The Sesame Street Alum talks to us about the the newest character on Alma's Way, the complicated relationship with her own grandmother, and how technology can actually help Latinx families stay connected.
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If you are a child of the eighties, odds are you grew up watching Sesame Street, and know who "Maria" is. While the Puerto Rican South Bronx native actress, Sonia Manzano, is no longer hanging out with Big Bird, she is still making an impact on children everywhere.This time as the creator of Alma's Way, and even more recently lending her voice to the character of Granny Isa on the same PBS Kids show.

The show, which is centered around a 6-year-old Afro-Puerto Rican girl living in the Bronx, highlights the importance of family and intergenerational connection in Latin families. How many of us grew up with Tias and tios abound, cousins that were more like siblings – this was, and is the latin way. However, there is often something special about the relationship between a grandmother and her grandchild. I see it when I watch my mother interact with my daughter. Even during covid, when we couldn't spend time with abuela during those first few months, they found a way to keep their bond strong through the magic of technology—watching movies together over Google Duo calls, with my mom turning her phone camera towards the tv so my daughter could watch "with" her. Nothing beats that type of intergenerational bond. But while Sonia Manzano's character Granny Isa shows us just how strong that bond can be, it wasn't her own experience. We got the opportunity to chat with Ms. Manzano about her new role as Granny Isa, how that role plays out in her own life, and what she believes is a major part of being a grandparent.

Was your grandmother a figure in your life when you were growing up?

SM: Only at my insistence. She was my father's mother, Guadeloupe Manzano and she was very distant. Not mean, but she was distant and withdrawn and I wanted her to be like the Opie's and Aunt Bea's of the television show (The Andy Griffith Show). I wanted to have that kind of grandmother, and I kind of insisted, even throughout my college years, to kind of breakthrough, but I never did. I did get to witness a wonderful grandmother/granddaughter relationship with my mother and my daughter.

Can you tell us a little about that?

SM: Oh, they were attached at the hip from day one. They would hang out together all the time. Mom was always fooling around with her hair, and Gabby was always sitting on her lap. One time I came home and Gabby was telling mom, "Stand up!" and my mother would stand up, "Sit down!" and my mother would sit down, "Stand up!" and my mother would! And mom said "This is great! Now I know what it's like to be in the army!" They had a very humorous kind of relationship.

That sounds familiar. So we know that you are the voice of Granny Isa (who is also named after your own mother) on Alma's Way, but who is she based on?

SM: She's based on me and my mother. Granny Isa is completely involved with Alma and loves everything that Alma is doing. She is Alma's biggest fan, even though she doesn't live in the home with Alma and her family. She is a flight attendant and always traveling, so kids get to see Alma's relationship with Granny Isa via the internet (how they keep in touch).

On the show Granny Isa and Abuelo are divorced but you felt it was important that Granny Isa have a role on the show as part of the familial structure. Why is that?

SM: Well, I think it's an opportunity to show how relationships are changing because of the internet and with many families still being separated now. Extended families in one home aren't as prevalent as they used to be. It is an opportunity for us to show how you can stay connected to your family with the Internet. I mean, it's not the same as actually being there, but it's better than nothing. And we also see Abuelo being very warm and affectionate with his grandchildren, always there for them.

Speaking outside of the context of Alma's Way, what would you say is the traditional role of abuelos y abuelas within Latinx culture? Is there still a place for grandparents as the storyteller and culture keeper within the family structure?

SM: I think within the Latinx culture they are the people that you can always depend on. And I can't tell you how important it is for grandparents to keep their roles as storytellers and culture keepers. I used to ask my grandmother about Puerto Rico and I wish that she had been more forthcoming. My grandnieces grandmother is from China and I always tell her "you better ask her stuff about her childhood." So I think that that is something that grandparents should sort of hold high, and share with their grandchildren. They should absolutely be the holder-ons of culture so that kids remember it, know it and can hand these stories down to future generations.