Emilio Delgado and Sonia Manzano, NHI’s 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award winners
In the fall of 1971, a young struggling Hollywood-based Mexican-American actor named Emilio Delgado received a call from producers of a new children’s television show asking him to audition. “Since I was staring at my last unemployment check and had just spent my last 25¢ for a gallon of gas,” he recalls, “of course I said yes.” He figured, at most, the role would last a season or two, and he’d be back to looking for work.
Around the same time, in New York, a Bronx-based Puerto Rican actress named Sonia Manzano was performing in the original production of Godspell, when she got a call from the same show asking her to audition. Though she notes, “I didn’t really set out to be in the world of kids when I started acting,” she got the part, and found her new team to be a smart group of actors and producers, and the project more engaging than her prior theatrical endeavors.
More than four decades later, Delgado and Manzano – brought together from opposite ends of the country to become Sesame Street’s Luis and Maria – are still involved with the internationally-known and universally-lauded children’s show. The two have been instrumental in educating children since their debuts on the show – including serving as positive, visible role models for young Latinos and Latinas.
Delgado says, “Even before I got the job on Sesame Street, I had dedicated my career to trying to change the negative representations of Latinos in the media to what they truly are –a positive, culturally vibrant, hard working, family oriented segment of our society with so much to offer. I think that our work on Sesame Street has been instrumental in trying to dispel those negative representations by educating non-Latino children and their families about our culture. And of course, it has helped Latino children by nurturing in them a healthy self-esteem.” Manzano adds, “I recently met someone who grew up in Idaho who said I was the first Latina she ever ‘knew.’ I imagine she might’ve meant I was the first Latina she’d ever experienced as a real human being. Back when I first became involved with the show, Latinos were invisible, especially on TV. Sesame Street wanted non-Latino kids to know that Latinos live in America. We also wanted Latino kids to be proud of their culture.”
Of course, over the past four decades, the United States has changed from where, as Manzano puts it, “you didn’t hear salsa in gym class,” to where “there are a thousand million Latinos in America, and there’s a major change in how visible we are now.” The show has changed greatly as well – both note the focus on a younger age group from when the show first started, in part because the show’s producers realize children are able to take in information at an earlier age.
Technology has also changed how they approach the show. Delgado points out that children turn to new media as well as TV for education, and Manzano notes that they’re doing more and more web-viewable outreach videos on a range of subjects to place themselves in that sphere, including financial stress, bullying, and how to cope when a parent is incarcerated.
Because the show has allowed them to be real people over the course of the show’s incredible 45-year span – Manzano notes that, unlike other children’s shows, they haven’t had to be the same age throughout the course of the show – Delgado and Manzano have been able to continue with the show even while pursuing other creative interests – Delgado, for instance, has performed with the highly-acclaimed “little orchestra” Pink Martini, and recently filmed an episode on the popular TV show, House of Cards, while Manzano is writing a children’s book called Miracle on 133rd Street and a memoir, both due out next year.
Both Delgado and Manzano, in being honored with the National Hispanic Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award this year, see NHI as an organization continuing the work they’re doing through Sesame Street. Delgado says, “The meaning of the root word for education is ‘to lead out of ignorance;’ most certainly that is the foundation for an enlightened society. Our efforts and intention at Sesame Street have been to encourage learning in the very young and to stimulate their imaginations and curiosity and guide them to a healthy self-esteem.” He adds, “I’d like to think that the young people taking advantage of the excellent programs at NHI have been those same children who benefitted from our encouragement and that are now learning at NHI, to expertly lead us into the future.”
This article by Phil West originally appeared in the 2014 print edition of NHI Magazine.