If you ever wondered who Sonia Manzano’s (“Maria” from Sesame Street) favorite Muppet is, here’s her answer: Oscar the Grouch. “He’s negative.” He acts anywhere from age 80 to 8. He stirs up conflict in an otherwise harmonious neighborhood, and this conflict leads to stories.
In fact, Manzano’s new memoir, “Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx” (Scholastic) is all about conflict–her tumultuous childhood in the Bronx, her Puerto Rican roots, and her longing for a “Leave it to Beaver” type of stability. With Maria, she was able to act out (and later, write scripts about) a character that children in inner cities could relate to, and provide them with storylines that offered satisfying resolutions–something they may seldom get in real life. She could be a mirror for these kids, an escape from a hard home life, and a role model.
Manzano thinks her difficult childhood lead to her success. Not in spite of her challenges, but because of her challenges, she was able to become a great actor, writer, and humanitarian.
She spoke quite a bit about the importance of empathy. Sure, people tell their kids to “Be nice.” But what about going beyond that? She questions why some people are afraid to let kids read sad stories. In books, readers are able to connect with characters and feel the deep emotions that dwell within them. It’s the perfect avenue for building empathy, and she believes we should consciously instill this value in children.
Manzano was a fabulous speaker. Many of us in the audience grew up watching her on television, and looked to her as one of the really inspirational and comforting adult figures in our lives. Manzano advocated for television; she pointed out that sometimes TV is a much-needed escape for some children, and that, like a book, it’s just the jumping off point for the imagination: What happens to characters when they’re not on TV, how does the story continue when the set is off? Kids with the freedom to imagine can, and will, grow up to be resourceful and successful adults.