Book Review: Becoming Maria by Sonia Manzano

Acting Out Transformative Possibilities: A Review of Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx

Becoming MariaBy Marilisa Jiménez García, Ph.D.

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: This is the remarkable true story of a girl plunged into a world she never expected. It’s the story of dreams—some of them nightmares, others visions of romance and escape. It’s the tale of a family that is loving and troubled, and of the child who grew up to become a television star.

Set in the 1950’s in the Bronx, this is the beautifully wrought coming-of-age memoir of Emmy Award-winning actress and writer Sonia Manzano, who defined the role of Maria on the acclaimed children’s television series Sesame Street.

MY TWO CENTS: Sonia “Maria” Manzano held a prominent place in American culture for over 40 years, both as a writer and actor on Sesame Street. While many Latino/a readers have struggled to find characters reflecting their experiences in books, Manzano filled this void on one of the most beloved American television franchises in history. Manzano’s performances shaped the way viewers understood Latino/a culture by breaking stereotypes through an expansive repertoire: from friendly neighbor, to comical mime, to new mother, to glamorous leading lady a’ la Ginger Rogers. Indeed, when she announced her retirement this summer, the outpouring of public tributes and reflections on her legendary career underlined just how closely audiences over a generation identified with Manzano’s evolution into a television icon. Now, as a novelist, she continues to respond to the need for Latino/a protagonists. Her newest book, a memoir, highlights the transformative capacity of theatre and performance for young people.

Becoming Maria provides generations of readers with an opportunity to experience Manzano’s evolution from a young Latina, a puertorriqueña, in the Bronx into a promising performer. It is a journey Manzano also reveals as a struggle to reconcile the love and abuse she witnessed in her family life. Becoming Maria is truly the portrait of an artist, as an early passage in the text demonstrates how, even in moments of distress, a young Sonia developed a gift for observation and imagination:

I run to our fourth-floor window, looking for anything, when I see Uncle Eddie’s car pull up. Out spills his wife, Bon Bon; my uncle Frank; his wife, Iris; and my beautiful mother. She is dressed in a soft-colored yellow dress with pleats down the front that she made herself. My father enters my line of vision as he lunges for her. Her brothers restrain him, and I can tell even from the fourth floor that Ma would rip his face off if she could.

There is something beautiful in the picture they make jerking around in the streetlight. And when the Third Avenue El comes swishing through, right in front of our window so suddenly, I feel like I am in the center of the universe and I am happy that they have had this fight because it has introduced me to the wonderful window. And that’s where I go every day, all the time between assaults when there is nervous calm (Manzano 8-9).

Young Sonia’s ability to both observe and “see beyond,” to borrow a phrase from The Giver, her surroundings and circumstances allows her distance and a space to imagine other possibilities. Through this “window,” young Sonia is able reinvent moments in her life. As children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop has established, a “window” can also function as a metaphor for literature which gives audiences insight to other worlds and cultures.[1] In this moment, young Sonia’s decision to frame her circumstances also signals Manzano’s own expertise providing access into the literary and theatrical worlds she has created for years.

Becoming Maria adds to Manzano’s titles of works marketed for young people. The closest to this text’s breadth and maturity might be her recent young adult novel, The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano (2013), which also features a strong, Latina protagonist coming into her own as a young woman—though the major plot points and struggles emphasized in Evelyn Serrano concern the collective plight of Puerto Ricans in the late 1960s in East Harlem and the rise of the Young Lord’s Party. As in Evelyn Serrano, Becoming Maria includes moments where the young Sonia contemplates the conditions of Puerto Ricans in the New York community and the island, particularly the treatment of Puerto Rican woman by the men in the community. In particular, a young Sonia is frustrated with the realities of internal sexism in a patriarchal culture:

Down with Puerto Rico! Revenge on the island! Screw those people!” becomes my internal battle cry as I vow to shun and reject the place I’ve never been to, where kids drown in sewage, the place of dead mothers, of negligent fathers, of starvation and poverty, of macho men throwing coconuts at their wives’ heads for fun! I know all the horrors even beautiful songs written about the island can’t cover up and will not be fooled by it! (177)

Young Sonia’s struggle to reconcile her views about her home life as both nurturing and abusive parallels with her feelings about her native land. As a writer, Manzano carefully demonstrates how Latino/a authors can both affirm their respective cultures while still encouraging readers to think critically. In fact, the tone and style of Becoming Maria underlines a sense of maturity and confidence in Manzano’s own voice as a novelist.

Overall, Manzano’s work fits into a tradition of Puerto Rican writers including Pura Belpré, Nicholasa Mohr, Piri Thomas, Judith Ortiz-Cofer, and Eric Velasquez who have also written for younger audiences. These writers also demonstrate the power of the creative arts as transformative practices for young Latino/as. Manzano’s position in acting and screenwriting, however, highlights the importance of cultivating spaces in media and performance arts as part of narrating Latino/a histories and counter-narratives.

TEACHING TIPS:

  • Women’s Studies/History: Consider having students read Manzano’s Becoming Maria alongside Mohr’s Nilda (1973) which also emphasizes the evolution of a young female artist. In terms of Latina women’s history, have student compare the differences between the experiences Mohr describes to that of Manzano. Similarly, Becoming Maria might be read in comparison to Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican (1993) in which Santiago narrates her journey into performance and New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts, a school which Manzano also attends and describes in the book. How is the journey into performance different/similar in Manzano and Santiago versus the journey into visual arts in Mohr?
  • The Wonderful Window: Young Sonia’s fourth-floor window functions as a kind of retreat which underlines the importance of creating private spaces of reflection and observation for young people. Ask students to reflect on the spaces they retreat to as a means of gaining perspective.
  • Dramatic Arts/Reader’s Theatre: Becoming Maria greatly emphasizes the dramatic arts as a kind of transformative pedagogy for the young Sonia who finds a sense of voice through drama. Consider following up this novel with a play referenced in the book such as Shakespeare’s works and/or Godspell.

[1] Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix–xi.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Marilisa_Jimenez-GarciaMarilisa Jiménez García is a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY. She works at the intersections of Latino/a Studies and childhood and children’s literature studies. She attended a performing arts middle school for theater and is currently working on a book manuscript on the history of Latino/a children’s and young adult literature and an essay on the Latino/a “YA” tradition. One of the chapters in her manuscripts is about Sonia Manzano’s work. She is also conducting a survey of NYC teachers on teacher education and the use of diverse lit. in the classroom.

The Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference Offers Great Panels & Intimate Setting

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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Bestselling author Esmeralda Santiago

Once, I attended a large conference for educators, and when I approached the keynote speaker to ask a question, handlers surrounded her and ushered her away. I bring this up because the Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference was the opposite experience. The conference, held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn on September 27, was an intimate affair, meaning the well-known agents, editors, and authors were *right there* and accessible. Bestselling author Esmeralda Santiago posed for pictures. Meg Medina paused in the hallway to sign books. Conference-goers lunched at small tables with Stacy Whitman from Tu Books and Adriana Dominguez from Full Circle Literary. How cool, right?

The conference, in its third year, was developed by Dominguez, Marcela Landres, and Nora de Hoyos Comstock, the founder of Las Comadres para las Americas to “provide unpublished Latino writers with access to published Latino authors as well as agents and editors who have a proven track record of publishing Latino books.” The one-day event offered panels, one-on-one critiques, a pitch slam, and a lunch-time speech by keynote speaker Esmeralda Santiago, who told her own publishing story and emphasized the discipline needed to be a professional writer. Books of all the presenters were also available from La Casa Azul, a New York City bookstore that specializes in Latino Literature.

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Author Meg Medina

Here were some of the highlights:

Author Meg Medina, winner of the Pura Belpré Award for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, emphasized the importance of diversity in children’s literature. “We’re looking at a diverse set of kids in the (school) seats, so we need a diverse set of books.” She added that Latin@ books are not only for Latin@s: “Our books matter to all kids of all cultures.”

In terms of craft, Medina told writers to put their efforts into creating great work, not a great platform. The writing comes first. She also said she is not a methodical planner. Instead, she follows her character–she lets the characters speak to her–as she is writing and often asks, “What are you really afraid of? What’s really the problem?” When creating an antagonist, writers should “create a worthy opponent, a layered opponent. Don’t create a stereotype, especially for the bad guy.”

Medina spoke at a later panel with our own Lila Quintero Weaver, author of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. During that session, moderated by Shelley Diaz, Senior Editor of School Library Journal’s reviews, Lila spoke about her non-traditional publishing route that led her to become an accidental author. Her graphic novel was originally a college project that eventually landed on the desk of the University of Alabama Press editors. Lila said she couldn’t think of a single disappointment in publishing so far and encouraged writers to see the process as an opportunity to grow, not just get published.

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Meg Medina, Lila Quintero Weaver, and Shelley Diaz

Here are Lila’s thoughts after the conference:

“One of the exceptional values of conferences like Comadres is what they offer over social media alone. You can share a table at lunch, laugh together, chat about life beyond writing, and listen to the same speaker in the same moment. It’s the magic of synergy, which in the case of Latin@s comes with extra simpatico in the sauce! I returned home with a pocketful of business cards, and my Twitter feed lit up with Latin@ conversations on multiple topics. Let’s not forget the opportunity to discover new writers. My Goodreads update will soon reflect that fact. I wasn’t seeking representation or editorial feedback, but those opportunities were present at the conference too, another BIG reason for attending. So yes, my experience boils down to making great connections with Latin@ writers, the kind that endure if you work on them.”

For those seeking representation and editorial feedback, we have good news. Agents and editors said they want more diverse titles, but they said they’ve seen too many memoirs and depressing stories cross their desks. They would, however, like to see more young adult manuscripts with Latin@ protagonists. Nancy Mercado, editorial director at Scholastic said she’d love a Latino Cheaper by the Dozen, and Johanna Castillo, vice president and senior editor at Atria/Simon & Schuster, said she’s hoping to see rich stories about immigrant children raised without their families in the U.S.

Organizers said attendance at this year’s conference doubled from last year, a great sign that the event will be around for years to come.

Click here for another report on the conference, and click here for more  information about Las Comadres.

La Casa Azul: El Barrio’s Independent Bookstore

By: Zoraida Córdova

 

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Entrance. Photo by Z.C.

 

 

La Casa Azul Vega

Manny Vega’s mural. Photo Z.C.

El Barrio, or East Harlem, is home to La Casa Azul, named after Frida Khalo’s home-turned-museum. Raising “40k in 40 days” through a crowd-funded campaign, Aurora Anaya-Cerda was able to open the doors to the store in June of 2012. It’s encouraging to see that the public is willing to contribute to bring these projects to life. I remember keeping up with the bookstore’s progress on Lucha Libros. From painting to building shelves, it was exciting to know that this kind of indie was coming to a neighborhood that otherwise doesn’t have access to a wide range of Libros Latinos. In a city that is 28.6% Latino, there is a huge need for access to these books.

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All things Frida Khalo. Photo Z.C.

So, how do you visit? To get to La Casa Azul, take the 6 train to 103rd street in Manhattan. This lets you off onto an area lined with bars, restaurants, bodegas, a botanica, and schoolyards. The neighborhood is also home to El Museo Del Barrio, if you’re in the mood for more art. But first, go to La Casa Azul. Make a left on Lex and a right at a bright blue awning. Down the steps you’re greeted by a gorgeous art installation by Manny Vega. You can see the process of his work here.

Once inside, the bookstore is warm and inviting. Aurora Anaya-Cerda is there with another employee stacking books. Named and inspired by Frida Khalo’s home, La Casa Azul has many references to her that range from paintings, to art books, to art installations. LCA even has its own exhibit/gallery. Their current showcase is called “A Ribbon Around a Bomb,” by Suhaly Bautista, The Earth Warrior. I’m excited to see what the next art display will be.

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Shelves. Photo Z.C.

The great thing that you can see about La Casa Azul, is that it’s not just about the book events, but about community. Take a look at the events calendar for a wide selection of family-friendly music events, book readings and signings, literary conferences, volunteer outreach, and even BYOB paint parties.  They recently held a book drive for young immigrant children in New York. In addition to these events, La Casa Azul is available for space rental. Because of all of these things, La Casa Azul is important. I’d like to think that the independent bookstore is making a comeback, despite the threat of the digital age. Sure, you can get a book on your smart device or tablet, but there’s something special about being able to congregate in a safe space that embraces Latino culture.

The next time you’re uptown, stop by and pick up a couple of books.

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Kid Lit section. Photo by L.L.

Author Meg Medina Talks About Writing Villains

 

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Meg Medina knows how to connect. When she writes, her words crackle with strong storytelling and believable characters. When she stands at a microphone, her Cuban-American-inflected vitality will reduce you to tears—of laughter. You can imagine how much her young readers love her. So do we! And we’re delighted to present an interview with Meg about her latest book.

First, here’s an introduction to her earlier work. She’s the author of a picture book, Tía Isa Wants a Car, winner of the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award; a middle-grade novel, Milagros: Girl from Away; and a previous novel for young adults, The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.

Tia Isa Wants a Car      Milagros: Girl from Away      The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind

Meg’s most recent contribution to YA bookshelves is the Kirkus starred Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick, 2013), a gripping story set in Queens, NY, where sophomore Piddy Sanchez lands after a crosstown move. Readers come to know Piddy at her best and worst, as she grapples with a new high school environment. Let’s just say that everything gets dicier when she enters a bully’s lair.

What can we learn from Meg’s gift for storytelling? For one thing, she writes with a keen eye toward characterization. Her eponymous villain, Yaqui Delgado, is a craft lesson on legs. Happily, Meg has agreed to unpack a bit of her villain-making magic for us.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Meg, thank you for talking to us about craft. Your novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass puts the protagonist in a terrible bind. Before we discuss Yaqui, can you give us a better sense of who Piddy is and how she lands in this fix?

Meg: Unfortunately, Piddy is at a new school. Essentially, she’s the little gazelle that got separated from the herd. Never good. Up until that point, she’s an ordinary girl. She’s bright, engaged in school, but like lots of us at 16, she’s struggling with her mother and is starting to question the choices her parents have made. The fact that she gets targeted is purely random. A horrible fact of bullying is that it has very little to do with the victim. Kids can get bullied for virtually any reason…for being smart or for being slow; for being unattractive or for being too attractive; for being poor or for having too much money. The reason for the attack usually resides in what makes the bully nervous or insecure. Kids can easily forget that. It’s easy to internalize the message that they are in some way a loser.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: You give readers a wicked combination of physical and cyber-bullying. How did you become interested in girl bullies? Can you share tips about using hot-button issues in fiction?

Meg: To be honest, I don’t think about hot button issues to write about. They change too quickly! In this case, I had been invited to write a short story for an anthology about Latinas as a turning point in their lives. As I thought about turning points in my own life, I decided to base the story on a bullying incident I lived through long ago, mostly because it made such a lasting negative impact on how I saw myself and how I moved through the world. The anthology project died, but my editor at Candlewick asked me to turn the story into a novel. I layered in new characters and dimensions that hadn’t been part of the story, and I added in the details that are part of bullying today, such as YouTube and social media.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Yaqui fits a certain type of inner-city bad girl that many of us know only from the movies, but by the end of the story, she’s achieved a dimensional status that satisfies and amazes. What was your process like for keeping Yaqui from collapsing into stereotype?

Meg: I really just concentrated on writing the truth about my own bully long ago. My feelings were a strange mix of hatred, dread, and admiration for all her power. The fact is, no one is all good or bad, and the gloriously bad character is often charismatic or fearless in a way that’s really interesting. Also, no one behaves so violently or poorly without a reason. We don’t have to excuse a character’s awful behavior, but it helps to understand it. I dabbed all of those things on Yaqui as a character to make her compelling, and to make her a worthy foe.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Through much of the story, Yaqui remains aloof and doesn’t enter Piddy’s space until the right moment. Your portrayal of her evokes a wolf silhouetted against the moon. Chilling. Please share more about enhancing dread through this technique.

Meg: Well, dread is actually the perfect word. I worked on dread inside Piddy as character and inside the reader. For the reader, watching Yaqui circle closer is like watching the fin cut through the surface of the water behind a swimmer at the beach. Oh no! Something horrible is coming, but you can’t stop it. In this case, it’s not an ocean, but a school and neighborhood, places where we think we ought to be safe. In terms of building dread inside of Piddy, I tried to recreate the feelings we might have when we’re in a room or social situation with someone we really dislike. Think of how that goes: You avoid eye contact. You try your best to think of something else, to look calm, to avoid the spot where that person is standing. But all you can think of is that person and the awkwardness of being nearby. Their presence becomes oppressive.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: There’s a powerful scene where Piddy begins to adopt Yaqui’s look. She pulls her hair back into a severe bun and plucks her brows to a thin line. She puts on dark lipstick and steps back to admire her handiwork as “expressionless and strangely vicious.” It’s a horrifying turn of events. Can you talk about pushing your protagonist this close to the edge of villainy?

Meg: Pain can lead us to some terrible places. In Piddy’s case, she tries on the Yaqui costume, so to speak, as a way to explore and protect herself. If you’re scary and vicious, who will bother you? I took her to that edge because as a writer you always make sure the stakes are very high for your character. I was after a problem that threatened her very sense of who she was, a problem so tangled that an easy answer was hard for her – and for the reader – to solve.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Piddy’s best friend, Mitzi, has moved, too. She’s blossoming in the paradise of the suburbs and is mostly unavailable to Piddy. She reminds us of what Piddy’s life used to be. What else does sweet Mitzi contribute? What do apprentice writers need to know about using secondary characters for the benefit of the story’s arc?

Meg: Yes, Mitzi definitely shows us the “old” Piddy. She wasn’t in my first draft except in that sentence that refers to Piddy’s friend moving away. But as I worked on the manuscript, I built up scenes to show the old Piddy and also to keep a path open for the way back. I also liked how she worked as yet another version of a normal Latina girl: brainy, scientific, sports-impaired, middle class.

Photo credit: Petite Shards Productions

Photo credit: Petite Shards Productions

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Meg, mil gracias! We celebrate your achievements in Latin@ kid lit and look forward to your next book!

To learn more about Meg’s work, the latest on her author appearances and much more of interest to readers and writers, please visit and follow her blog.