Growing up in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, Sonia Manzano never dreamt that one day she’d become an iconic television personality, much less an acclaimed author.
“In 1969, Latinos were invisible in American culture,” recalls Manzano, beloved for her role as Maria on Sesame Street. “We weren’t on television and we weren’t in children’s books, something I remember clearly. There were no children’s or young adult’s books dealing with Latin life at all.”
Now, with the release of “The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano,” Manzano is making sure that bookstore and library shelves reflect how far Latinos in the United States have come. Although she has published two children’s books to date, her very first novel for young adults and teens is deeply personal and reminiscent of her own journey of self-discovery and cultural identity.
Set in New York City’s EL Barrio neighborhood in 1969, the book features the journey of young Evelyn Serrano, a Puerto Rican girl who dismisses her culture until she is exposed to the activity of the Young Lords, who, with their political agenda, inspire her to embrace her Latino heritage.
“I was in my 20s and a college student when I had my own political awakening,” recalls Manzano, who attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “And I remember visiting my grandmother in El Barrio and learning about the Young Lords, who were so idealistic. As an adult I understand better what they were doing, but back then it was amazing that they were bringing new ideas to the table. That’s a history which I felt I needed to find out more about for myself and that’s why I decided to set my book in that time period in order to pass that education on.”
While Manzano may have started her career by originating the character of Maria on Sesame Street in 1971, her passion for self-expression through the written word has a legacy nearly as long.
“I think I might have started writing earlier, but the truth is that my parents only had an elementary school education and I was brought up to think writing was something only intellectuals did,” explains Manzano, who has won 15 Emmy Award for her television writing. “My personal evolution included bringing cultural ideas to Sesame Street and eventually writing bits myself; writing, writing, writing always with Hispanic culture in mind.”
These days, Manzano is well-recognized as an accomplished author (“but writing is the last of my hidden talents,” she jokes) and her mission is to raise awareness for Latino youth about their cultural heritage.
“There’s a whole realm of Latinos born and raised in this country,” she says. “And there’s an opportunity to tell stories that reflect our biculturalism.”
The fiercely opinionated (and funny!) actress is no less passionate when it comes to her political activism and opinion, especially given recent comments made by presidential nominee Mitt Romney about cuts to federal funding for PBS and Sesame Street.
“I’ll never forget walking into the student union at Carnegie Mellon and there was James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet,” recalls Manzano. “And then I saw the actors playing Susan and Gordon, whose characters lived in a neighborhood that looked like mine. I was so compelled by that image because in 1969 you didn’t see that in the media – and only PBS made an effort to do that. Kudos for PBS and Sesame Street for that.”
Manzano, who has fond memories watching films of Charlie Chaplin on PBS during her days in college, says she believes public television has a very unique place in American culture.
“When you watch public television, your mind grows. You’re inspired. You’re not told what to think – and that’s important.”
And that’s exactly the effect she hopes to produce with her own politically-centric novel, says Manzano.
“At the end of the day, I just want children to get interested in what’s going on around them.”
“I want them to be encouraged to take part in shaping their destiny.”