NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) - It's the end of an era for Sesame Street.
Actress Sonia Manzano, who has played Maria on the beloved children's show for 45 years, announced she will be leaving the show.
Manzano made the announcement during the American Library Association annual conference in San Francisco.
In confirming Manzano's retirement, the Sesame Workshop said ``she will always be a part of the fabric of our neighborhood," and called her "a role model for young girls and women for generations" as Maria and as the first leading Latina woman on television.
The Sesame Workshop did not say how her absence would be explained.
Manzano is seen below in an early "Sesame Street" clip with Northern Calloway as David, and Grover Monster.
Born in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of The Bronx that resembled the city world ``Sesame Street'' would later embrace, Manzano attended Manhattan's High School of Performing Arts and then Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
She began her show business career in the original cast of the musical ``Godspell,'' which began as a student production on the Carnegie Mellon campus. She moved up with it as it transferred to a club in New York's Greenwich Village, then to off-Broadway, then Broadway.
In 1971, she auditioned for ``Sesame Street,'' then only 2 years old. In winning the part, she joined an already-acclaimed cast that included Loretta Long and Matt Robinson (later supplanted by Hal Miller and finally Roscoe Orman) as nurse Susan and schoolteacher Gordon; Bob McGrath as music teacher Bob; and the late Will Lee as shopkeeper Mr. Hooper.
"Viewers have watched Maria grow up," the Sesame Workshop says on its website. "She was a first crush, a best friend, and a baby sitter, telling stories and making everyone laugh."
Manzano's Maria character came to be known on "Sesame Street" for operating the Fix-It shop with Luis (Emilio Delgado), who in 1988 also became her husband.
"When I started 'Sesame Street,' I was 21, 22," said Manzano, now 64. "And it was – the civil rights movement was at its fervor, and the idealistic show was going to close the education gap. It was geared towards inner city kids in the hopes that they would learn basic cognitive skills, and then they would start school on an even level with their middle-class peers, and we were going to save the world, and we were going to eradicate racism, and that was the spirit of the show in that time."
Manzano said she was struck by the originality and social forwardness of "Sesame Street" well before she joined the cast.
"I saw the zany animation, and then I saw Susan and Gordon in this inner-city set, and I was shocked, because I had never seen people of color on television, and that was like, 'Whoa, this show is really in your face and outrageous,'" said Manzano, who noted that she was one of the first Hispanics in a television role.
Manzano also served as a writer for the show, sharing in 15 Emmy awards as a member of the writing team. She has also written children's books.
Manzano has also performed on the New York stage in productions of ``The Vagina Monologues'' and ``The Exonerated.''
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