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'Sesame Street' Star Empowers Women at Rye Luncheon

RYE, N.Y. – "Sesame Street" star Sonia Manzano spoke about how the popular children's television show has evolved over the years to not only include women but to put them and their issues in more prominent roles.

Manzano was the keynote speaker at the White Plains YWCA's "Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women" luncheon at the Hilton Rye Town on Friday afternoon.

Known as "Maria" on "Sesame Street," Manzano started playing the role in the early 1970s after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Manzano said that growing up in the Bronx, when she watched television she didn't see any people who looked like her or spoke her language.

"Ironically I grew up to become what I needed to see when I was a kid," Manzano said. "Many young Latin women will approach me and say if it wasn't for me, they never would have tried to be on television. Things have changed for the better. Women are now playing the roles of doctors and lawyers on television shows."

Back in 1969, "Sesame Street" was not exempt from depicting the typical family structure of a working husband with a housewife and two children. The character Susan was originally a homemaker before the decision was made to make her character a nurse. Manzano's character Maria originally worked in a library before she was made a co-owner of a Fix-It shop.

But the puppets on the show didn't reflect diversity, at least not right away. Manzano said that if the show had created a Hispanic Grover back then, it would have been accused of showing "shallow ethnic behavior." If it had a female Cookie Monster, Manzano said, the show would have received criticism for showing young girls with eating disorders.

"When the show was first created, they needed funny puppets who were compulsive and neurotic," Manzano said. "At that time we couldn't give those traits to an ethnic character."

Even that has changed over time. The show now features a puppet named Rosita who is depicted as a young Latin girl and is performed by a  Hispanic woman. Manzano said the show was one of the first programs to depict women as they are rather than as reacting to what men do.

"I can't believe that 'Sesame Street' is going into its 43rd year," Manzano said. "It was created out of the turbulent 1960s, when women were first wanting to join the workforce. It was able to harness the power to teach underprivileged kids so they didn't have to spend the rest of their lives catching up."

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