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Sonia Manzano on How 'Sesame Street,' Her Childhood and Heritage Shaped 'Alma's Way'

Sonia Manzano in the Bronx wearing a blue shirt.
Sonia Manzano in the Bronx. | David Gonzalez/Courtesy of Fred Rogers Productions
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Sonia Manzano, who played Maria on "Sesame Street," is the creator of the new PBS KIDS show "Alma's Way," which follows a little girl named Alma Rivera from the Bronx as she solves problems alongside friends and family. I had the opportunity to talk to her about the inspiration for the show and how her childhood and role as Maria influenced the character of Alma and the show's purpose.

The following conversation was edited for length and clarity. It is also available in Spanish.

You retired from "Sesame Street" in 2015.
Sonia Manzano: That's correct. I was happy to be on the show for 44 years and I was a writer for at least 25 of those years and now I've put all of those talents into "Alma's Way."

What made you decide to go back to TV after focusing on your writing after “Sesame Street”? Was introducing Alma’s story something you dreamt about for a long time?
SM: No. Actually I hadn't been. It wasn't my idea. It was Linda Simensky's idea at PBS KIDS to ask me to create a new show with a Latino family based in a Latino family household; an animated series. I wouldn't have wanted to create a children's show after being on "Sesame Street" for so many years. I mean, how are you going to top that act? That was pretty major. So I was perfectly happy to just write my books but she asked me to do this and I thought "OK. I can step up to do this." And so I made up this animated series.

Interesting. So it was pitched to you and you just brought your own flavor to it, really.
SM: Yes, absolutely. She just said "a Latino or Latinx family" and I of course made it a Nuyorican family, a Puerto Rican family, because that's what I am and I placed them in the South Bronx because that's where I grew up!

Now, the goal of the show was left up to me; what it was going to teach. And I thought that it should teach or make kids aware of the thinking process and make them know that they have a brain and they could use it.

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Alma has a brother named Junior, just like Sonia Manzano has a brother named Junior. | PBS KIDS

I read that it teaches kids about self-advocacy, empathy and social awareness. I thought, “Wow! Even adults have difficulty practicing these traits. Why did you pick those in particular and why now? What was your thinking process behind that?
SM: No, I wish I could attribute thinking of all those great traits and delivering them to the public as my own idea, but I think that comes out of PBS's curriculum goals. My main thought was that kids should think. Now, if they think and can become empathic about it, that's terrific. If they think and know how to be self-aware because of their thinking, then that's terrific. All of those traits that you mentioned are a result of thinking. So, let's take it back a step and understand that our audience, you know, they still pick their nose in public, for heaven's sake! The main thing is to get them to think. And all of those wonderful traits that you just mentioned will certainly follow. I don't think you can teach empathy any more than you can teach someone what love is. You can show them what love is and you can demonstrate it that way. We hope that Alma demonstrates that with her family as she solves her problems. For example, she has a date to go to be a participant in a bomba concert, which is a Puerto Rican dance, and then it turns out she gets a better invitation from her grandfather to go to a baseball game. She has to weigh what she should do. Should she go back on her promise to her grandfather, or should she do what she was intending to do? That shows that she is concerned about her grandfather without me telling you. She has to think about it and make the best decision for herself.

So it's more about making kids not just go with their gut reactions, which is what a lot of us did when we were growing up, right?
SM: Yeah. I mean that's true too, but mainly I noticed that kids were turned off to school and learning because they had to memorize, or there were too many kids in the classroom or they didn't speak English. And a lot is expected of kids today. We're a data-driven society and we want them to have all of this information. We want them to learn something the exact moment as their peers; they can't learn it six months later or even a year later. All of these pressures make kids think that they're not smart. I want kids to think "You are smart!" or to know "You have a brain!" and that you can come to solutions by looking at the world around you and attaching what you see in the world to solve your own problems. That's what Alma does most of the time. She observes her parents doing something, her friends doing something; when she was a problem, which you see when a globe appears near her head, and we see the process of thinking, she applies what she has seen to solve her problem. That's the idea so that kids don't think "Oh, I don't have this information." You can get information from the internet; it's what you do with the information; and that's more important to me than teaching specific goals. Frankly, I didn't care much what kids thought about, as long as they thought. Ellen Doherty from Fred Rogers Productions, who developed the show, thought it was important that we give specific goals and solutions, which you will see. Alma messes up the mofongo, which is a Puerto Rican food, and she remembers that her mother told her father what was going on and she realized "Ay! I better tell my mother what's going on."

That's really empowering, actually. To make kids aware that no matter what you think, as long as you're thinking, that's going to put you in the right place.
SM: Yeah. That it's valid what they think. That everybody sees the world differently and that's acceptable. Kids do see the world their own way. That's why we all say to them "Where did you get such an idea?" Well, they got it from the way they see the world, which is, thankfully, different from the way the rest of us do! Because we need some new ideas!

Sometimes we forget what it's like to think when we were little. And it's so valuable.
SM: Yes. And of course, I used my brain a lot as a kid, as a refuge to escape turmoil, to fantasize. It's a wonderful trait to have, I think, and I want to share that with kids.

I never forgot that there might be some kid out there watching Maria the same way I watched television looking for comfort.
Sonia Manzano

You've mentioned before that you think TV is really about bringing comfort to all children. In a world is becoming more uncertain and chaotic every day, how important is that mission for TV to offer comfort and an escape to children today?
SM: Well, I actually found a lot of comfort watching TV when I was kid. I've always loved stories and television was stories. I really think stories are the way to help people communicate because you will find things that you have in common in stories. I was raised in a tumultuous neighborhood and a tumultuous household, and I looked to TV shows like "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver," even though those shows had nothing to do with me (shows that you can watch on TV Land today). It was comforting. There was order in it. When I got on "Sesame Street," I never forgot that there might be some kid out there watching Maria the same way I watched television looking for comfort. I think that's why I was successful as Maria, because I never forgot that feeling. I wanted to be a comfort by being sincere and somebody that they could relate to and Alma I think is going to do the same thing.

Why is representation key in children's TV and how has it changed over time?
SM: It's quite important that children see themselves reflected in TV. I never saw myself reflected on TV when I was a kid in the 50s and I wondered (and I had never been to Puerto Rico, so I didn't know anything about that) what I was going to contribute to that didn't see me. People would say "What are you going to be when you grow up?" and you went "Umm … " You never saw a teacher or a doctor or a bus driver; so it's important that kids see themselves and people like them living and contributing to the world. That's what Maria did, I think, and they're going to see a little kid like me in the world, thinking about and manipulating it. It's important.

You said that "Sesame Street" was the first time that you saw cities, particularly inner-city neighborhoods like the Bronx, shown as kid-friendly spaces and that it was really important for you to include real details, like the 6 Train, in the show to make it real. What do you think was missing when you were on "Sesame Street" that you thought you wanted to include in "Alma's Way"?
SM: Well, "Sesame Street's" main tenet was "real." "Be real." Before I was on the show, they were satirized on "SNL." They called it "reality street." And that's how real it was. The belief of the creators was that kids wanted to live in the real world. They didn't always want fantasies or magic castles. So obviously, the show was set in the real world, but we never said whether it was Harlem, El Barrio, 110th Street, but you kinda knew. And that's what I was going to do with "Alma's Way," but then Ellen Doherty said "No, let's go for it. Let's really make it the Bronx. Why not? Let's make it the 6 Train." The icon of the Bronx is the number 6 Train and that is almost a character in our show. It's featured all the time. It gives it a bit more reality and I think it's interesting, actually. I really loved when I learned that Spider Man was placed in Queens. I went "Oh, Queens! I know that!" It gives it a nice touch. That's why we say "Alma's Way" is in the Bronx; we have the 6 Train. MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) was involved. Fred Rogers Productions had to deal with MTA to get permission to use their logo. Now, there's some stuff that's not real. Like, they go to the beach a lot in "Alma's Way" and it's probably Orchard Beach, but we don't say it's Orchard Beach because we don't want to get into "Oh, 179th Street intersects Grand Concourse" or whatever. It's not a geography show. It's not important. But there're enough real icons to make it fly; to anchor it.

Alma's Way_Alma_s Animal Show_2021_Episodic Image_JPG-3.jpg
"Alma's Way" is aimed at helping kids learn to think things through. | PBS KIDS

How do you think that other Latino kids and their caregivers and families can see themselves in Alma and her world and connect to it? What special things tie us (because I am a Latina as well) to her?
SM: Certainly the dominant culture is Puerto Rican, but then also adding to that is Caribbean culture. Uncle Nestor is Cuban, for example, and we'll highlight that they'll go to a Cuban restaurant. We have a family of Mexican descent moving in next door from San Diego and they'll have fun stuff like Alma says "Chévere!" and the family says "Qué padre!" to mean that things are cool, which I didn't know! I had never even heard that expression. We're putting in those things. We're taking the opportunity to show that not all Latinos are the same. That we are different from each other on many levels and that all of those differences are to be celebrated; of course with music, which is the strongest way to celebrate it, and next is food. We have elotes in the show! We have pasteles, mofongo and Jorge Aguirre, our head writer, introduced elotes, which I had never heard of, which was interesting to me.

I'm glad you've heard of them now!
SM: Yes! I haven't eaten one yet, but it's top on my list!

And there's a Bangladeshi family in the show as well because most bodegas are owned by people from Bangladesh or the Middle East, so there's that culture in it as well. And there's an African American couple, and there's somebody of Asian descent on the show. So there're a lot of people like the Bronx is. I don't think because you're not any of those people you're not going to relate to it, but actually, there is every kind of person on the show. We even have white people on the show!

I really think stories are the way to help people communicate because you will find things that you have in common in stories.
Sonia Manzano

That very diverse racial makeup is familiar to a lot of us in different places across the country, especially where Latino families are, like LA. That's something that kids anywhere can relate to and see themselves in, right?
SM: Sure, sure. And they're observing all of this. I think a good way to get diverse ideas across is not to beat people over the head with it but just present it. Just show it. Normalize it. It's normal. And let's not forget that the show is primarily about thinking seen through the lens of this Puerto Rican family and little Alma.

I know that you mentioned that music is one of the ways you show diversity. You have bomba and other different music, so that's one of them, but are there any others that you made sure to include that showcase that?
SM: Well, there's Bangladeshi music, and as you said, bomba and plena; and because it's in the Bronx there's hip hop and rap and there's tango music because there's an old couple that's always doing the tango. And the mother is always singing opera because she happens to be a music teacher. There are a lot of different aspects like that that come out of the particular characters. They're very well-drawn characters. As I said, it's what makes the main thing, which is thinking, interesting; it's to give it as many details as possible. We're not setting out to show everybody who exists in the planet. That would be a little complicated and a little overreaching and you'd reach nobody if you did that. We're trying to reach kids and adults about thinking in this wonderful, effervescent environment.

And it's very similar to other places, like where I grew up or L.A. and that part is really nice. It's real.
SM: Yeah and when it's real, everybody will own it. When I was on "Sesame Street," I'd got to the middle of a cornfield in Idaho and I would say "where's 'Sesame Street'?" and the kid would say "Oh, it's right around here!" They would feel it was theirs. That's what we're going for.

How important to you is it that the show is available in English and Spanish?
SM: It never would have occurred to me, but I'm glad that it is in Spanish. I don't think "Sesame Street" had a Spanish version until they did "Plaza Sésamo," which was shown in Mexico first. That was the coproduction and I actually don't know if "Sesame Street" ever translated every single show into Spanish, but obviously it's terrific. We had a tricky time getting everyone to have the same Spanish accent. … It will make it accessible to more people. And actually, I'm going to watch myself and I can brush up on my own Spanish.

I would love to hear you speak some Spanish. That would be amazing!
SM: ¡Bueno, yo me defiendo! Pero no hablo como una persona que lo habla todo el día y todo el tiempo. Yo hablo español pero solamente porque estoy haciendo muchas entrevistas sobre este programa. (Well, I can hold my own! But I don't speak it like a person who speaks it every day and all the time. I speak Spanish but only because I'm doing a lot of interviews about this show.)

... it's important that kids see themselves and people like them living and contributing to the world.
Sonia Manzano

¡Mira nomás! (Look at you!)
SM: Pero soy newyorquina y lo hablo así como muchos newyoricans hablan, con mucho spanglish. (But I'm a Newyorquina and I speak it like many Newyoricans speak, with a lot of Spanglish.)

¡Pero lo habla muy bien! (But you speak it very well!)
SM: ¡Gracias! (Thank you!)

What's your favorite part about the show and about Alma?
SM: I think the music. I just think the musicians come up with the most fabulous music cues because it's not just the separate songs that are rich, it's the music cues that are interspersed throughout the show.

Is there anything you would want to tell parents and kids everywhere who might be concerned about how things are going in life? Anything you just want to say to everyone who sees you and recognizes you (including my mother)?
SM: I know that we're living in tough times and I think you should be real with your kids and tell them that maybe you don't know what the answer is, but however things play out, you're in it together. You're not separate. I think when you tell kids "Oh it's OK" and it's not OK, they know that and it makes their fears bigger. But you can say "I know things are pretty bad now, but we're going to be in this together and we'll solve it together." And I hope that there's a certain legacy that "Alma's Way" leaves (I hope I'm using that word correctly) and that is that I want people to say "Oh! You know after that show "Alma's Way" hit the air, there were a lot of shows about a lot of different people." That's what I hope the mark we make will be.

Watch a video version of the above interview.

"Alma's Way" is available on PBS SoCal with Spanish audio through SAP. It's also available to stream in Spanish via an audio setting on the PBS KIDS video player, where viewers can toggle to Spanish. "Alma's Way" can also be streamed in Spanish on the PBS KIDS YouTube channel.

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