Sesame Street legend visits Topeka to share message of diversity

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) If you watched Sesame Street, you probably know the character "Maria."

Sonia Manzano played the role, and was one of the first Hispanic characters on national television.

Tuesday night, Manzano told more than 200 people how her role on Sesame Street changed her life and brought diversity to TV screens across the nation.

She was a writer and character on Sesame Street for 44 years.

Manzano said, "I can't tell you how thrilled I am when grown kids come up to me and say, you were my inspiration."

She said her time on the show helped all kids feel represented.

"I watched a lot of TV as a kid and I never saw anybody who would look like me or live in a place that I lived in," Manzano said, "I think it had an effect on me certainly because you don't know what you can contribute to a society that doesn't see you."

She made the trip to Topeka to share that message with the community.

200 people came to Topeka Collegiate School to learn from her experiences.

Melody Oxy brought her friend along and said, "I just want to hear her story, I think it's going to be really interesting."

Maya Beyer said she was excited to hear from Manzano because she was a big fan growing up.

"I watched Sesame Street a lot as a kid, so I'm just excited to meet one of the people I always looked up to," Beyer said.

Manzano discussed her childhood and growing up in an environment ruled by domestic violence.

She said she became successful not because she overcame that, but because she never forgot it.

"I remember what it was like to be in a fearful home watching TV and wondering where there was order in the world," Manzano said, "When I became Maria, I always had the kid in mind that was home watching me looking for the same comfort that I looked for when I was a kid."

After leaving Sesame Street, Manzano wrote a memoir about her childhood called "Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx."

Topeka Collegiate hosted Tuesday night's event with support from the YWCA, Humanities Kansas, and The Topeka Public Library.