Sesame Street’s Maria has been a staple on the show since 1971. Her warmth has enticed young viewers around the globe for over 40 years. Both Maria and the woman who played her, Sonia Manzano, broke many barriers, especially by being one of the first Latinas on TV.
“I had never seen people of color on television,” Manzano said in an 2014 interview with CBS. “And that was like whoa! This show is really in your face and outrageous.” Although there remains room for improvement, Sesame Street helped set the vital precedent that representation matters in kids’ programming.
Because she was a writer for the show—winning 15 Emmy awards for her work—Manzano had the opportunity to create realistic situations and representation of her character.
Maria was also a considerably feminist character. “Both in real life and in the show, she said, she fought for women’s rights. Maria, for instance, worked with Luis at his fix-it shop. But eventually, she wanted to be part-owner of the store,” writes Lindsey Bever of The Washington Post. When Manzano became pregnant in real life, that wasn’t ignored by producers but was instead brought into Maria’s story.
Similarly, Manzano was completely aware of the socio-political role Sesame Street hoped to play when she joined the cast. Growing up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Bronx, she brought her own experiences to the role. "Sesame Street, as everyone knows, was set in the inner city and there was a particular reason for that,” Manzano said at the American Library Association conference where she announced her retirement. “Our first target audience were the children in the inner city that were underserved. And we thought that if they learned their basic cognitive skills, they could start kindergarten on an even level with their middle-class peers.”
Maria has played a vital role on TV for the past 44 years, serving as a role model for Latina girls and providing mainstream representation for all kids of color watching. We will miss her!
Here, a pair of Martians helps viewers learn the body language of “love” in an early episode featuring Maria and her husband, Luis.
Image & video via Sesame Street