I don’t remember the first time I watched Sesame Street. It was always there. Elmo, Big Bird, Oscar, and Zoe. And there was also Maria—the non-puppet neighbor, mom, wife, friend, and worker. She had a life that was rich with family and neighbors, who she lived among and learned with. When I learned in June that actress Sonia Manzano would be retiring from her role as Maria on the show after 44 years, I was floored. Now, the show has also announced that it will air new episodes first to the paying customers of HBO, screening episodes on the free-to-viewers PBS after nine months. Everything is changing so fast! With both these pieces of news, this summer feels like the end of a Sesame Street era. This has brought about a whirlwind of emotions and memories of all my favorite episodes.
Though I’m well beyond the age of needing to learn new alphabet letters, I’ve been happy to have the excuse of three young nephews to sneak in episodes of Sesame Street. One episode in particular that I constantly look up on YouTube is a dancing tutorial that aired sometime in the late 1980s. A Puertorican bomba/plena group came on the show and sang for Maria and Big Bird. They all danced around and Maria explained the African roots of Caribbean plena music. This kind of focus on Latino culture made Sesame Street one of the only children’s shows to depict not only the mainstream aspects of my culture, but also its lesser-known genres, subgenres, and even folklore.
In the bomba episode, Maria compliments the singers in Spanish and speaks to Oscar and Stuffy in English. She switches from talking to dancing, from one language to another, but she is always thoroughly herself. In some episodes, she even communicates in sign language. As a child, I was often embarrassed to speak to my parents in Spanish if we were outside of NYC, or in a neighborhood that didn’t have other Latin Americans. Maria wasn’t self-conscious and she didn’t hesitate to show all the different aspects of herself in front of her Sesame Street friends. She accepted herself and so did they.
Growing up, the few Latinas who I did see portrayed in media were always in tight, sexy dresses, from actresses to anchors on Telemundo, they had to be the “default” type of Latina: an overly sexualized woman who doesn’t capture the diversity found in women all over Latin America. They often don’t have a lot of lines and defer to male hosts—mostly it feels they’re on-screen as eye candy. Maria, meanwhile, had a vibrant and outspoken personality. Through Maria, I learned that anyone can be feminine without having to be hyper-sexualized or give in to a Hollywood stereotype of Latinas (like that we’re being too loud or sport exaggerated accents). I loved her voice, the bright colors in her outfits, her hoop earrings, and her occasional red lipstick (a thrill for me because I wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick to school).
Maria and The Count on Sesame Street. Photo by Zach Hyman/Sesame Street.
This month, Sonia Manzano is releasing a memoir, Becoming Maria, about her childhood in the Bronx and her time on the show, which she started appearing on in 1971. I can’t wait to read it. In addition to adding much-needed representation to children’s TV, Maria’s character is unique in that I actually saw her get older as I grew up. Many celebrities don’t age. As much as I admire other Bronx-based Puerto Rican celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, JLo doesn’t age. She’s 46, has two children, and she also has abs of steel and no gray hairs. Maria aged. Maria showed us her life. The show never swapped out Manzano for a younger Maria—as I’d cynically expect most prime-time shows to do—and Manzano felt supported enough on the show to stick with the crew for four decades. That longevity allowed Maria to truly develop as a character. In the show’s 19th season finale, Maria married her neighbor Luis on her building’s rooftop while their friends looked on as witnesses. Then, they celebrated in the streets. Children saw Maria go to the hospital when she became sick, they saw her have a child, they saw her develop laugh lines along the sides of her mouth and beautiful wrinkles on her forehead. We all got older with her.
As Sesame Street loses Maria as a central character and moves to HBO, I hope the soul of the show remains intact. The move is for financial reasons: According to the New York Times, most of Sesame Street’s funding comes from licensing revenue, like DVD sales. But the show struggled in recent years because of the rapid rise of streaming and on-demand viewing. HBO can help cover those costs, so Sesame Street can make twice as many episodes a year as it currently does. At the same time, PBS reaches more low-income kids than any other TV network. Keeping this show accessible to Americans who can’t shell out for HBO is important. Even without Maria, I hope my little nephews can enjoy the same diverse representations and educational segments that I loved as a kid.