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After four decades on 'Sesame Street," Sonia Manzano launches her own children's show

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

S is for Sonia. Sonia Manzano, that is. You might know her better as Maria, the character she played on "Sesame Street" for 44 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

SONIA MANZANO: (As Maria) Hi, Big Bird.

CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Hi, Maria.

MANZANO: (As Maria) Ready for your story?

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Oh, yeah, I can't wait.

MANZANO: (As Maria) OK, now, which one of these should I read today?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sonia Manzano is now launching her own children's TV show, "Alma's Way." It's an animated series following 6-year-old Alma Rivera navigating everyday life with her friends and family in the Bronx. The PBS kids show premieres tomorrow, and Sonia Manzano joins us now. It is my honor to have you on the show. Welcome.

MANZANO: Well, thank you so much. It's my pleasure to chat with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about the character of Alma. I understand her experiences are inspired by your own childhood.

MANZANO: Yes, I remembered my own childhood and how much I used to find refuge in my mind and how I escaped things that were bothering me. And I thought that would be a good thing to show children today - is that everybody has a mind, and they can all use it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right because she often has these step back, sort of think through moments where she takes time to process how something is making her feel, how it will influence her next steps. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALMA'S WAY")

SUMMER ROSE CASTILLO: (As Alma) Oh, forget it. They're not listening to me. I'm going home. Should I just leave? I don't know. I got to think about this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how do you think young viewers will sort of react to these moments of reflection?

MANZANO: Well, I hope that they start realizing that they have this power. I noticed a lot of kids these days were overwhelmed with information. They have to take a lot of tests. And they were confusing memorization with intelligence. So a lot of kids that maybe didn't speak English or were in a classroom that had 35 kids in it and couldn't answer the test questions were thinking they were less than anybody else. So basically and simply, this is telling kids, look. The way you view the world is your own way, and it's just as valid as the way anybody else views the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, when you talk about kids feeling invisible, there's a lot of different reasons for that. Some of those reasons can be to do with their identity, and there's a lot of Latin culture and music in the show. Tell me about why that was important to include.

MANZANO: I was born in New York City. I was born in Bellevue Hospital and raised in the Bronx, and I watched a lot of television in the mid-50s. I loved the stories on television, but I never saw anybody who looked like me or lived in a place like the place I lived in, and I always wondered - I was worried what I was going to contribute to a society that didn't see me. So, of course, when I got onto "Sesame Street," I said, oh, my goodness, I became what I needed to see myself when I was growing up as a kid. "Sesame Street" was based in a real place. You didn't know if it was Harlem or El Barrio, but you knew it was New York, and "Alma's Way" is taking that concept a step further. It is actually placed in the Bronx, so I think that kids will have a sense of, oh, that's me. I know that place. And I might add - what's interesting to me is that people say, well, it's so specific to the Bronx. Does that mean only Bronx kids will relate to it? And for some weird reason - and I don't know why this is true - but the more specific you are, the more people like it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about that idea of specificity. I think it is so important because I think what it links to is authenticity. When we're specific about a place and people's experience, it rings more authentically. Don't you think?

MANZANO: Yes, absolutely. And I think that that way kids will connect with what's going on in "Alma's Way." You know, she's often a character in conflict. Now, I'm talking about conflict like the three little pigs had conflict. They're not, you know - this is the audience that we're, you know - oh, what should I do? Should I go to the bomba dance like I promised my abuelo? Or should I go to baseball - to the baseball game? I mean, so they're kid-level conflicts, but we see her solve the problem in her mind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm sure, you know, there are so many people who grew up watching you on TV, like myself, who will now get to show this to their children. What does it mean for you to carry that legacy forward with a new show?

MANZANO: Well, it means quite a bit to me, as you can imagine. I'm very proud of the fact that this is a unique opportunity to showcase Afro Puerto Ricans. Alma's father is an Afro Puerto Rican, and we've got a couple of shows in development now where they visit Puerto Rico. And I think that children's television in general have really showcased Latins a lot but not Caribbean Latins as much. So I'm really happy to be able to do Caribbean Latin culture. There's a Cuban uncle in it, as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, as a Cuban, I applaud you.

(LAUGHTER)

MANZANO: Oh, wow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's actor and author Sonia Manzano, creator of the new PBS kids show "Alma's Way." Thank you so much.

MANZANO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.