Why 'Sesame Street's' Sonia Manzano is a Latino icon

Sonia Manzano has helped teach children about Hispanic culture in an entertaining way since the early '70s.

Story highlights

  • Sonia Manzano says she's leaving her role as Maria on "Sesame Street" after 44 years
  • Raul A. Reyes: Manzano, one of the first Latinas on TV, quickly became a role model for children

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A is for Adios. Actress Sonia Manzano announced this week at the American Library Association's conference that she would be leaving her role of Maria on "Sesame Street," a part she has played for 44 years. The news of her leaving was greeted with nostalgia and sadness among the show's fans, but Manzano hinted that she might return for a cameo on the program's 50th anniversary.

Now who will hang out with Oscar the Grouch? Manzano was a TV original, and should be proud of her decades on "Sesame Street." She was one of the first and most visible Latinas on television. She was an outstanding role model for nearly two generations of Latino children -- and for other American kids as well.
Raul A. Reyes
It is easy to forget that when Manzano began on "Sesame Street" in 1971, it was rare to see Hispanics on national television. There was Desi Arnaz in "I Love Lucy" reruns and Charo shrieking "Cuchi-Cuchi!" but that was about it. In those days, long before Eva Longoria and America Ferrera became household names, it was even more unusual to see a Latina on TV who was not a maid or temptress.
    Maria was an anomaly for the time, a regular presence on television who was a regular person. Maria was calm, considerate and fun to be around. She was someone whom millions of kids wished they knew in real life. No wonder The Washington Post referred to Maria as "surely the most loved person on TV."
    That's why there has been such an outpouring on social media of adults paying tribute to Manzano. "You taught me my first words in Spanish," said one tweet, while another noted that, "You played a huge part in my early fascination with other languages and cultures."
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    Manzano's character was groundbreaking because it taught children -- in an entertaining way -- about Hispanic culture, while demonstrating that Latinos were just like everyone else. Back in the 1970s, when the word "Hispanic" was relatively new and the term "Latino" had not come into general usage, this was all a huge deal.
    The character of Maria was also unique because she is one of the few TV females who has been allowed to age on-screen. When Manzano first started on the show, Maria Figueroa was a teenager who had a part-time job at the local library. Later she grew up, fell in love and became Maria Rodriguez. Her wedding to TV husband Luis was a "Sesame Street" milestone.
    Maria went on to become a mom and working woman. Her character broke a few traditional gender barriers, too, such as when she became the superintendent of 123 Sesame Street. Along the way, Maria taught the other "Sesame Street" characters about pregnancy, breast-feeding, AIDS/HIV, disability and death. For many children who didn't have parents who could explain such issues, Maria was like a beloved friend.
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    "When I was raised in the South Bronx as a little girl, I watched an awful lot of television, and it was a big influence on my life," Manzano said in an interview in 2004. "I saw this black and white world, and I used to wonder where I would fit in this world that didn't seem to see me, so I think it's really interesting that I grew up to be sort of what I needed to see on television."
    Indeed, she did. All those years, while Maria was bantering with Cookie Monster, she was simultaneously inspiring little girls with dreams of becoming a performer. Manzano was visible proof that a brown-skinned lady could have a career on television. She has served as a wonderful example of multiculturalism and inclusion. Not only that, she got to sing with Grover!
    To her great credit, Manzano has lived her off-screen life with dignity and discretion, with no tabloid scandals to tarnish her image among kids. She has won 15 Daytime Emmys for her writing on "Sesame Street," and authored two children's books and an upcoming memoir. In an age where parents regularly have to explain the antics of former Disney stars to their children, Manzano is a breath of fresh air, a true class act.
    "One of these things is not like the other" runs the iconic "Sesame Street" learning rhyme. Those words could well apply to Manzano. She has been a TV pioneer. She created a one-of-a-kind character. She enriched the lives of millions of kids -- and we are all better for it.