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.
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.”