Sonia Manzano: through the eyes of a Latin artist
For me, National Hispanic Heritage Month is every day. It’s not something that comes and goes in the fall that disappears into the abyss of non-existence once October 15 rolls around. It’s an unchanging cloak that I wear proudly and that manifests in my anarchic hair, my warm-colored skin, and the way I speak.
This year, however, I found myself wanting to become even more connected to my story and to learn how people in my community hold a place in the arts – and there’s no better month to do that.
With upcoming events on campus and around the city organized to celebrate those of Hispanic and Latino descent – the latter being a gender-neutral term intended to encompass the identity of all members of the community – I have set myself the goal to attend at least one to experience what it means to be a creative Latin person in the arts.
A block party for the ages
On September 21, I went to what can only be described as an indoor block party hosted by TV host and spokesperson Rhina Valentin, with special guest, the Emmy Award-winning actress and author Sonia Manzano. The event took place at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium on 62nd Street from 7-9 p.m.
When I walked through the doors to the main entrance, I was greeted by a man named Tomás, who identified himself as a “piragüero”, meaning someone who serves dessert traditional Puerto Rican that comes in the shape of a cone and is a frozen treat typically sold during the summer. He stood behind his pulsating cart making and handing out free concoctions of shaved ice doused in fruit-flavored syrups like piña colada and tamarind.
While I was talking with Tomás, he told me about the different names Latin American countries have for this delicacy. In Puerto Rico they call them “piraguas”, while in the Dominican Republic they are known as “frio-frio”; in Mexico they are called “raspados”; and the Cubans call them “granizados”.
“You wondered what you were going to bring to a society that was blind to you. They haven’t seen you. Sonia Manzano, Emmy-winning actress and author
As I drank my cherry piragua, the sound of drums from the back of the room caught my ear and my body’s attention. Musical organization “BombaYo”, led by its director Jose “Mr. Drum” Ortiz, played and sang the melodies of the Afro-Puerto Rican style “bomba” – a genre of dance and music that emerged from the culture of Africans from the West enslaved in the Caribbean islands.
While Ortiz and a few others played “barriles” (drums) and sang, other members of their group performed the harmonies and danced around the room while wearing traditional folk dresses. A small crowd even gathered around a table to watch others play a game of dominoes, or as the Latins pronounce it: dominó.
The stage was set, the mood pulsating with Latin culture and art, and Puerto Rican painter Victor Ramos – known professionally as “Sloan” – stood nearby, setting the vibrant life inside the room on a white canvas.
The Life and Legacy of Sonia Manzano
After our cones have been emptied of their flavor, and the musicians and dancers have settled into a calmer symphony, Valentin danced on stage and beautifully transformed into a poem she wrote about Manzano’s accomplishments in the television industry. She introduced the actress as a “Latina living legend” and asked the crowd to “shout real loud” as Manzano climbed the steps.
Manzano spent 44 years of his life on the children’s and family show “Sesame Street”, playing the character of Maria and writing for the series. Since then, she has authored nine books, all for schools and intended for young audiences. She also created the show “Alma’s Way,” which was recently renewed for a second season on PBS Kids.
Throughout the conversation, Manzano emphasized the importance of children and young people in creative expression and decision-making. The majority of the stories she wrote were inspired by real-life experiences she had throughout her childhood in the Bronx.
She said she hopes her legacy will be one that influences other Latin and Hispanic artists to create something they may never have had growing up. She wants young children of color to feel seen and represented in the media they consume and to feel welcomed into artistic spaces that have rarely given way to them.
She described the young stage of people’s lives as when “everything happens” and explained that finding beauty in terrible things that happen during this time can be something incredibly inspiring to do. ‘art. She added that she survived her childhood by “finding the mundane and uplifting it” through her writing.
Navigating the politics of a TV production as a Latina proved difficult for Manzano. Her identity impacted her desire to pursue her career, and she even said, “You wondered what you were going to bring to a society that was blind to you. They haven’t seen you.
The actress regularly worried about her appearance and speech and was careful about what cultural ideas she would put forward lest they be rejected. She recounted how her habit of speaking “Spanglish” on the show was met with remarks about the impropriety of the hybrid language, even though they always urged her to be herself.
Manzano spoke about the importance of staying true to her passions, regardless of how she was treated. Compared to her white counterparts, there were times when she felt she perhaps deserved more than what was being offered, but that never deterred her from producing quality content despite her situation. . She said, “If the book you’re writing is no good, it’s no good, or it will be good no matter where they put you up.” Stay focused on the task at hand because however you are rewarded, your work will always speak for itself.
One of Manzano’s inspirations was the 1961 film “West Side Story” starring Puerto Rican actress and cinema icon Rita Moreno – which presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Emmy award in 2016, alongside the co-writer of the theme song to “Alma’s Way”. Lin-Manuel Miranda. In “West Side Story,” she said seeing a neighborhood she knew so well be illustrated on the big screen was incredibly powerful.
“The first time I saw my seedy neighborhood so beautiful, it was like an impressionist painting,” she said.
Manzano chose to retire from “Sesame Street” in 2015 to make room for new generations who were being brought into this creative space. She said she hopes her legacy will be one that influences other Latin and Hispanic artists to create something they may never have had growing up. She wants young children of color to feel seen and represented in the media they consume and to feel welcomed into artistic spaces that have rarely given way to them.
The evening ended with more music and dancing, and Valentin’s music-loving daughter took the stage and presented Manzano with beaming flowers. This special moment showed the audience the importance of “giving someone your flowers” while they are still there to feel the impact of their life on those who come after.
The strength of the Latin community continues
The experience was instructive and affirmed the strength of the Latino community at a time of such arduous struggle with the destruction of Hurricane Fiona which swept through the Caribbean. Senior Director of Artistic Programming at Lincoln Center Jordana Leigh spoke briefly about the East Bronx boxing community and center, The Master, which is dedicated to helping the people of Puerto Rico. El Maestro continues to accept donations to support those affected by Hurricane Fiona on the island.