Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx

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Image Credit: http://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Maria-Chaos-South-Bronx/dp/0545621844

Started: September 25, 2015

Finished: September 29, 2015

*Category: Multicultural/Memoir

Published: August 2015

Genre: Memoir

Awards: None

Pages: 272

Themes: Coming of Age, Latino culture, Living with Abuse

Rating: 3 Stars

Age/Interest Rage: 9th grade and up/Adults

Disappointing. The title inferred that I would learn about Sesame Street’s MARIA, and this story was about Sonia. If you are considering to read this book because you have an interest in Sesame Street, take a pass. It’s mentioned only twice, mysteriously both times, and near the very end. I would estimate that 90% of this book is Sonia’s life from maybe 4 years old through 15-16 years old. In the last pages, she is 20 years old.  Her life while ON Sesame Street is never covered. Thus…my disappointment.

Sonia grows up in a very poor Puerto Rican household in NYC.  Her father is  abusive alcoholic, and her mother leaves him numerous times, only to return every…single…time. Each time, Sonia and her siblings are dragged through the drama, and she explains this difficulty via a child’s perception. Her whole life she is constantly walking on eggshells around her family. The police are frequently called to settle domestic violence between her parents, and then the next day her parents act like nothing happened. Such confusion for a child, but hardly uncommon in today’s world. (Harsh…I know.)

Sonia’s friends, while growing up in the 1960s, come from diverse backgrounds: A Jewish boy neighbor who she secretly has a crush on; Black girls who aren’t allowed to do things she is able to do; Wealthy friends/poorer friends; Friends with crazier households than herself. All this SLIGHTLY resembles the diversity on Sesame Street<I’m not sure Manzano was trying to convey that, but if she was…the resemblance was weak/felt forced. Sonia’s struggles with knowing where she fits in does seem authentic, however.

In high school her drama teacher notices she has an aptitude for acting and recommends her to The High School of Performance Arts in Manhattan. Up to this point, her interest in performance seemed minimal. In fact, it almost seems like she falls UNKNOWINGLY into performance. There are a few weak foreshadows (attending West Side Story on Broadway, “performing” in a mirror…). I didn’t ever feel she had a passion for acting, but rather uses the doors that open as a way out of her abusive, poor, crazy, eggshell-walking life.

Overall, I felt this book was just all over the place. But, POSSIBLY, that was Manzano’s point. Her writing almost feels like diary entries, and from day to day Sonia was a different version of herself. Which was annoying, but understandable…and realistic.

Despite the disappointment of NOTHING about the behind-the-scenes of Sesame Street, reading about her life was interesting. Sad…but interesting. It was also eye-opening to life in South Bronx circa 1960s, and how it was perceived by a child.

Overall Classroom Merit: Low

Classroom Possible Uses: This book may find a reader on the classroom library shelves of a high school ELA class. That being said, they may pick it up for very different reasons that I did (because Sesame Street may not be as memorable to them as it is to me, a 40-year old). The insight to the socioeconomics of the South Bronx/1960s may be interesting enough for a few students to pick it up, especially if they have never experienced abusive, poor, city living. If students have experienced a similar lifestyle to Manzano’s, perhaps they may be motivated that they, too, can defy the odds. If that happens, a few students will find this memoir useful.  And that’s a good enough reason to at least consider putting it on your shelves.

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