Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Really, if my parents didn't want me to turn into a liberal, socialist radical, they shouldn't have let me watch Sesame Street when I was a kid.

This evening we went to see Sonia Manzano (a.k.a. "Maria" from Sesame Street) speak on campus. When I was five or six, my greatest goal in life was to move in with Susan and Gordon, and then marry Maria. She was always hanging out with that David guy, though.

So, her talk was called "The Importance of Hispanic Role Models," and I suppose there was nothing too unexpected in it. Mostly a narrative of growing up in the Bronx as a first generation transplant from Puerto Rico, lacking role models in the mass media, setting out to become one via Sesame Street. I'm guessing a lot of the people in the auditorium were born after 1980, so they probably got a bit of a history lesson. All good stuff.

One thing that surprised me was her admission that she had just recently realized there were other "types" of Latina/o groups in the U.S. She gave the example of talking to a woman on the phone whose last name was Gutiérrez. This woman had a Texan accent, and Manzano assumed she was anglo, married to someone of Mexican descent. Then when she met this woman--and all her friends who also had Texan accents and preferred line dancing to the merengue--she was quite shocked to find they were of Mexican descent. So, now she's interested in learning more about the diversity of the Latino population in the U.S. I'm sorry but how could she just be discovering this? I shouldn't hold her to a higher standard just because she's Latina, I guess, it's like people thinking I should know everything about queer theory just because I'm a dyke, but...wow.

Anyway, it just got me thinking about how very urban she was--and also how urban Sesame Street is. The mission statement of Sesame Street states more or less that the show is intended to give underprivileged ethnic minority children a leg up in life, helping prepare them for school by teaching them things with examples from their own environment, using people who reflect their ethnic backgrounds. I never really thought about it as a 5-year-old, but looking at the clips she showed, and listening to her, it just struck me that the whole endeavor is aimed at the inner city. Well, obviously, it's a New York themed show, but it suddenly seemed so insular to me. It sounds like I'm criticizing Sonia Manzano and the show, but I'm not really, I was just really struck by the fact that she didn't realize their were other ways to be Latina, and that there is a huge rural population still not reflected on the show. Something for me to think about for a few days, I guess.

It was a good talk, especially the monster video clips (!), but it actually ended on a bit of a tense and disappointing note. Someone in the audience asked during the Q&A if there were ever going to be any gay characters, and her answer was an emphatic "No." She went on to say that they only dealt with children's issues. They deal with AIDS because a lot of children have AIDS, but children just aren't dealing with sexuality issues. I was turning to Catherine to say, "My god, where is this woman from?" when someone else in the audience raised his hand and said, "Well, I'm a little confused. You've been saying that your show is all about showing people role models, and I meet gay people every day who were hurt the same way you were, not seeing positive role models on TV. And anyway, sexuality aside, don't you think there are a lot of children out there who have gay parents, and would benefit from seeing something like that on Sesame Street?" She admitted he had a point, but still said it wouldn't be happening. And the Q&A session came to an end.

I guess it's safe to say Maria and I won't be getting married anytime soon.

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