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Animated and authentic: A Puerto Rican girl's Christmas is focus of new PBS show

“Alma’s Way" creator Sonia Manzano — known for playing María on "Sesame Street" — is teaching kids about Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) and Three Kings Day.
Alma and her family celebrate Nochebuena by singing from house to house in her neighborhood.
Alma and her family celebrate Nochebuena by singing from house to house in her neighborhood.Fred Rogers Productions

A special episode of an animated series will celebrate Christmas through the eyes of a Puerto Rican girl from New York City and introduce children to distinctive holiday traditions.

"Alma’s Way," produced by Fred Rogers Productions and created by Sonia Manzano — known for her role as the beloved María on "Sesame Street" — is premiering the special episode "Alma’s Nochebuena/Three Kings Day Do-Over" on Monday. (Nochebuena is Spanish for Christmas Eve.)

“It gives us the opportunity to show the younger generation, learning from the older generation,” Manzano said.

Sonia Manzano in the Bronx, where "Alma's Way" takes place.David Gonzalez / Fred Rogers Productions

"Alma's Way," which debuted in October and has episodes in English and Spanish, follows Alma, a 6-year-old Puerto Rican girl, who lives with her family in the Bronx as she helps solve daily issues in her predominantly Latino neighborhood.

Influenced by her upbringing, Manzano brought her experience around Nochebuena to the special. She recalls listening as a kid to albums featuring aguinaldos, or Christmas songs, that are popular in Puerto Rico. One of the favorite traditions involves going from house to house and serenading families, singing aguinaldos accompanied by traditional Puerto Rican instruments.

"It was important to me because I had never been to Puerto Rico," Manzano said. "All of the things that they sang about kind of gave me little hints of what Puerto Rico was like."

The special episode includes an original composition by Fabiola Mendez, a Puerto Rican musician, who used the traditional cuatro, a small guitar with four strings.

A preview of "Alma’s Nochebuena/Three Kings Day Do-Over," a special episode of "Alma's Way" that premieres on Monday. Fred Rogers Productions

"Those little touches in the show are what make it authentic," Manzano said.Along with the original composition, the special focuses on family, a "cultural quality," of so many Latinos, Manzano said.

Growing up in the Bronx meant having a cousin, or "primo," who lived only a block or two away, and the holidays for Manzano and for many Latino families involve large gatherings.

The Bronx is home to many Puerto Rican and Latino families, and to keep it authentic, viewers will be able to see the iconic No. 6 train coming through the neighborhood, which gives the show "a very realistic touch," Manzano said.

"'Sesame Street' was in the city but we never really said exactly where it was. It could have been El Barrio. It could have been Harlem," Manzano said, describing other neighborhoods in the city. "But this show specifically takes place in the Bronx."

Each show has two short episodes.

In each, Alma has a “thinking moment,” which is aimed at making young viewers reflect on their own experiences and how they relate to their own life, and how, sometimes, one has to adapt or pivot to changing circumstances.

In 'Three Kings Day Do-Over" Alma spends the majority of her time focusing on acquiring the perfect gift for Junior, her younger brother, but later realizes all she really had to do was spend time with him.

"It’s an old story. It’s an old tale or giving it our own special twist. And I think that’s a very warm feeling. And it’s a great lesson," Manzano said.

Three Kings Day, or Feast of the Epiphany, is celebrated across Latin America and Spain, with many children getting presents on Jan. 6, the day that commemorates when the Three Wise Men, according to the Bible, went to visit and bring gifts to the baby Jesus.

Since the show started, Manzano says she's received a great reception for its representation of Afro Puerto Rican and Caribbean culture. The show features characters that often have different skin tones, something the creators were very deliberate about, she said.

The special is available on PBS stations; check local listings. All episodes of "Alma's Way" are available in English and Spanish. For a more interactive experience, families can learn how to make budín de pan (bread pudding), a Nochebuena tradition for many families.

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