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From ‘Sesame Street’ to ‘Alma’s Way’: How Sonia Manzano continues to break ground and elevate Latino stories on US television

By Maria Santana, CNN

After 44 years as the loveable Maria on Sesame Street, Sonia Manzano thought she was finally ready to move to a quieter, non-puppet inhabited neighborhood where she could spend her days writing children’s books.

“I didn’t think I was going to continue in television,” said Manzano, 71, who was on Sesame Street from 1971 until 2015. “I have already published five children’s books with Scholastic, so I thought I was going to dedicate myself to writing more.”

A call from PBS Kids, however, took her in a different direction.

“They wanted me to create a children’s show based on a Latino family,” Manzano said. While at first reluctant, she ultimately recognized it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“I had to seize this opportunity because every opportunity to have more authentic portrayals of Latinos on television, you take it,” she said.

So, her next stop: “Alma’s Way.”

The animated series, written and produced by Manzano in conjunction with Fred Rogers Productions and Pipeline Studios, centers around Alma Rivera, an outgoing and mischievous 6-year-old girl living in the South Bronx with her Puerto Rican family.

“I’m Nuyorican and was raised in the South Bronx, so I made it about a Nuyorican family in the South Bronx,” Manzano said.

The show is heavily influenced by the 15-time Emmy award winning actress and her own life experiences growing up in a low-income household in one of New York City’s most diverse boroughs.

“Growing up, sometimes my teachers would let me understand that they thought I was stupid. I also had lot of problems at home, so I would often hide and find refuge in my own mind,” said Manzano, who has talked openly about her humble beginnings and tumultuous relationship with her abusive father.

“Alma doesn’t experience these negative things like I did, but in that same way she gets into her mind to solve her problems. In every episode, she gets herself into a mess and has to find a way to get out of trouble, so a bubble will appear next to her head that lets us see her thought process,” Manzano said of the show aimed at kids 4 to 6 years old.

By animating what goes on in the little girl’s mind, Manzano hopes to inspire small children to think critically and value their own ideas.

“I noticed that a lot of poor children who perhaps don’t speak English are in a class with a lot of other kids, or their parents are too busy and struggling with work, did not like school because they are expected to memorize and learn things at the same pace as their friends instead of their own,” Manzano said. “These children believed that they were not smart, and what I want them to know when they see ‘Alma’s Way’ is that we all have a brain. We all have our own mind, and we can use it.”

“Alma’s Way” will also highlight different aspects of Latino culture and celebrate diversity. Alma, voiced by 8-year-old newcomer and fellow Bronxite, Summer Rose Castillo, loves mofongo, a typical Puerto Rican dish, and dances to Puerto Rican music like Bomba and Plena.

“When I was growing up, you never saw someone like me on television, and I thought, ‘What am I going to contribute to a society that did not see me?'” said Manzano who as Maria on Sesame Street became the first Latina in a leading role on American television. “When I got the role of Maria, it was so wonderful because other girls were going to see me and say, ‘Wow, she looks like me.'”

Which is why she wanted everything about the show to look and feel authentic, from the streets of the South Bronx and its people — animators from Pipeline Studios spent time in the neighborhood to get a better feel for it — to the music. The opening theme, a catchy mix of the rhythms frequently heard around the borough, was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“The song had to have full “lelolay,” hip-hop, rap, beat boxing because this is what you hear in the Bronx, and as we all know, Lin-Manuel is a genius and can say in four words what it takes the rest of us 40,” Manzano said.

Many of the characters are also based on family members and folks from her old neighborhood. Even the 6 train, the subway line that connects the Bronx to the rest of the city and was made famous by Jennifer Lopez’s debut studio album, “On the 6,” makes an appearance.

Manzano says she wants children to start embracing their cultural identity and realizing their own self-worth at an early age, when they are actively building the foundation that will determine their future character and personality. This becomes even more crucial as they grow and are exposed to things like the web and social media.

“It is important for kids to see themselves reflected in society so they can become and feel a part of it and aren’t intimidated by the problems they face later on,” she said.

It is what Sesame Street and Maria did for her and what she hopes countless children will find as they head on over to “Alma’s Way.”

“Alma’s Way” airs on PBS Kids in English with Spanish dubbing.

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