Growing up, Sonia Manzano didn't see too many people on television who looked or sounded like her or anyone in her Puerto Rican family.
"When I was raised in the South Bronx as a little girl, I watched an awful lot of television, and it was a big influence on my life," Manzano said in 2004. "I saw this black-and-white world, and I used to wonder where I would fit in this world that didn't seem to see me."
As it turned out, Manzano grew up to be what she "needed to see on television": Sesame Street's beloved Maria Rodriguez, a job she's had for the past 44 years.
Manzano received the Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award on Monday for her pioneering work as a writer and performer for diverse children's programming. The actor, who announced her retirement last year, has created a legacy of work that found seamless ways to incorporate cultural competency into children's programing.
In the beginning, Manzano made little suggestions to the Sesame Street producers like adding yucca and plantains to the neighborhood pushcart to reflect Sesame Street's diverse community. Maria's "Spanish Word of the Day" exposed many children to a new language. In an episode about the Sesame Street Latino Festival, Maria and other cast members celebrated Latin heritage beyond just speaking Spanish.
Manzano also found ways to explain certain life events in ways that children could understand. For example, her pregnancy was incorporated into the show from 1988 to 1989. According to researchers, having Maria's life parallel Manzano's in this manner dramatically impacted children's understanding of pregnancy and babies.
This sort of exposure can be crucial, since television has a profound impact on how children perceive the world and themselves. According to a 2012 study in Communication Research, representation on TV can significantly influence children's self-esteem. After surveying 400 black and white preadolescent children in the Midwest, the researchers found that the only kids who didn't experience lower self-esteem after watching television were white boys.
Since kids in the US spend an average 35 hours watching TV per week, creating the kind of inclusive and diverse programming Manzano pioneered on Sesame Street remains critical for ensuring children learn to love themselves, in all of their differences, at a young age.
In fact, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research last year found that Sesame Street has a positive impact on preparing children for early education, particularly among children of color.
"Sonia not only brought the life events of marriage, having a baby, and being a mother to viewers young and old, she also brought a seldom-seen diversity, a Latin role-model, unlike anything on television at the time," National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences president Bob Mauro wrote in a statement.
Manzano represented Latinos on an unprecedented scale in mainstream television while exposing all children to the complexities of everyday life. And her legacy will endure through the life lessons she gave to generations of children tuning in to Sesame Street to learn their ABCs.