Sonia Manzano never got to be a household name.
But her face, and character, Maria, on “Sesame Street” occupied a special place in American homes for almost half a century.
Manzano, who is 65 and Puerto Rican, announced her retirement from the iconic children’s show.
The South Bronx native blazed trails as one of the first Hispanics to be on national television in the United States.
And she did it with distinction, also writing for the show. She won two Emmy awards for acting and 15 for writing, according to published reports.
"Sonia Manzano (...) will always be a part of the fabric of our neighborhood," said Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind the production of the show, in a statement to Fox News Latino.
"During her 44-year career as the iconic 'Maria,' and the first leading Latina woman on television, she was a role model for young girls and women for generations (...) We’ll always be grateful for her many years on Sesame Street as a champion of diversity and helping millions of kids grow up smarter, stronger and kinder," it also said.
Manzano was captivated by “Sesame Street” when, while still in college, she saw the show for the first time.
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw it,” the Washington Post quoted her as saying to Archive of American Television. “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,” she said, “there certainly weren’t nice little Susan and Gordon.”
Manzano knew early on that she wanted to perform, attending the prestigious High School of Performing Arts and Carnegie Mellon college on a scholarship.
It didn’t take long for the determined and super-focused Manzano to get her break. “Sesame Street” hired her when she was 22. She played a teenage Maria.
As word of her retirement began spreading, many fans have taken to social media to reflect on what Maria meant to them. Latinos recall her as the first Latina they’d ever seen on TV, and non-Latinos said they learned Spanish words from her, according to the Post.
Manzano has responded to such praise with gratitude.
Manzano joined the “Sesame Street” cast in 1971, playing a teenage Maria, who worked in a second-hand bookstore.
Three years later, she was a regular member of the cast.
Emilio Delgado played her husband Luis on the show, which was one of the first to have a diverse cast.
“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.”
Manzano has devoted a lot of energy to the rights of women and minorities.
At first on the show, she helped Luis at the fix-it shop that he owned, but then pushed to be part-owner.
“Why shouldn’t I be part owner just because I was a woman?” she told Archive of American Television.
“‘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.”
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