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tv   Talk to Al Jazeera  Al Jazeera  September 30, 2015 3:30pm-4:01pm EDT

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nervous to boldly go where only a few have gone before. >> and we will keep communicating with you via our website. al jazeera. for all your international news. >> this week on talk to al jazeera - sonia manzano, otherwise known as maria on 'sesame street'. >> i can't believe i did it. if someone had suggested that this was gonna be my future, i would have suggested that they commit themselves to the nearest insane asylum. >> manzano also wrote for the children's television series and would share in 15 emmy awards. she was a trailblazer - the first leading latina on american television. but after 44 years, manzano is retired. >> it's very hard for me to get across to kids, or people who weren't around in '69, how absolutely invisible people of
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color were on television. >> sesame street is a show with a social message, manzano naively believed her onscreen work could end discrimination. >> racism has really-- reared its ugly head in-- in-- in ways that were unimaginable to me. in '69 i thought we were gonna fix all of that with sesame street, but-- clearly it hasn't. >> as her life changed - along with the times - so did her "character" maria. >> we encompassed what was going on in society. when i fell in love and got married and had a baby, so did maria. and we-- so it was sort of like the first reality show, without the whining i think. >> growing up in a low-income puerto rican household in the south bronx with an alcoholic father, her childhood was anything but "sunny days". >> my father drank a lot and he was a violent drunk and he battered my mother. and we would run away from him and then we'd run back to him
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when my mother couldn't make ends meet. >> in her new memoir "becoming maria: love and chaos in the south bronx", the acclaimed actor tells her story - along with the dreams and aspirations she had growing up. >> i mean i loved theatre and i loved television and i loved stories. but it was really sort of, "how am i gonna get to college"? i was gonna get to college one way or another. >> i met up with sonia manzano in the bronx. >> i've interviewed actors and actresses over the years who've chided me, chastised me to remember, "that's just a character i was playing. that's not me. but when you play somebody for more than 40 years, is it a different matter? >> absolutely. i am maria. i was very encouraged when i first got cast on the show to be myself. of course i wanted to play a character. it's easier for an actress to play a character than to be herself. but they kept saying, "we want a
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real person. we want a real person so that hispanic kids in the audience will have someone real to relate to". and it took me a while to catch on to that and i finally did. and it has obviously paid off. >> they were that overt and that programmatic? "we want a latina actress--" they probably have even used that term then. but, "we want someone like you because of who's out there watching". >> absolutely. the first target audience were the african american children and they had wonderful role models in susan and gordon. and then in '69 everybody had a platform and everybody had something to say. so all the mexican americans on the west coast got together and said, "hey, this is public television. you have african american role models for the african american population. we demand". and of course they said, "okay, great. what a great idea". pbs that is. and so emilio delgado came in from the west coast. mexican american actor. and i got cast as maria.
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>> you know, i think it's important to go back to pre-sesame street days and remind people that when we were growing up, if you turned on a television the only latinos you might see were quick draw mcgraw's little cartoon burro babba louie, desi arnaz. not exactly much that you could build a contemporary identity around. >> no, no. actually, i found a lot of comfort watching television in the mid-'50s and i would watch father knows best and leave it to beaver. and i used to wonder where those people were. and where those suburban environments existed. and i also used to wonder, "what-- where am i going to fit into this society," that was clearly blind to me. we weren't in any books. we had el diario. there was a couple of s-- you know, that's where the stories about what was going on in the latino community were written
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up. so it's very hard for me to get across to kids, or people who weren't around in '69, how absolutely invisible people of color were on television. and that's why i was so shocked when i saw sesame street before i was on. >> when you joined the show, did you imagine that you'd spend the next four decades there? >> no. i thought it was gonna be over in five years. i came on board the third year, expecting it to last two more years. and i feel like i've blinked and i've grown up on this show. >> did they have to provide story lines? provide mileposts in your life that allowed you to get older on the street? >> no, they didn't have to provide it. my living provided it. they just followed what sonia did. and of course we encompassed what was going on in society. when feminism was on the front
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page of the news, maria becomes a feminist. when i fell in love and got married and had a baby, so did maria. so it was sort of like the first reality show, without the whining i think. maria followed me. and it was remarkable that they allowed the actors to age, which was not heard of in children's television. or in any television. i mean if you're cast as-- as an ingenue you try to continue to look like that ingenue for your whole career because that's when they cast you. but sesame street did wanna show real people. and one of the things that real people do is age. >> and the things you talked about changed over time. >> sure. sure. sure. i became a writer on the show because i had questions about the latino content. and-- i remember very clearly matt robinson, who was the first gordon, came up to me and he
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said, "you know, you're not here just to be an actor". i went, "wha? wha"? he says, "no, no, no. you have to make sure that the latino content is appropriate". i said, "when did i become a spokesperson for the latino community"? but i stepped up to the plate. and there was a pushcart full of apples and bananas and such. and i went to the producers and i said, "you know, if this was a real latino neighborhood there would be some plantains and coconuts on that". and they did it. and i said, "great". that empowered me. so i continued to look at the latino content with a questioning eye. >> it's interesting that you say that, because in your new book, becoming maria, your relationship to that part of your life is a little bit more ambivalent. you wanna get out from under the weight of what's going on in a difficult household. >> i think that-- because i didn't see too much of the wide
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world, i threw the baby out with the bathwater as far as my culture went. i assumed that every puerto rican household was as chaotic as my household. i wanted to get away from it. i didn't, at that point, see the good parts of my growing up and the wonderful, wondrous parts of being latina. i mean the wondrous comes in when you're a little kid and everything looks really groovy when the third avenue el is running right outside your apartment every 20 minutes. so i did shun away from the whole culture. >> you talk a lot about the home where you grew up. and it sounds like a tough place to be a young girl. >> yes. it was. my father drank a lot and he was a violent drunk and he battered my mother. and we would run away from him
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and then we'd run back to him when my mother couldn't make ends meet. or i had-- actually, i-- but also i think she loved him. so it was a cycle of domestic violence and hope. domestic violence and hope. domestic violence and hope. that was never changing. >> hope that continues to be dashed. was there a frustration that she would go back? >> oh sure. she would constantly find ways of going back. finally it, i state in my book i put my foot down when i was in college and i said, "this is it. you're not going back. you know, i'm not a kid anymore and i can't tolerate this," because he tried to batter her in my presence when i was - i had been in godspell. somebody wrote about me in the new york times. i'm not gonna tolerate this anymore. and i encouraged her and i you know, to finally split up with
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him. >> and then we were estranged, my father and i, for many, many years. and writing the memoir i kind of had to see him. i wanted him to meet my daughter and i wanted to see how this memoir was gonna end. somehow seeing him was gonna make this clear. and i was really nervous. and i took my husband with me and my brothers. and he said, "hey. how you doin'? it's so great to see you". and i'm going, "what"? and-- "hey. how-- eh--" you know--. all the traditional puerto rican food came out. and i - you know, i finally said to him, "give me your take on what went on in our household". i had to call the cops on him several times. "oh, you know, this happens between men and women. it was between me and your mother. i love her. i'll always love her". and it-- here, this behavior that so affected me, he did not
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realize that-- the impact that--. >> just sayin, "it's--. >> it had on me. >> between me and your mother". >> it's like me and your mom. >> as if we didn't have an audience. >> we were in the middle of it. but he did not - and then my mother's take on it, 'cause the poor woman, i really badgered her for an explanation. and when she got older. i said, "why did we keep doing this"? and she would say, "well, i just thought when you kids would grow up you'd understand". "understand what"? "that this is life". i guess. i mean-- i-- you know? you never understand these things that hurt you when you're a child. you can--. >> but isn't that an answer conditioned by the times? and culturally conditioned--. >> yeah. right. right. right. right. the struggle where she-- she was an orphan-- when i remm-- when she tells me stories about the poverty in puerto rico during
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the depression, it makes oliver twist-- a walk in the park. and so the desperation that they came from is mind-boggling. and fangito, where children died in sewage running under the wooden houses that they lived in. i'm shocked. so in their minds we always had a house. we ate. he didn't hit me or my brother. so she was thinking, "so we're cool on that". and love is strange. there's also that. >> well, did the relationships that you went on to have in the rest of your life--? >> i know. and it was a struggle. i mean i'll admit that i had-- troublesome relationships-- that i had to -without this becoming a therapy session, i had to really take in hand and get help,
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'cause i remember i saw meryl streep in the movie kramer vs. kramer. and if-- as you recall, it was a movie where-- they take-- she's fighting for custody of her child. and she gets up on the stand and she says, "i found a good therapist to make me the person i wanna be". and i remember, i thought, "people can do that"? you have trouble in your life and you get help, and i will say that because of my relationship, because what i observed between a man and a woman did affect me negatively in my relationships with men. until meryl streep set me straight. >> wow. i hope you get a chance to tell her. >> well, we'll talk about your journey from actor to writer, or, as we're sitting here in the bronx, from the bronx to actor to writer, when we come back. you're watching talk to al jazeera.
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>> you're watching talk to al jazeera. i'm with actress, writer, maria, sonia manzano. to imagine yourself on the stage, imagine people paying to come see you, you have to kind of project yourself into that world from an apartment in the bronx. you have to hurl yourself into a college where they'll teach you how to do the things you need to know. you did it. are you sometimes amazed that you did it? >> i can't believe i did it. if someone had suggested that this was gonna be my future, i would have suggested that they
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commit themselves to the nearest insane asylum. that's how foreign-- i-- my biggest dream was to be a secretary and have my own apartment. and it was some-- i've had lousy teachers, but i've had some very good ones, who said-- saw something in me and helped me get into the high school of performing arts and then carnegie mellon university. but it was a real struggle because i was an a student in the south bronx. phone it in. just show up and you're a student. to a middle class school, the high school of performing arts where i became a c student. and it was very difficult to catch up. but i wanted to get to college, so the only way to go to college was on an audition. so i don't know that i really was so-- i mean i loved theatre and i loved television and i loved stories. but it was really sort of, "how am i gonna get to college"? i was gonna get to college one way or another. and the only way i could get in was on an audition.
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much the same way african american boys go on sports scholarships to school. >> we're both puerto rican. we both grew up in new york. and both in a similar era. and we are a small people inside a big nation. and really in many ways an unknown one. but then there's a certain, a certain set of grace notes, that's our stuff. >> right. >> you know? it's not apparent to everybody. >> right, right. the struggle that my parents faced every day they actually would answer the phone saying, "here we are in the struggle. la lucha. how you doin'? here in la lucha". i mean it was sort of part of their dialogue. i remember my mother being so proud of being a member of the international ladies' garment workers' union. i mean she was the anita in west side story. i mean she was really wanting to
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get - be part of the system. my father was afraid. he would have been a day laborer his whole life if she hadn't said, "no, no, no, no, no. you have to get into the unions. you have to pay dues. and then they'll protect you," et cetera. that's part of our story that many people might not know. >> i'm always in awe of people who write memoirs, 'cause i think, "wow, do i really wanna share that much of myself with strangers". >> i'll tell you, i love the form. and i was thrilled when i read frank mccourt's angela's ashes. i mean i was really thrilled. and-- because-- you could not describe a worse irish upbringing. and parents who really were overwhelmed. but it was funny. and i thought, "i had misery and i have a sense of humor.
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and i just love this combination". i loved charlie chaplin when i got into him in college because of that pathos. that you could have two things going on at once. i think that sense of humor certainly saved me growing up. >> and you got to be the little tramp occasionally on sesame street. >> yeah, yeah. that's an example of how they listened to me when i said, "i think i'd like to do this". and they said, "okay". i went, "whoa. this is really good". >> there's an enormous slice of the american population that must have very close, warm and specific memories of you. >> oh, i can't tell you how wonderful it's been to receive all of this-- this correspondence from people. from very sad ones somebody said-- "my mother was schizophrenic and i found an hour of peace and tranquility watching you". to "i never would have pursued a career in show business," or
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newscasters-- a lot of newscasters, for some reason, in texas, say, "i never would have-- you know, pursued this kind of career if i hadn't seen you on television". they send me their favorite sesame street moments, which i have long forgotten. it's been wonderful. >> sonia manzano is with me. maria from sesame street, the author of becoming maria. stay with us. you're watching talk to al jazeera. >> you have kids here who've killed someone? >> award winning journalist soledad o'brien takes us inside the violent world of kids behind bars. will a new experimental program be their last chance? >> i have to do my 100 percent best so i don't end up in a place like this again.
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>> i'm ray suarez, you're watching "talk to al jazeera". my guest this week, sonia mazano. for decades she played "maria" on sesame street. >> sonia mazano, you write at several junctures in the book about being a sort of almost racial go between. "if i wore my hair this way, people would think i was black. if i wore it another way, they'd think i was--" and it was almost a question mark there, because even you didn't know what to put in there. >> i know. it was a very ambiguous time racially because the puerto- my
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family, we all considered ourselves white. even though... all puerto ricans were white in their mind. and even though we had neighbors that were black as night and they were puerto rican. and there was always sort of don't the admonishment-- "please don't stay out in the sun too long because you are getting dark". and my sister, who's eight years older, would say to me, "look, everybody who comes into a society checks out who's the lowest on the totem pole and then tries not to be lower than that". and that's where all of this racial ambiguity is coming from. and then, because we were invisible, and the civil rights movement happened in the '60s, i would try to align myself with black people. i would try to be black, because there was no latino platform.
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we were still invisible. all of a sudden the world became you know, black people-- rose. and then i said, "okay, i'll just slide in with these people". still not finding where i was going to fit in as a latina. >> does your own daughter see the world in a different way? is there less pressure to sort of pick a side and figure out where you're at than there was in 1968? >> my daughter lives in the south and she favors her father who's white. and she has an african american boyfriend. and i think they get pressure from both sides. >> so the country's not that different than it was in--. >> it's nonononot that differen. i think that racism has really reared its ugly head in-- in-- in ways that were unimaginable to me. in '69 i thought we were gonna fix all of that with sesame
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street, but-- cleaearly it hasn. >> yet, you lived long enough to sit on the set at sesame street and e a coffee with supreme court justice sonia sotomayor.t >> yes, yes. and i wrote that bit for her too. i have to pat myself on the back about that. >> and also a bronx girl, also a puerto rican, and someone that you could teach the audience a few words of spanish. >> right. the fact the she's noyurican just pleases me beyond belief. it's wonderful to be from the island, but that she's from here. and we refer to each other as the other sonia from the bronx whenever we get together to help initiate a bronx children's museum is when i see her once a year. and it's just wonderful. >> but isn't that a sign that america is a different place from the days when you and the other cast members thought that part of sesame street's brief
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was to change the world. >> well, sure, ray. i mean things are better. i'm an example of it. she's an example of it. you're an example of it. but certainly when african american boys are profiled and we see these horrible footage of what's happening to certain young men, i always wonder what about the footage that we're not seeing. >> so that optimism--. >> so we haven't come-- yeah. >> and idealism that you first brought to the children's television workshop, now that you're leaving--. >> right, right. >> you look back on a long career of doing it, what's on the ledger? what do you feel like you did? >> i think we've come a long way. i think i've touched a lot of people with my presence on sesame street. i think i'll continue to do that. and there are still people of goodwill, because my-- i have a lot of messages on my website
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when people say, "i'll help you start that museum," or, "i like to do this". that encourages me. there are people of goodwill. i believe that. they're just afraid to come out. (laugh) >> well, what do you wanna do now? after a short 40-plus year jaunt playing one character, what's next? >> i think that i will continue to improve the lives of underserved children, in whatever arena is afforded to me. and that's only because i just have this weird capacity of remembering my very early years. and i know that a little attention can go a long way. >> sonia manzano, thanks for being with us on talk to al jazeera. >> well thank you. >> every saturday night. >> i lived that character. >> go one on one with america's movers and shakers. >> we will be able to see change. >> gripping... inspiring... entertaining. no topic off limits.
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