I remember watching “Sesame Street” with my younger brother and sister in the 70’s. Later in life, I watched it with my own kids. It was hard to say who enjoyed it more – me or them. What wasn’t to love about the muppets and the people on Sesame Street? When I spotted the biography of Sonia Manzano – the actress that played the part of Maria – I eagerly checked it out.
Unlike her “Sesame Street” character, Sonia’s childhood was anything but happy. Her parents had come from Puerto Rico and extreme poverty to the United States, where they hoped for a better life. Unfortunately, they were almost as poor here as they had been in Puerto Rico. Sonia’s father was an alcoholic and an abusive husband. Throughout her childhood, Sonia and her siblings lived in dread of the terrible fights and the physical violence that followed. The family moved from place to place within the New York City area. Each time they moved, there was the hope that life would somehow be better in the new place, but it never was.
The turning point in Sonia’s life was in high school, when she auditioned for admittance to the Performing Arts high school. When she was accepted, a whole new world opened up for her, a world of music, dancing, and acting. In 1971, she joined the cast of “Sesame Street”, where she stayed for an incredible 44 years.
Sonia’s story is an amazing one. I would say, however, that I am surprised this is considered a children’s biography. (The book was on a display in the children’s area of my local library, and is published by Scholastic Books.) Yes, it is mostly about her childhood, but there is a fair amount of language in it, as well as serious topics such as alcoholism, spousal abuse, poverty, and inappropriate touching. Maybe some kids would be able to read this without being disturbed that it doesn’t seem anything like the Maria they’ve seen on tv, but I would not recommend it for anyone under high school age.
Excerpt from pages 64-65:
“Moving on,” says Mrs. Whitman [the teacher]. “There are also three classes of people: rich, middle class, and poor…”
I wonder where my family and I stand. Surely we are in the middle class. Poor people sleep in the street like Moncho, outside of Don Joe’s bodega, and never have anything to eat like those people in Puerto Rico who live over shit rivers in El Fanguito. We sleep in beds and eat something every night. At two forty-five it’s my turn to help Mrs. Whitman with her outside shoes. They are black and thick with a strap that holds in her rebellious feet.
“Not too tight,” she scolds painfully. I look up at her. “Mrs. Whitman, am I in the middle class?”
“Oh…” She gasps, annoyed. “No, you are poor. Very poor, just like everybody else in this school,” she adds, pointing to her shoe. “Now loosen that strap; you’ve made it much too tight.”
That night I tell my mother what Mrs. Whitman had said and I ask if we are poor or not.
“We’re doing all right,” she sniffs, turning her face away.
Excerpt from pages 7-8:
Aurea and I are alone and my father comes home wildly drunk. “Isa!” he screams. My mother is not here to answer him because she is not home. He doesn’t notice us, doesn’t ask Aurea where my mother might be, though she is old enough to answer. After my father runs and peeks into all four rooms, plus the kitchen, it finally dawns on him that she is not home! He comes back into the living room and looks about ferociously. Does he think Ma is hiding under the sofa, or behind the picture of Jesus Christ on the wall? Maybe she’s curled up in the ashtray. I think Aurea has gone to hide.
When he finally understands that his target is not home he picks up the coffee table and sends it flying through the air. I watch it smack into the wall and splinter. Then he picks up a lamp and sends it flying into the door of their bedroom, and I watch the lightbulb shatter like my feelings even though I’m not sure what I’m feeling except that I am beyond scared and turn into a one-note, catatonic, unbroken scream.