Sonia Manzano – Becoming Maria
I run to our fourth-floor window, looking out for anything, when I see Uncle Eddie’s car pull up. Out spills his wife, Bon Bon; my uncle Frank; his wife, Iris; and my beautiful mother. She is dressed in a soft-colored yellow dress with pleats down the front that she made herself. My father enters my line of vision as he lunges for her. Her brothers restrain him, and I can tell even from the fourth floor that Ma would rip his face off if she could.
There is something beautiful in the picture they make jerking around in the streetlight. And when the Third Avenue El comes swishing through, right in front of our window so suddenly, I feel like I am in the center of the universe and I am happy that they have had this fight because it has introduced me to the wonderful window. And that’s where I go every day, all the time between assaults when there is nervous calm.
–Excerpt from Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx (Scholastic)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Many memoirs are told from the perspective of looking back, but Becoming Maria invites us to experience your world through your young eyes. From the opening line, “My mother is cooking my father,” the reader is pulled into young Sonia’s point of view, beginning with fragmentary pre-verbal memories, and proceeding from those earliest moments. The present tense lends intimacy to the story–we watch, as you do, the subway line outside your window, your neighbors coming and going, the fights between your parents. We’re right there with you as you puzzle through ideas of race, poverty and belonging that you encounter in school; we hear the gossip and stories and sounds spilling out of the bodegas and streets of your Bronx neighborhood. What made you decide to use the present-tense voice rather than a more distanced, reflective approach in telling this story?
SONIA MANZANO: First of all let me thank you for all the praise. According to you I have achieved what I wanted! Deciding on the present-tense voice was most important for all the reasons you state. I wanted the reader to feel now what I was feeling then. My pre-school years were frightening and wondrous at the same time. The only way to get that across was to put it in the present tense so readers would experience my story, as close to the way I did as possible. It was a process of trial and error. I first wrote it with a reflective approach but it sounded cold and intellectual. Boring.
AR: I loved the immediacy of the narration: it’s personal and funny and at times emotionally raw–far from boring! Your previous books have been works of fiction. What were some of the challenges of writing a memoir? Were there surprises for you in the writing process, and did you share the work in progress with your family?
SM: The challenge of writing a memoir is making it read like a novel. I did share some of the experience with my siblings and was surprised that they remembered things differently, or not at all. Also, my assumption was that my mother had shared her difficult childhood with them. Turned out she only, or mostly shared those hard times with me.
AR: In spite of the poverty your family faces and your parents’ turbulent, often violent relationship, your unfailing curiosity, humor and interest in your surroundings carry you through circumstances that might seem bleak through another narrator’s eyes. But Becoming Maria isn’t depressing; it’s alive with detailed, often hilarious observations of your world. When left to your own devices (as you often seem to be) you make up games and stories to amuse yourself. In one disturbing scene a strange new babysitter confines you to a chair so she can take a nap. But you’re unperturbed: she’s better, you reason, than the last babysitter you had. As she snores away you pretend you are a ballerina, making up elaborate dances in your head to pass the time without ever leaving the chair. Who or what do you credit for helping shape this early sense of imagination and inner resourcefulness?
SM: Wonderful question. Kids are born with their own set of tools and sensibilities. I was born intensely curious and found everything fascinating. Unfortunately this was a time when adults considered kids semi-human. They believed children lived in fantasy-lands and that they observed nothing of the real world. I’m sure that was why I was so drawn to Sesame Street. They wanted to give kids real answers. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part to be resilient. I simply was.
Also, my mother had a tremendous sense of humor. Certainly that rubbed off on me.
AR: I’m so glad you mentioned humor because that comes through so strongly in your writing as well as in your performances. I can vividly recall those silent Charlie Chaplin bits you performed on Sesame Street! I’ve always loved Sesame Street for its humor, how silliness and play can help us tackle quite dark or difficult subjects. As you grew up and transitioned from your Bronx neighborhood to high school, college and the professional theater scene, you struggled against a lack of roles for actors of color, a lack of representation of where you’d come from. But your sense of humor was again a lifeline during that lonely transition. Can you talk a bit about the role of humor in your life as a writer and performer?
SM: I laugh at the absurdity of things. You either have a sense of humor or not. My mother did, my father did not. I discovered I could make people laugh in Godspell and when I discovered funny did not mean frivolous or hollow, I ran with it. I might add that one of the revolutionary ideas of Sesame Street is that you could teach with humor.
AR: Another thread present throughout the memoir is that of domestic violence. You don’t shy away from depictions of this and its effect on you as a child, adolescent, and young adult. Some of the very first images you can recall are of physical abuse and dysfunction. Your father’s alcoholism and mood swings are so pronounced that your mother regularly hides the kitchen knives in the oven before he is due home. As she breaks up and reunites with your father the family flees to new neighborhoods, new buildings, hiding out with relatives. This push-me/pull-you cycle leads you to move many, many times over the years: each new apartment holds the empty promise of being a place where your parents’ marriage might work. As a young adult your efforts to intervene, even helping your mother get a divorce, are frustrated by her pattern of returning to your father. Many families experience similar cycles of abuse, and this violence can be difficult to talk about publicly. But not talking about it seems a far more isolating alternative. What were your thoughts on how to approach the subject knowing you’d be reaching so many fans and new readers, including children who may be experiencing abuse, as well as members of your own family?
SM: I didn’t set out to educate anyone about anything. I did enough of that on Sesame Street. I wanted to share my feelings growing up. Share how caught up I was in my parents relationship and how difficult it was to reconcile feelings of affection and loyalty among my parents and older sister.
Also – domestic violence was not a term known to me at that time. I actually thought it was the way of our inner city world and specific to my family. I am happy if people gain insight into these situations via my book. But it is a huge topic that everyone experiences differently. My siblings and I experienced it differently from each other. My brothers maintained a relationship with my father when I decided to distance myself from him. It is not a black and white issue.
AR: Teachers play a crucial role in the early formation of your public and social self-awareness beyond your immediate surroundings, for better and worse. Public school is the first place where you learn that your family is poor: one teacher delivers this news to you with a stunning lack of tact or sensitivity. You feel invisible, diminished by her comments: her lack of awareness of your reality erases you and many of your poorer classmates. But other teachers truly see you and pay special attention to cultivating your interests and talents. When your second grade teacher suggests that your parents should read to you at home and you explain that your family doesn’t have books, he encourages you to ask them to tell stories about their lives instead. Another teacher, Miss Pellman, takes you and two classmates to a Manhattan showing of the movie West Side Story, and the experience is transformative for you. How did those early experiences with teachers—good and bad—shape how you approached your role as Maria (and as a writer) on Sesame Street, a show that has had such tremendous reach to young children across geographic, cultural and socioeconomic boundaries?
SM: Obviously I wanted to follow the good teacher model as opposed to the bad teacher model. Good teachers don’t just download what they know into a kid, they show kids a door, a direction and watch them exceed expectations. I hoped to inspire children watching me on the show. Television should be the beginning of an experience, not the end. The early creators of Sesame Street introduced this to these ideas. I related to those ideas and ran with them.
AR: I’d love to hear about your work with Symphony Space and All Write, a program for adult students in NYC that is very close to my heart. When I lived in New York I had the privilege of teaching a class of pre-GED students in the Bronx. My students came from diverse backgrounds and had full lives—jobs, children, grandchildren, and many responsibilities, but reading and writing were a terrific struggle for them. Many felt let down by school systems that had failed them as children and they’d carried that sense of shame and fear about learning into adulthood. My class participated in All Write and some students had their writing selected to be read onstage. We took the brief subway ride from the Bronx to the theater in Manhattan, where you and two other actors publicly performed the poems and stories they’d written. That experience seemed to awaken a sense of confidence and possibility for them and they made huge strides in their writing after that. The scene in Becoming Maria where you traveled to Manhattan to see West Side Story reminded me of the response my students had to hearing their writing treated seriously by professional actors, and I’ve always wanted to thank you for your part in that! Can you tell us a bit about how your involvement in All Write came about?
SM: I love Symphony Space’s All Write Program. I was a board member at that organization for a short time then fell into the All Write Program as an advisor. Having had a mediocre elementary school education made me have a lot of catching up to do in the Performing Arts High School and college, so I know that learning what a comma is, as an adult, is a boring chore. However, the All Write Program allows adults to write memoirs and poems and pieces that have to do with self-expression. It’s a great way to get into the mechanics of writing. This really engages the burgeoning adult writer. If they can put their hearts on paper, reading their cable bill should be an un-intimidating piece of cake.
Certainly, having pros read your writing not only validates your material but gives you a different perspective, same as West Side Story gave me a different perspective as I looked around my crummy neighborhood. This is, of course, my own personal take on the All Write Program.
AR: Becoming Maria follows you up through your college years at Carnegie Mellon, the first production of Godspell, and on to New York, trying to find acting work. In the final chapter, entitled “The Beginning,” you audition for a part on a relatively new show called Sesame Street. In other interviews you’ve mentioned that this moment of the audition felt like a natural place to end the story, a pivot point between worlds. Did you have any idea, when you auditioned for Sesame Street, what a groundbreaking show, with such lasting influence, it would prove to be?
SM: I knew it was a groundbreaking show, but I had no idea Sesame Street would last as long as it did, or that it would accept my contributions as readily as it did.
AR: Do you have any plans to write about what happened next?
SM: I will certainly write more. Perhaps the next chapters of my life. I will try to improve the lives of children in whatever arenas are afforded to me.
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Sonia Manzano has affected the lives of millions since the early 1970s, as the actress who defined the role of “Maria” on the acclaimed television series Sesame Street. Sonia has won fifteen Emmy Awards for her television writing and is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Arts and Sciences. People magazine named Sonia one of America’s most influential Hispanics. Her first young adult novel The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (Scholastic) was a Pura Belpre Honor. She is also the author of three picture books: No Dogs Allowed!, A Boxful of Kittens (Simon & Schuster) and Miracle on 133rd Street (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster). She lives in New York City. Author photo by Edward Pagan.