Commencement 2016: Biographies - Sonia Manzano

Sonia Manzano, award-winning actress and writer, is awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 160th Commencement on Sunday, May 22, 2016.
Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts Photography


As Maria on Sesame Street, you touched the lives of generations of children as you helped shape a new era in educational television. For more than 40 years at the Fix-It Shop, you engaged your young audience around the wonders of the alphabet and the magic of a fax machine. You created a safe and welcoming place: A space where bilingual children felt included and understood; where children could count on straight talk about pivotal moments in their lives—how to love and how to grieve; and, most importantly, where children could expand their view of the world. One day, when Big Bird and his Muppet friends were each playing their own game, Maria observed, “It’s great that you can all do different things by sharing the same space. There is room for everyone.” For your dedication to building that space with love, kindness, curiosity, and respect for all, we are pleased to award you the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa.

Photo by Edwin Pagan


SONIA MANZANO is an award-winning actress and writer best known for playing Maria on Sesame Street from 1971 to 2015, a character that the Washington Post described as “surely the most loved person on TV.” Hers was one of the first recurring Hispanic roles in a series, and she was nominated for two Emmy Awards. She also won fifteen Emmys as a writer for the groundbreaking children’s show.

Manzano was born in New York City, where her parents had moved from Puerto Rico. Her South Bronx neighborhood exposed her to the less-Sesame side of life, including alcoholism, drug addiction, and domestic abuse, some of it in her own family. She watched a lot of television, both as an escape and as a way to make sense of the world. Even then she was keenly aware that no one on television looked like her.

On the advice of a teacher, she applied to and was accepted by New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, and later attended Carnegie Mellon University on a scholarship.

She was twenty-two and performing with the original off-Broadway cast of the musical Godspell when she tried out for Sesame Street. The audition involved playing a version of the now familiar game One of These Things Is Not Like the Other. She got the part and quickly got involved in shaping the show, including making improvements to its bilingual segments. She was invited to join the writing team in the third season.

“I’ve always thought there was a kid out there that’s just like me, confused, no one’s talking to them, and I could offer… an hour of peace and tranquility and order in a world they recognize,” she told NBC News.

Her life often paralleled that of her Sesame Street character. Two years after Manzano got married, Maria married Luis, the owner of the Fix-It Shop. (She would later argue to be a co-owner of the shop, in keeping with her commitment to women’s rights.) When Manzano was pregnant with her daughter, Maria also became pregnant, and Manzano’s daughter played Maria’s daughter on the show for several years.

Alongside her forty-four-year run on Sesame Street, Manzano continued to perform on the New York stage, in the plays The Vagina Monologues, The Exonerated, and Love, Loss, and What I Wore. She wrote a parenting column, “Talking Out Loud,” for the Sesame Workshop website and worked on the Peabody Award–winning animated children’s series Little Bill on Nickelodeon.

Manzano has written several books, including the children’s stories Miracle on 133rd Street, A Box Full of Kittens, and No Dogs Allowed, which was made into a musical. Her first novel for young adults, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, received a Pura Belpré honor, named for the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. In 2015, she chronicled her pre–Sesame Street life in her memoir Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, which was named a New York Times Notable Children’s Book.

She has served on the boards of the March of Dimes, the George Foster Peabody Awards, and Symphony Space, a New York City performing arts center.

Manzano received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences during the Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony this year. She also has been honored by the Association of Hispanic Arts, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families. She received the Hispanic Heritage Award for Education in 2003.

Tufts will award her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.