arts and she later earned a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon.
Her junior year of college, she started performing in the off-Broadway show “Godspell.” And, within a year, she was cast as Maria on “Sesame Street.”
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw it,” she told Archive of American Television about the show. She said she first watched it on a TV in the student union at Carnegie Mellon. “There I see James Earl Jones. He’s going, ‘A, B, C’ and it was like, ‘What is this?’ It was so in-your-face, so compelling. It grabbed me by the neck.”
“At that time, there were no people of color on television and if there were, there certainly weren’t nice little Susan and Gordon,” she added.
The show was groundbreaking — the first that integrated early childhood development into entertainment while, at the same time, giving grown-ups a reason to tune in.
Over the years, it featured celebrity guest stars — including Johnny Cash, Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin, Patrick Stewart and Robin Williams — acting and singing alongside the show’s muppets: Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Elmo, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, the Cookie Monster and Count von Count.
For Manzano, the best moment on the show was when Stevie Wonder sang “Superstition.”
“It was an uplifting moment,” she told Yahoo News in 2013. “And I remember it because it seemed everybody was on the same page. Kids, old people, young people, white people, black people, Latin people. I mean, everybody was grooving. Straight people, hip people. It seemed like everybody was grooving at the same thing at the same time. And it was this wonderful, hopeful vision of the world.”
Manzano joined the “Sesame Street” cast in 1971, playing a teenage Maria, who worked in a second-hand bookstore. By 1974, she was a regular, soon acting alongside her TV husband, Luis, who was played by Emilio Delgado. She joined other minorities on the show, including Matt Robinson and Loretta Long (who played Gordon and Susan) and Will Lee (who played Jewish store owner Mr. Hooper).
“The country was an exciting place,” she told Yahoo News. “Everything was changing. And the curriculum goal at that time was children should know that Latins live in America, and Latin children should be proud of their culture because Latins were completely invisible in the media. And so ‘Sesame Street’ was trying to remedy that situation by having a diverse cast.”
“If you’re not reflected in society, you feel invisible,” she told CBS News last year. “I wondered, how was I going to contribute to a society that didn’t see me?”
Manzano found her place. Both in real life and in the show, she said, she fought for women’s rights. Maria, for instance, worked with Luis at his fix-it shop. But eventually, she wanted to be part-owner of the store.
“When we started in ’69, we presented this idealistic world,” she told CBS News. “We taught kids basic skills and knowledge about how the world works in the hope that they would grow up and create their own world. Now we are helping kids live in the world that exists for them that adults have created. I think kids have more to deal with now than the creators ever could have imagined.”
Over the past 44 years, viewers have watched Manzano’s character grow and evolve, just as she has.
“‘Sesame Street’ allowed me to do an unmentionable in American society: Age publicly,” she told Archive of American Television. “We were never made to look the same or maintain the same persona. So as we grew and our lives changed, our characters changed, especially Maria.”
In real life, Manzano married her husband, Richard Regan. Maria married Luis. When Manzano became pregnant, her character did as well. In the early 1990s, Luis and Maria had a daughter, Gabriela “Gabi” Rodriguez, who was played by Desiree Casado.
For children who had grown up watching the show, Manzano and the cast were part of their lives.
Puerto Rican Ismael Cruz Córdova learned English partly by watching the show and, in 2013, joined the cast as “Mando,” a Latino writer and techie.
“For me, what was so important when I was watching the show as a child, was visibility,” he told Yahoo News at the time. “To see people who looked like me. I mean, we all want to feel accounted for. Coming from a poor family, not formally educated, I grew up with that sense that my story wasn’t as important. But everybody has the right to speak out and to create and to voice their opinions and to be heard. From wherever you come from.”
Manzano has won numerous awards over the years for her role as an actress, author and speaker. She was named one of the “25 Greatest Latino Role Models Ever” by Latino Magazine and has been recognized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in Washington and Hispanic Heritage Foundation.
Manzano has said before that she hopes her story will inspire others.
“As a kid there was always a lot of chaos going on around me and I found a certain comfort in television sometimes,” she told Archive of American Television in 2004. “I hope that I can be remembered as the person who created a moment of safety for a child watching.”