To Sonia Manzano (first letter)

Dear Sonia,
I’ve watched you off and on for as long as I can remember.  I suppose you’re told stuff like that all the time.  You started appearing on TV the year I was born.  There was a lull of twenty years or so, starting in my late teens, when I only caught the odd glimpse of you (stolen moments that felt regressive).  I didn’t have a TV for a few years either — and this was well before the Internet and widespread use of personal computers (an era that seems almost fictional to me now).  Much later on (just shy of a few years ago) my son was born.  Watching Sesame Street is a regular occurrence again.
You’ve retained a sense of cultural permanence for me.  It’s as if you exist outside of time and the disorder of everyday life.  I was startled to read of your retirement this year, and it made me realize how important you’ve been to my being in the world, even though I still can’t explain it adequately (to myself or others).  It’s certainly been a focus of my conscious attention over the last couple of months, especially after catching some interviews you’ve done to promote your memoir.
There’s a strange parallel in our formative relationships to television (at least I think so).  You discovered an escape – a sense of calm and stability in the stories of people leading morally sound, multi-faceted lives, always with solvable problems, the appearance of art and culture, unconditional love, reason and the rule of law (on shows like Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best).  I’m reminded of the comfort and sense of security I found while watching Sesame Street.  And like you, I was simultaneously alienated.    Where was I on the screen?  What was this foreign place?  I’ve been imagining you trying to find yourself within the WASP suburban enclaves of 1950s family sitcoms.
After hearing so much about your life recently (your real life), I’ve remembered how much I identified with you as a kid despite this alienation.  I managed to pick up on the idealized representation of working-poor urban immigrant life within the show (something well beyond my limited frame of reference at the time).  It didn’t look like the bleak, semi-rural commuter-town sprawl of Southern Ontario (where I was growing up), but the unacknowledged omnipresence of poverty and a suffocating, hermetic ignorance seemed all too familiar.  You were acting while you were struggling.  You had endured (material deprivation, a loving but sporadically violent, alcoholic father, the absence of books and learning, the unspoken, adult melancholy of cultural and linguistic exile surrounding you).  I was amazed to learn that the people within the South Bronx Puerto Rican community of your childhood referred to their lives as The Struggle.
That’s pretty much all I could think about when I wasn’t watching TV as a kid, the struggle to control fear, the struggle to eat, the struggle to stay in one place, to feel rooted, supported and confident, for the grown-ups in my life to find and keep good work, to get gas in the car, the struggle between my parents and their desperate families, their new, flawed partners, the struggle with anger, resentment, delusion and self-loathing.  You helped me with all of this.  You assured me that it wasn’t my fault.  There you were on TV, so self-contained and sincere, compassionate and smart, your very existence revealing the lie of poverty as crime, as spiritual failure, as laziness or intellectual deficiency, something naturally self-evident.  My earliest sense of injustice was affirmed in your being, but more importantly, I was given a model of behavior in the face of it, an example of what is possible in retaining one’s dignity.
In the interviews I’ve seen, a passage in your memoir about your father jotting down a phone number (on the kitchen wall using your mother’s eyebrow pencil) always gets mentioned.  You’re then asked, in one way or another, to consider what you could’ve done in life if pens and paper were made available in your childhood home. I think I understand (and sympathize) with the agenda behind this (perhaps to stress the importance of literacy, formative education and intellectual life in the development of one’s potential) but I’m still irked by it. Your greatest accomplishment is dismissed in the asking (not to mention everything else you’ve done).  What you’ve managed to achieve is incomparable — and entirely dependent on where you’ve come from and what you’ve surmounted.  I’m not suggesting poverty and ignorance are somehow necessary.  They’re entirely unnecessary (as you well know) but it takes someone who has endured them without shame, without internalizing culpability and hate, to unequivocally establish this fact within society at large.  You’ve been doing this for over forty years now.
Thank you Sonia.