• A young Sonia Manzano on the set of Sesame Street (Image: Instagram @hansupunited) (Instagram)Source: Instagram
L is for Lifetime Achievement Award. Today’s article is brought to you by culturally diverse presenters making outstanding contributions to national media.
By
Sophie Verass

8 Apr 2016 - 3:21 PM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2016 - 4:00 PM

It’s a big year for celebrating diversity in television. 

The 2016 Gold Logie Award will hopefully see us commemorating the achievements of long-standing media contributors who reflect the multicultural society that we live in. While well-thumbed tabloids and Statler and Waldorf on breakfast radio expressed that the only two non-white Gold Logie nominees  - SBS’ Lee Lin Chin and Channel Ten’s Waleed Aly - are undeserving of winning the highest award in Australian television, many people are crossing their fingers that this years’ Gold Logie goes to a someone other than the TV Fugly Awards’ Spunkiest Male TV Personality 2006 or last years’ winner.

The US has had less controversy about their top Daytime Emmy award this year. Still awarded to a non-white presenter, the public are thrilled for the legendary Sonia Manzano aka: Maria from popular children’s program Sesame Street will recieve the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 43rd Annual Daytime Emmys on 1st May.

Sonia Manzano had 45 years of playing Maria, a character watched by millions of junior viewers who saw her go through life-lessons such as, owning a small business and building a career, getting married and becoming a parent. In between raising a family and dealing with Tele’s inane problems, it’s any wonder Maria found the time to teach audiences right from wrong, the alphabet, healthy eating and ‘the word is ‘no’’.  She was not only a mother to Gabi (played by her real life daughter, Gabriella), she was an empathetic parent to children all over the world who would watch and connect with her daily.

 

"I got the call and they [Sesame Street] wanted me to come in because they wanted Latino representation. There weren’t that many Latin actors - I have to admit - to choose from … and I got cast on the show.” - Sonia Manzano

Importantly, Manzano brought diversity to mainstream television in a time which she recalls as, "Latin Americans were invisible". When Sonia first started on Sesame Street in the early 1970s, she was the first Latina with a major role on television. Since recently graduating from a predominantly white university where she felt like many students "didn't know what a Puerto Rican was", her ethnicity was central to her and consequently crossed over into her character’s identity. Sesame Street's Maria promoted Latin-American culture and language to mass audiences with the advocacy coming from Manzano herself. 

“My children and just about every child in America has grown up learning their ABC’s from the iconic character of Maria on Sesame Street played by Sonia Manzano,” said the US’ National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) President Bob Mauro.

“Sonia not only brought the life events of marriage, having a baby and being a mother to viewers young and old, she also brought a seldom-seen diversity, a Latin role model, unlike anything on television at the time.”

Sonia Manzano is first generation Puerto Rican who was raised in the South Bronx in the 1950s. She grew up in a working class area in chaotic household with a violent and alcoholic father and a mother who left him numerous times. Sonia remembers having limited opportunities growing up.

“There were two things you could be when I was a kid,” she said as a guest on the Death, Sex & Money podcast “You could get married young like my cousin who got engaged at 16, or you could be a ‘bad girl’.”
 

Her involvement in the arts was inspired by teachers who encouraged her to audition for the High School of the Performing Arts, where she spent her years developing herself as an actress and joined other successful alumni like Jennifer Anniston and Liza Minnelli.

Interestingly, Manzano was involved just as much behind the scenes of Sesame Street as she did centre stage. She was major script writer for the show and during her time on the program, she has received 15 Emmys for her work. Her talent for speaking to young audiences generated other projects for children including, writing the highly-acclaimed children’s book No Dogs Allowed, writing for the award-winning children’s series, Little Bill and being a regular contributor to the Seasame Workshop website called, ‘Talking Outloud’.

Beyond Sesame Street Sonia has performed on stage in theatre pieces such as, The Vagina Monologues and The Exonerated and she busily serves on many not-for-profit boards. Community activist, stage performer, author and television legend, Mazano has recently released a memoir, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Scholastic Press.

Since her recent honour, American media has supported her award, not only for her talent but for her role in changing the ethnic representation in the media landscape.