Sonia Manzano played Maria on “Sesame Street” for over 40 years, becoming a household name in the U.S. and a trailblazing Latina in the burgeoning public television landscape. Now, Manzano is trading Muppets for the mofongo-loving Alma Rivera, a six-year-old animated Puerto Rican girl of her own invention (and heavily based on her own experience), who lives in the Bronx with her parents, brother and a host of colorful neighbors.
“Alma’s Way” engages directly with viewers as its optimistic and confident protagonist works through challenges and spends time with her diverse friend group, showcasing various aspects of Latin culture, food and music along each episode’s 11-minute trajectory. Co-executive produced by Manzano and Ellen Doherty, chief creative officer of Fred Rogers Productions, and animated by Pipeline Studios, the series hopes to teach children social awareness through the characters’ modeling of empathetic decision-making processes and “Think-Through” moments.
Ahead of the series debut of “Almas Way,” Manzano talks with Variety about animating the Bronx, the unique challenges of writing television for kids and making sure that her show had the Latina representation she wished she had growing up.
What is the origin story of ‘Alma’s Way’?
The goal of this show was ‘thinking,’ and what inspired me to come up with that goal for a kid’s show is because we live in a database society, and kids are expected to memorize a lot of information and expected to learn something at the same exact moment as their peers as opposed to later and before. I thought this was a cool message to kids that, if you have a brain, you could figure things out by observing the world around you and applying it to solving your own problems. Now, I never thought that I would create a show without the query from Linda Simensky (head of content for PBS Kids), to create it. As you can imagine, after ‘Sesame Street,’ I was like ‘how am I going to top that act?’ I wouldn’t have done it had they not asked me to, and then I came up with what ‘Alma’s Way’ was going to be about. And, because I’m Nuyorican and from the South Bronx, I set the show there because, well, that’s me.
How did you come up with these characters? Were any inspired by people in your own life?
I just looked at my own family and friends from when I was a kid and created the characters out of that. For example, Eddie Mambo, who is the little boy with cerebral palsy and is Alma’s cousin on the show, is based on my real cousin, Eddie ‘Guagua’ Rivera, who was the bass player with salsa legend Larry Harlow, and a kid that I knew in my neighborhood they had polio. Now, the kid who had polio would lock his braces and then mambo— I mean, the girls were just lining up to dance with him. He was so bold. I never forgot this kid, and when this opportunity came up, I thought I would make a character that had the elements and was a combination of this kid and my own cousin, Eddie. Eddie Mambo’s skin is a little lighter than most to the characters on the show and that was done on purpose, too, because my real cousin had lighter skin than me— as you know, Latinos come in all shades and shapes even if we are in the same family. One memory I have of us together is when we watched the bus boycotts in the South, and we were both very nervous. We thought, well, if we were in the South, then I would have to sit in the back and he would have to sit in the front, and then we wouldn’t know when to get off! So, that memory made me realize that kids do notice this kind of stuff, and so it was important for one of Alma’s family members to have lighter skin.
Why do you think authentic representation is particularly important for children to see in the media and entertainment content they consume?
I was born on the mainland here, and I watched a lot of television in the ’50s. I would watch all of those shows on TV Land, like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ ‘Romper Room, and ‘Father Knows Best,’ and I never saw anybody who looked like me. I never saw a single person of color on television, never mind a Latina or a character in an ‘urban environment.’ These were the days when, if you did see a person of color on TV, you would run through the hallway calling all of your friends so they could see because it was just so not normal. I have to tell you that, obviously, this lack of representation made me feel invisible and I thought, ‘how am I going to contribute to a society that doesn’t see me?’ I really did feel like Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man. People are always asking kids what they are going to be when they grow up, and I didn’t even know what to say at the time because I never saw it— I never knew anybody doing anything that I would have maybe wanted to do. So, it is very important for kids to see themselves reflected in society so that they can become and feel like they are a part of it. So, when I got to be Maria on ‘Sesame Street,’ I thought that it was great because I was going to be for kids what I needed to see myself when I was growing up. I think I succeeded in that, and now I’m going further with ‘Alma’s Way,’ because now little kids will see Alma and they will relate to her, and they will relate to the family, and they will relate to riding on the 6 train, and they’ll see the murals on the walls and the stores in the Bronx and it’ll all be familiar territory. They’ll be part of the world that we are showing.
Did you have any input on character design or voice casting?
I stuck my finger in every word and, as far as the way the characters look, I was insistent on the women in the show having a ‘Caribbean’ body and shape, to have a very Latin flair. You know, like, the mommy wears wedges. Latinas have a certain sense of style, and it was important to me that these characters show that, too. I was involved in designing all of the body shapes and, of course, the clothing they wear. And, when I looked at the initial animations, I looked to find where there were opportunities for humor— should this character be the one to bump into something, or have trouble getting the cooler out the door? I wanted the show to be as funny as possible. I mostly put my input at the beginning of the process, because that is where I have the most impact. I mean, once they put the color in and the music, then the ship has sailed. That is something I learned coming from a live-action background— animation is a long process, so I tried to get my word in from the get-go.
How did your past experience on ‘Sesame Street’ aid you in this project?
I learned that you have to be funny, and you have to be sincere, and that ‘Sesame Street’ always looked around to see what the needs of kids were at the moment in America, so it changed every year. When we started, kids weren’t in school until they were five years old, but then they started going to preschool and we had to change content around to accommodate them and to give them tools. That’s what I’m also bringing to ‘Alma’s Way,’ because I looked around, and I saw that kids didn’t think that they were as smart because they couldn’t remember the information that they were expected to remember. And those pressures that I was talking about in the beginning of the interview, that’s what I think I can help them with through the show — I can say, ‘You have a brain. You have a mind. You can think,’ because I think that is what they need to see now.
What are some of the unique challenges that come with creating a TV show for kids?
You don’t want to beat them over the head with information, and you don’t want to be in the position where you’re just pouring knowledge into them without letting them bring something to the table. Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘well, how do you let them bring something to the table if it’s on television?’ But, really, it’s all about interacting— you can form your conversations and your stories to be a little open-ended so that when the 11-minute episode is over, you’ve inspired them to think of something else. It is like when you read a good book, and it is frozen in time, but after you’ve read it you keep thinking about the characters and what they’d be doing now or how they would react to certain things. That’s the trick with ‘Alma’s Way,’ and I think we succeeded on the show. For example, there’s an episode of the show where Alma is playing with Eddie and, they’re just fooling around and having a good time but, she takes a joke too far, and Eddie says, he doesn’t want to play anymore. His anger and that entire situation is nuanced because everyone has different tolerance levels on how long they can tolerate a joke when they get tired of it. And, because it is open-ended like that after it is over, kids can think about what hurts their feelings to joke about, or they can talk to their parents about what they do and don’t like to joke around about. So, that’s the trick to writing for kids— you shouldn’t talk down to them, and you should give them a little meat they can chew.
What has it been like to return to public television, working with PBS Kids and Fred Rogers Productions?
Well, you know, who said you can’t go home again? I can’t believe that I’m back! I’m back home in two places— with PBS Kids, which is where I started my career… When I started my career, public television had just begun for heaven’s sakes! And, I’ve gone back home to the Bronx. I’ve been to the Bronx more often than I have in a long time while working on the show because we took our pipeline of animators there so that they could get inspired. I have to give kudos to Ellen Doherty and Fred Rogers Productions for putting that together because I thought, well, they could see the Bronx with the internet and with pictures but they said, no, they should really go out there, and we took a bus tour and we went to my old neighborhood so they could get a sense of it all. It was great to come home again.