‘Alma’s Way’ creator/EP and supervising producer discuss S2

Alma's Way. Justice Sonia and Judge Alma. Courtesy of Fred Rogers Productions
Alma's Way. Justice Sonia and Judge Alma. Courtesy of Fred Rogers Productions /

A brand-new season of Fred Rogers Productions’ Alma’s Way is coming to PBS KIDS on Sept. 18! We sat down with creator and executive producer Sonia Manzano (Sesame Street) and supervising producer Mia Olufemi to discuss the real-life New York City-based inspirations for this season’s storylines and got to reveal some very special guest stars that will be featured in season 2. Alma’s Way is produced by Fred Rogers Productions and animated by Pipeline Studios. To know more about what’s to come in season 2, read on to find out!

Culturess: Introduce yourselves and what your position is on Alma’s Way?

Sonia Manzano: Well, I’ll start. My name is Sonia Manzano, and I am the creator and executive producer of Alma’s Way.

Mia Olufemi: My name is Olubunmi Mia Olufemi, and I’m the supervising producer at Fred Rogers Productions on Alma’s Way, which means I oversee all aspects of production on the show from start to finish.

Culturess: I’m so excited to jump right in and get to learn more about you guys. So, Sonia, I’m going to start with you. You’re known for being in front of the camera and were Maria on Sesame Street. What it was like to step behind the scenes and create your own show?

Manzano: Well, I had a little taste of behind-the-scenes on Sesame Street when I started writing for the show. There was a seminal moment that I realized that all of the power lies behind the camera. If I wanted to [make an] impact on what people were seeing, I had to do it from behind the camera; Not so much as Maria. That’s when I really began, in earnest, to see what was going on back there.

Culturess: Jumping off of what you said just now, I found out that you were a writer. So, with having that power and as a Latina woman, how did that feel to really be able to kind of be able to curate the narrative of the show?

Manzano: I really used all the power that I had that was handed to me, and I would quibble about some of the Latino segments [on Sesame Street], and the producer said, “Why don’t you try writing some yourself?” She put the ball in my court, and then I kind of ran with it, and I was able to write Latino-based bits as I saw them. Well, of course, I’m bringing all of that to Alma’s Way, and as an executive producer, or one of the executive producers, I have more impact on that.

Culturess: So, jumping over to Mia, I know you’ve worked on a couple of shows like Arthur, Martha Speaks, and Curious George. I grew up watching those shows, by the way, so this is really cool. And I wanted to know when you were starting work on Alma’s Way, what do you think made this different than any of the shows you’ve worked on before?

Olufemi: I can speak to what makes it special, and that’s just the amount of heart and how much of ourselves we’ve poured into the show. I talk a lot about representation and how important it is, and growing up as a Haitian-Nigerian-American kid or third culture kid, I never grew up seeing myself. So, this was really the first opportunity that I had. Alma’s Way is based in a real world; in a real setting: The Bronx.

I think all of us and the team are very diverse. We really got to pour ourselves into the storytelling. So, my favorite story in the show is called “Junior’s Story.” He goes to the bookstore and doesn’t see a book [with a character] that looks like him, so Alma and André help him make one, and I think all of us did that. We all made the show that we wanted to see growing up. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like that working on a show before.

Culturess: I can definitely resonate with that as a black person, I only saw so many young black characters growing up. It’s really awesome to be able to see so much diversity now in our children’s programming. 

Mia, did you have any highlights when it came to producing the show? Any type of experiences or maybe there was a storyline that you really enjoyed?

Olufemi: Yeah, of course. We’ve really stretched ourselves in terms of animation and storytelling in season two. We did a lot of dancing this season. Dancing can be very difficult, but our partners at Pipeline Studios did an amazing job. So, for example, we have stories around body drumming and breaking. And we hired two really talented choreographers Khalid Freeman, who’s a body percussionist, and Ana Rokafella Garcia, who is one of the first eminent “B-girls” out there, to create dances for us. Translating that into dance, getting the angles and the movements, was so difficult, but it was so much fun.

We also did a lot of real places in season two; Alma goes to the [American Museum of Natural History in New York] and she’s in the Halls of Gems and Minerals and the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. We worked very closely with the museum to make sure that those backgrounds looked amazing. Alma gets to find the belly button on the great blue whale hanging from the ceiling. I think that people are really going to love seeing the gorgeous animation in this season and also the stories. Alma really delves into a lot of topics like: “This is why maybe you should not lean into certain rumors because they can cause confusion” or “Even though I’m a kid, I can help out an adult.” There’s a lot of really great storytelling and animation this season and lots of music, so that’s my favorite.

Culturess: Sonia, what about you? Do you have any favorite storylines? Did you have a wish list of episode ideas that got made into season two?

Manzano: Yes, absolutely. I love stories that take place on the Subway. I’m very proud that the number six train, which is a real thing in the Bronx and historically important to Puerto Ricans. J.Lo [Jennifer Lopez] talks about it. I went to school on it. Rubén Blades wrote songs about it, so I like stories that are placed in the number six train. We have a kind of a wild goose chase scenario that takes place on the train. Our guest musician, it’s about lots of musicians on the train. Our guest musician is Esperanza Spalding, the bass player. That’s very exciting to me.

Of course, I’d love to write about things that have happened to me. When I recently had a mild case of COVID, I was so impatient to get better. I immediately remembered how that felt when I was a kid, getting sick and having to wait to get better. That became a show. Of course, ‘the’ Sonia Sotomayor, the other Sonia from the Bronx, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is making an appearance in two shows, and I’m really excited about that. The opening sequence of one of the shows is placed in her apartment building in the Bronx, and there’s the iconic Puerto Rican flag hanging out of the apartment building. So, those were wish list stories that did make it to the screen.

Culturess: Yeah. I love hearing that you’re able to, as Mia touched upon, bring real life into these shows, especially since these are geared toward children. I like that we’re able to see the present happening so these kids will grow up and be like, oh, I learned about so and so when I was five, like 20 years later.  I really love that.

I see children’s shows as family shows. Do you have any personal examples of people that you know who watch the show and were like, oh, this is really good, and I can see myself really showing this to my children or other people’s children?

Manzano: Well, we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. A friend of mine whose opinion I really value said to me, “There’s a sweetness of the show and without being sappy and a kindness that goes on between the characters.” She said, “I love the way they treat each other. I love the way Alma treats her brother, Junior.” That’s really hard to do in animation. It’s easier with flesh and blood people. I think that’s kudos to the actors who bring that warmth to the show.

Olufemi: And to follow up with Sonia, I think one of my favorite stories that I’ve ever heard, and it’s a beautiful full circle moment, is there was a little girl in the Bronx who saw one of our first episodes, “Bomba or Baseball,” in which Alma’s learning how to dance Bomba. So, after seeing the show, she the young viewer] was like, “I want to take Bomba classes.” So, the mom was like, there’s got to be classes somewhere. So, they found a group called Bombazo Dance Co. which actually practices in the Bronx. It’s a beautiful organization.

They do free classes while also really educating kids about the history behind Bomba and the dance. She started dancing there, and a year after she watched the show, she was one of the performers in an event we had at Grand Central Terminal called the “Alma Train Party.” So she and the group of girls danced at that party, which was celebrating the launch of our “Alma Train Party” game. Then a year later, we started live-action production. That same little girl and the rest of the Bombazo Dance Co. girls participated in a live-action shoot we did and that aired, or that aired digitally, in June.

Olufemi: So, what a beautiful, full-circle moment in which a kid actually saw something on a television show, found it in their community, and then was able to partake in the show again. I mean, that is Alma’s Way. We get stories like that all the time. And I think that really speaks to the longevity of the show and just how special it is. Speaking to what Sonia was saying, pouring so much of ourselves into it. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Culturess: That’s beautiful. I love that. I love that you’re able to hear that story and to hear about a child who was positively affected. Like I said earlier, in a couple of years, kids will look back on the show and be like, oh, this actually taught me something. This affected me. So that’s so wonderful to hear. In closing, I wanted to ask you, where do you see Alma’s Way? Season two is on the horizon, but what are you looking for in the season?

Manzano: I actually took the head writer to the Bronx just yesterday so we could see what was going on there and how it keeps changing. And there’s such a vibrant life in the Bronx. So, I think that we’re going to stay in tune to see what’s going on there. There are different cultural groups in the Bronx. There are different kinds of restaurants. The Bangladeshi population is growing in the Bronx and setting up a lot of establishments. I’m hoping to include more of those cultures in [the series].

Olufemi: To piggyback off of Sonia, there are so many stories to tell. There are so many lessons. I’m also really excited for people to see the stories that we did do in season two because, like I said, we really stretched ourselves. We are premiering on PBS KIDS during Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15 through October 15. Please watch it. [laughs]

In these episodes, we’ve got various parts of Latino culture. The kids are going to make a Mofongo food truck. Alma gets a piragua flavor named after her. Beto brings back a piñata from Mexico that [his] Abuelita made. There are so many stories that we told in season two, and I think there are tons more stories we’re going to be able to tell in season three. Watch season two first, then keep supporting us, and we’ll be ready for you guys in season three.

Manzano: Mia, you reminded me that we also have some [more] in addition to the other cultures. There are so many Latino cultures that are in that show because there’s the Dominican Tostone guy and there’s the Cuban Uncle Nestor of Cuban descent. We’re also featuring how diverse within the Latin culture we are.

Culturess: Yes. Very rich and vibrant. I’m so excited. I’m really hoping that people will watch this show with their children and on their own. Like I said, I believe children’s shows can be watched by any age. Anyone who is interested in learning more about culture in the Bronx should watch this show.

Next. ‘Donkey Hodie’ EP and Supervising Producer discuss Season 2. dark

Season 2 of Alma’s Way premieres on Sept. 18 on PBS KIDS. Keep up to date with Culturess for more TV and movie interviews!