A friend of hers once told a small child of her acquaintance that she knew Maria from Sesame Street. The small child responded with a blank look. “So do I!”
There’s an argument to be made that she doesn’t belong in this column, since she has a grand total of eight credits. Two are uncredited, including a cameo in The Muppets Take Manhattan. And in two, she is credited as Maria, which is how we all know her and have pretty well all our lives.
She is retiring now, after more than forty years on the show, and it tells you something that it took me six months after the announcement to wonder whether her TV husband Luis, portrayed by Emilio Delgado, would remain on the show. Maria just feels more essential to the workings of the street.
According to Manzano, her first exposure to Sesame Street came when she was in college—she attended Carnegie Mellon—and came into a room wherein her classmates were watching the show. She hadn’t paid attention to it before; just one more kiddie toy commercial, right? But when she walked into that room, James Earl Jones was reciting the alphabet in extreme close-up, and she said, “Oh, I have to be a part of that.”
Maria dated. For a while, the character was romantically tied to David, portrayed by Northern Calloway. As Calloway’s mental and physical health deteriorated, the relationship ended. In time, Maria and Luis would fall in love, and the characters would marry, though both performers were married to other people, something they had a hard time explaining to even adult fans of the show.
She did other things over the years. She’s been on a few episodes of the Law & Order franchise, for example. But for more than forty years, if you saw her onscreen anywhere, she was probably Maria. She taught us the alphabet, she taught us counting, she taught us bits and pieces of Spanish. There is a story arc wherein she returns to visit family in Puerto Rico for her birthday, and a half-dozen or so other cast members, including Big Bird, go to surprise her. Maria lived a life on Sesame Street, dating and working and eventually marrying and having a child, named after Manzano’s real-life daughter Gabriella.
When Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, the show handled his death matter-of-factly. In an episode about life and death, we saw a new baby and at the same time discussed the character’s death—and, yes, Maria was there. When Maria married Luis, the audience at home was of course invited to the wedding, and the camera came to the “hospital” to meet newborn Gabriella. While Manzano was not there at the beginning of the series, she has long been a part of its fabric. There has been no more appropriate person to review in this column, even given that most of what she’s done on camera has been a single role, since that role was part of a nearly fifty-year celebration of life.
Back in the ’70s, an attempt was made to balance out the male-heavy trading cards hobby with a series called “Supersisters.” Among 72 cards featuring everyone from Pat Schroeder to Rosa Parks to surfer Laura Lee Ching, card eleven was Sonia Manzano. Now, I want a set of those cards.