For more than four decades, Maria from “Sesame Street” has been like a family member in the homes of millions of children and adults who grew up watching and learning from her.
The actress behind the character is Sonia Manzano, 63, and on Tuesday she will bring her passion for literacy and reading to Oklahoma City for the fifth annual Literacy Live Event, a fundraiser for Community Literacy Centers.
In Oklahoma, officials estimate about 400,000 people are functionally illiterate, and 130,000 of those reside in Oklahoma City.
“It's a shocking rate,” Manzano said in a phone interview before the event.
Every year since its founding in 1987, Community Literacy Centers has served about 1,000 of those adult Oklahomans who want to learn to read and write through free classroom settings at various locations.
Currently, the center offers 17 classes weekly. It is the state's largest community-based literacy organization.
About half of the people the centers serve are learning English as a second language. The organization holds classes at various locations including churches, halfway houses, community housing and others.
While in Oklahoma City, Manzano will visit Educare and Cesar Chavez Elementary, where she will read aloud and give out copies of her book, “A Box Full of Kittens.”
No time for reading
Manzano has played Maria on “Sesame Street” since 1971, two years after the show premiered. She became a writer for the show and has also penned several children's books. Her most recent book, “The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano,” is a young adult coming-of-age story about a girl in Spanish Harlem.
But reading scripts and writing books were things that Manzano said she'd always thought were strictly for intellectuals, not for young Latino women. For Manzano, growing up in the Bronx, reading and literacy were low on her family's priority list.
“There were no books in my house when I was a kid. No pencils and paper,” she said. Her family was poor and lived in what she called dirty tenement housing.
Compared to today's Bronx, however, Manzano said the Bronx of the '50s and '60s was somewhat idyllic. Youth gangs would fight, but with their fists. Delinquents were called as such because they talked back to authority.
“If you curled up in corner with a book, it was like, ‘Do something important,' my mother would yell. Reading was sort of like a lazy pastime.”
A whole new world
A public school teacher made a monumental difference in Manzano's life. This teacher told her that she should audition for the School of Performing Arts in Manhattan — the same school on which the TV show and movie “Fame” were based.
“All of a sudden I went from this Puerto Rican ghetto to a school where there were kids from all over the city,” she said.
She graduated from the School of Performing Arts in 1968 and attended Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied drama and later landed a part in “Godspell” which went from an off-Broadway setting to Broadway.
In 1969, when “Sesame Street” went on the air on public television, it was groundbreaking, Manzano said. Never before had minorities been portrayed in a positive light, and no other kids' shows at the time were particularly educational.
“The whole point of it was to help inner-city kids with basic cognitive skills, counting and the alphabet, basic concepts; near, far, here, there,” Manzano said.
The show was set on a street, like a Harlem street, Manzano said, populated with identifiable characters for the target demographic. First there were the black human characters, Gordon and Susan.
“Then the Spanish community said, ‘We want representation as well,' and I got cast,” Manzano said.
Eventually, Manzano became a writer for “Sesame Street” in addition to acting on the show, though in recent years, she's shifted much of her writing focus to books.
The most recent episode of “Sesame Street” that Manzano wrote featured Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“We're both from the Bronx, we both have the first name, we're both Puerto Rican,” Manzano said.
In New York City, Manzano is part of a literacy program called All Write, which is part of a larger initiative, Symphony Space. Through the program, Manzano and other celebrities read to groups of people learning to read and write. The stories are ones the people can relate to, with universal themes such as lost love.
After the readings, students are challenged to write their own stories with similar themes and in turn, the celebrities read aloud from the students' works.
For adults, finding time and motivation to learn to read and write can be daunting. When will they fit it in between working four jobs and taking care of a family?
Manzano said for these people, it's a matter of appealing to them in a way that they can relate to emotionally.
“I think that if you catch people in an emotional way, it gives them power. They can love to read,” Manzano said.
If you go
Community Literacy Centers' Literacy Live luncheon
• When: 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.
• Where: Skirvin Hilton Hotel, 1 Park Ave.
• Tickets: $50 each, available online at www.
If you curled up in corner with a book, it was like, ‘Do something important,' my mother would yell. Reading was sort of like a lazy pastime.”