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On Thursday afternoon, a small group of York-area high school and college students listened to a woman whom both they and the teachers who brought them there had watched on "Sesame Street" when they were kids.

Sonia Manzano, an actress who played the character of Maria on on the kids' show for 44 years, spoke to the small audience in the Yorktowne Hotel, 48 E. Market St. in York City, mainly about what it was like being one of the first Latinas on television and how she was able to do it despite a somewhat "tumultuous" childhood in the South Bronx.

She was in town to speak at the SpiriTrust Lutheran Foundation 13th annual awards dinner, a fundraiser later that evening for the organization that provides services for senior citizens around the area.

Growing up: Manzano, whose parents came from Puerto Rico, took a seat in a chair in one of the hotel's conference rooms and invited the students to sit across a table from her from her, facing her.

"When I watched television, you never saw people of color on TV at all," she said to the students, who were all of color.

One reason why that mattered so much, Manzano said, was that it meant she never really saw people who looked like her doing the jobs white people often aspire to. People used to ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she didn't know, she said.

Expectations were low, she said, as they were at the elementary school she went to in the Bronx, where she got great grades without having to apply herself. So the adjustments to a performing arts school high school and then to Carnegie Mellon University were a challenge.

"I felt like I was foreign" among the crowd of largely well-to-do white people at the prestigious college, she said.

Manzano retired — "From 'Sesame Street,' not from life," she told The York Dispatch with a laugh — from the role in 2015, after nearly four and a half decades playing Maria.

"I tell people 44 years is too long to wait for Oscar the Grouch to propose," she said, drawing chuckles.

Natural: She said when she first was brought on, the producers told her to keep things as natural as possible, to have an authentic Hispanic character. They also wanted her to let them know if what they were writing made sense. She found that kind of weird — "I thought to myself, when did I become the spokesperson for Latin people" — but the recent college graduate went with it.

One day, she told them that the fruit cart the show featured would be out of place in a Hispanic neighborhood unless it had plantains.

So they added them.

"My first political act was diversifying the food cart," she said with a laugh.

Writing: Over time Manzano started writing for the show, also. And now, writing is her passion. She's written several books, including her most recent one, "Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx." She signed copies of the book for all the students.

One of the young women in attendance was Nellie Washington, a junior at York College. After Manzano left, the college student said she had enjoyed seeing the actress.

"I grew up watching her," Washington said.

She was glad Manzano had shared her story, from which Washington draws inspiration.

"Just that she made it means a lot," she said.

— Reach Sean Cotter at scotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @SPCotterYD.

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