Maria from Sesame Street, or rather the actress and writer Sonia Manzano, is retiring. She has been (rightfully) celebrated as an important Latina role model, and a trailblazer when it came to diverse representation on television (among other things). A bilingual small business owner, wife, and mother, who was also patient and caring and often went toe-to-toe with Oscar the Grouch showing just enough frustration with him, but ultimately always accepting him as a part of the giant community.
Maria was, for me, important because of how she code-switched, between English and Spanish, between speaking with the adults and speaking with the children and Muppets. While where I grew up in Montreal wasn’t the most diverse of places, I did hear both French and English all the time (I still get on public transit expecting to be greeted in French). My own family on my mother’s side moved between languages all the time when we got together. Not many of my friends in elementary school experienced this. Sesame Street made me feel normal.
I don’t even want to discount the importance of representation. The personal narratives that have surfaced online around Manzano’s retirement only reinforce the influence a visible role model who in some way represents who you are, how you look, what you are interested in, and/or how you speak can have. It’s why diversity is still an important issue in higher education in terms of the ranks of faculty, staff, and administrators; as the demographics of the country change, so too must we be willing and able to change along with it.
This year I discovered Amy Schumer. You may have heard of her, as she has a show on Comedy Central, and a big movie coming out this week. You may have seen her wonderful adaptation of 12 Angry Men that skewers the sexist beauty double-standard. But when I saw her (NSFW) acceptance speech for an award, I cried a little. Here was a “chubby,” bawdy, swearing, lewd blonde being celebrated. She is everything I was told I could never be growing up, or everything that I never should be if I ever wanted to be loved or accepted.
Look, I’m a fairly conventionally attractive white woman (give or take 20 extra pounds), so I get that there aren’t many violins out there for the lack of representation for me, but that moment reinforced for me, in a visceral way, that I had been missing something all along. Intellectually, I knew representation mattered. But in that moment, I really, really got it.
I wish I knew how to get more people in positions of privilege to have that experience.
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