Sesame Street actress Sonia Manzano, who played Maria Rodriquez on the beloved children's television program, is retiring after nearly 45 years.

The 65-year-old announced her upcoming departure during a talk at the American Library Association Annual Conference earlier this week.

Manzano, who had starred alongside TV husband and Fix-It Shop co-owner Luis, played by Emilio Delgado, since 1971, said she would not return in Sesame Street's upcoming 46th season.

Maria and Luis

Long-running Sesame Street characters Maria and Luis Rodriquez (as played by Sonia Manzano and Emilio Delgado) pose for their wedding portrait in this undated photo posted on Sesame Street's Facebook page. (Sesame Street/Facebook)

Raised in a poor Puerto Rican family in New York's tough Bronx neighbourhood, Manzano attended the High School of Performing Arts, which was the setting of the 1980 film Fame.

She was cast in the role of Maria shortly after graduating from Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University.

In a video shared Tuesday by the American Library Association, Manzano said Sesame Street's early target audience was children in America's inner cities, and having a multicultural cast was part of that goal.

"The stoop in Harlem was the most familiar to [inner city kids]," Manzano explains. "And of course, populating the stoop were people of colour and Latin people and Jewish people ... so that these kids could find someone on TV that they could relate to."

Manzano didn't just perform on Sesame Street. She also wrote for the show that teaches numbers, colours and the alphabet using a cast of Jim Henson's Muppets. 

Manzano has won 15 Emmy Awards as part of the writing staff.

A role model for generations

Sonia Manzano

Actress Sonia Manzano, as Maria Rodriquez, talks to children on the set of Sesame Street in this undated photo posted on the show's official Facebook page. (Sesame Street/Facebook)

Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization that produces Sesame Street, called Manzano "the first leading Latina woman on television," and said she would be a part of the "fabric" of their neighbourhood.

"She was a role model for young girls and women for generations," the organization said in a statement Thursday.

"We'll always be grateful for her many years on Sesame Street as a champion of diversity and helping millions of kids grow up smarter, stronger and kinder.

News of her departure triggered an outpouring of emotion from fans who grew up with her as Maria.

The actress has been actively responding to fans on Twitter.

She even hinted that she might return for the show's 50th anniversary, in November 2019.