I was four years old when Sesame Street premiered on PBS in 1969, and I adored the new TV show and all of its characters, both human and muppet. I continued watching it with my little sister and later shared it with my own two sons. So when I heard that the beloved “Maria” had written a YA memoir about her childhood, I couldn’t wait to read it! Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Sonia Manzano (her name’s not really Maria??) is an absolutely captivating, funny, and sometimes heart-breaking story of growing up Hispanic in America.
Sonia grew up in the Bronx in the 1950’s, squeezed into tiny apartments with her Puerto Rican mother and father, older sister and younger brothers. She starts with her earliest, vague memories and impressions and slowly moves forward in time, as her family grows. Things at home were sometimes loving and warm, with the house crammed with laughing, singing relatives, and sometimes frightening, when her father would come home drunk and often violent. As she got older and was able to escape to school, she describes her experiences there, too. She loved reading and was obviously intelligent from the start, but she had to change schools several times, as her family moved around, trying to make the best of her parents’ meager income and find a better life. However, moving to a “better” school in a nicer neighborhood left Sonia feeling like an outsider, one of the few Hispanic children in her classroom.
Sonia recounts in vivid detail her daily life at home, at school, and with her friends and cousins and other family members. Although she longs to be old enough to have a boyfriend, she can’t understand the young girls in her neighborhood and family who get pregnant in their teens. Sonia has bigger plans for herself. She’s not sure exactly what she wants to do with her life, but she knows she wants to live a life of discovery and freedom. Her plans start to solidify when she’s cast in a school play, which leads to attending a school of the arts for high school and, later, college where she majored in Drama. Sonia was in the original cast of Godspell (that was a surprise to me), an exciting experimental theatrical show that embraced the hippie-like counter-culture. The memoir ends with her interview for the Sesame Street job as Maria.
I listened to this memoir on audio, read by the author, which I would argue is the best way to experience this book. As soon as I heard Sonia’s (aka Maria’s) familiar voice, my face broke into a smile (you can listen to a sample of the audio at the Amazon link below). She tells her story with all the enthusiasm, spirit, and humor that she brought to her iconic role. I was completely captivated by her story from the very beginning, and eight hours went by much too quickly. When it ended, I wanted to hear more – all about her years on Sesame Street, whether she ever married and had a family of her own, and more.
I was entranced by this warm, funny story told by a master storyteller about a childhood and coming-of-age that was completely unique to me but probably somewhat familiar to millions of Americans who grew up in immigrant households at that time. Sonia (as if we didn’t already know this) is a wonderfully engaging entertainer and a compelling narrator. It turns out that she is a talented writer, too. I hope she writes a follow-up memoir about the rest of her life because I can’t wait to read more.
272 pages, Scholastic, Scholastic Audio
Click the Audible button at this Amazon link to listen to a sample of the audio:
Sonia as part of the original Godspell cast:
Sonia in her iconic role as Maria on Sesame Street (I am a huge Sesame Street fan & really went down the rabbit hole with Youtube clips!):