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A pajama party with purpose

“My sister my sister, tell me what the trouble is

I’ll try to listen good and give the best advice that I can give…”

Monie Love

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Photo by Natasha Vinakor

In a time of grief, I am blessed to enjoy moral support and a sense of community. From my newest dance community to the beautiful women of my samba community, I am surrounded by positive energy. That strengthens me in the face of ignorance and negativity. Though our weekends are busy, I’m grateful I made the time to attend a women’s salon with my dance sisters.

The salon, “Let’s Talk It Out,” allowed for structured conversation about many topics.

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Photo by Natasha Vinakor

While #election2016 weighs heavily on our minds, it did not come up in the conversation, other than one mention at the beginning of the event.  Yes, our lives go on, despite all the emotions dredged up by the state of the nation. But we get to do so on our terms, not because of a shared op-ed article or meme on Facebook(Holding the door open). I digress, though, from the gratitude I feel for last night’s gathering.   While I kept relatively silent during the active discussion last night, I heard each and every voice.  I stood with my sisters in their worries, questions, and fears. Of course, there were light-hearted moments. We shared food, drink, and laughter. It was an experience I hope we continue.

One question I had prior to the event was whether or not to include M.  She’s an impressionable eight-year-old; would a women’s salon that would likely address controversial issues be appropriate?  I decided she would join us. She was so excited to choose a onesie to wear (recommended dress code for the evening.) Already an active member of our dance community, M felt right at home. She played with our hostess’ toddler daughter. She cuddled with a few of my dance sisters.  She sat on my lap and kissed my cheek every so often.  Given all the girl drama she already experiences as an elementary school student, I thought it was important for her to witness genuine, respectful camaraderie between women. These are women she admires and loves.  These are women who love her mother.  It was a win-win.

Nearly five years ago, I committed to mastering a dance style but also to opening my heart to new people and new relationships. As I’ve shared before, my dance community has enriched my life deeply(More than a parade).  As I make an effort to reach out and be included, I will continue to benefit from the blessing of sisterhood.

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Onesie crew

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White privilege made me late to work the other day

It began when I ran across a Vogue fashion spread about Frida-inspired fashion. Because M and I were attending a Frida birthday celebration in San Jo, I was researching Frida in popular culture as a counterpoint.
Once again, Kermit ended up sipping tea because an expensive outfit couldn’t possibly capture the artistry of Frida(or any artist for that matter.)

Two weeks later, a friend’s Facebook post caught my attention. http://www.someecards.com/life/fashion-beauty/allure-afro-white-appropriation/
I read and posted the article about the responses to an Allure photo shoot onto my timeline.  The Allure photo shoot was more culture vulture nonsense.  Sure, I rolled my eyes and sighed deeply. But I needed to discuss, if only online. I decided to share it on my Facebook timeline because I knew my friends would respond as I had. Mujeres en la lucha, warrior women analyzing and strategizing, commiserating over cultural appropriation as we do other issues that affect us.  

Then, an acquaintance, an older white woman I know through a TV show on which I occasionally appear, joined the online discussion with a statement that made no sense and offended everyone who came across it: 
 If I were black, I’d much rather wear afro hair instead of plastering it down where it looks all greasy and dirty….
She engaged in ongoing arguing with many of my friends and refused to apologize. She exited stage left:  African American women are always offended ….. I said nothing discriminatory. Goodnight Ladies..


Because that’s how it works, this privilege I don’t have.  The privilege to jump into a conversation that wasn’t meant for her. The privilege to never admit ignorance.  The privilege of refusal to learn.  The privilege of walking away without being held accountable.  Call it obliviousness or Manifest Destiny or que son sinverguenzas. It is rampant and real.

It was too much. It weighed on my mind for days. On Wednesday, already upset that I couldn’t rejoin my beloved human rights education institute due to work obligations, I couldn’t get it together to make it to work in the morning. Why give this situation and this ignorant person that power? Why pay this fool any mind? 
I was equally angry with myself for not taking her on publicly. For not cussing her out. I’m sick of taking the high road, of handling situations with professionalism, of being grace under pressure. I can’t. No puedo. 

Online, I have cut off communication with this person. I sent her a terse inbox message, unfriended and blocked  her. We will likely never cross paths again. But she won’t be the last person to test me and those I love in this way. 

Red Letter Daze

“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
I ain’t got time to take a fast train
Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home
‘Cause my baby just wrote me a letter” The Letter by the Box-Tops

“You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words.” Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liasons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Letters, in spite of modern technology, social media, and pop cultural shifts, are still powerful means of communication. Letters can build up or discredit. Letters of recommendation can secure your ability to win that scholarship or get an interview. Love letters can intensify a connection between two people.  There are so many types of letters that differ in purpose. Letters of support . Letters of reprimand.  Dear John letters. Letters to Santa. Letters of resignation.  Letters to the editor.  Chain letters.  The list is varied as are the reasons for writing letters.  How can one to two pages of words truly capture and/or present a situation or an individual? 
I recently had to write an important letter and though I consider myself “good with words”, I found myself at a loss on what to write. As someone who spent a greater part of my career teaching young people to choose and to read words carefully and most of my life writing as an outlet, I now felt overwhelmed by my writing task. I agonized over words and phrases at first. Then I pushed forward, the printed word expressing opinions and emotions in ways I rarely do in person, as it tends to do. Nunca he logrado ser una persona sin pelos en la lengua; only through writing have I been able to truly express my thoughts fearlessly. With this particular letter, my purpose was to support someone with whom I have a great relationship. It is less challenging to write well of others when you think highly of them. If I dislike or fear someone, I may want to soften my words but why?  What do I gain by not being clear and concise? Why spare the person’s feelings if their negative behavior has prompted a negative response? 

It’s been a lifelong journey for me to learn to speak my mind openly and aloud. There are situations when I would prefer to write a letter.  Ironically, I may have an opportunity in the next week in which I will have to do both.  I will wear red that day.  

The friendship challenge

Next Wednesday, I will begin my third annual Lenten fast from Facebook. The smartphone data plan was canceled last week. Blues will install a passkey on our home PC. But the challenge won’t be whether or not I log in at work. The challenge will be—and always is—to use the 40 days to devote time and energy to my friendships, voice to voice, but more importantly face to face.

In recent months, social networking has soured for me. What could be inconsequential disagreements and tension are heightened by miscommunication and the cold reality of reading text on a screen. The too-public nature of posting and commenting sometimes exposes us as close-minded, petty, vindictive, whether the topic be political or personal. So I have purposely disconnected from a few online friends, with a few more choosing to “unfriend” me, possibly in response to my original decision.  Apart from occasionally feeling left out of a social gathering, I feel a sense of relief.

I am blessed with a diverse group of friends. Some I met in college or through different work experiences. A few have been my teachers. A few were once my students.  A few, like my only brother and my first cousin, I’ve known for most of our lives. But I haven’t always appreciated what I have. Like most people, I thrive on new experiences. Fledgling friendships are exciting because of their newness—and their lack of history. Having drinks with someone you’ve met through a party is quite different than comforting an intimate friend through grief. One does not trump the other but the former is easier than the latter. As much as we love those closest to us, close friendship is hard work. Social networking has allowed us to play longer and with many more people.  It has not made me a better friend. 

I have the greatest friends a person can have. They are activists, survivors, artists, and sages.  I know I can grow in friendship with so many of them. As I said, ironically on Facebook, “let’s nourish our friendships so they flourish off-line.”

The problem with Sea Monkeys


(All group and individual names have been changed)

When I was seven years old, the back cover of the Archie or Richie Rich comics often featured an ad for Sea Monkeys.  You opened a packet into a bowl of water and splash! Instant pets! I sent away for them once. The little shrimp looked like brown sprinkles of cinnamon or cumin, not like the ad’s images at all. They died within days.  The experience didn’t stop me from sending away for toys and trinkets advertised on comics or cereal boxes. But I learned that friends don’t appear by simply adding water.

Fast forward a decade and a few years to college. I was one of many cute Candy Store Girls, a cashier/clerk at the University’s Student Store in the candy and greeting card department. The CS girls were all cute and friendly, either Latina or Asian, some also members of the same sorority, all of us a tight-knit group that liked to drink, dance, and blast disco music while we stocked the Jelly Bellies and wrapped up truffles for our clientele of harried professors, starving students, and Berkeley’s most famous eccentrics and/or celebrities (Rick Starr, the Naked Guy, Jason Kidd).  Soon, the CS Girls became managers and only hired their friends.  But once in a while, the non-student management weighed in and that is how Cheryl got a coveted spot in our department. 

Cheryl was not your typical CS girl. She was a mousy little freshman with straight brown hair, small green eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles on her button nose. She hailed from a small town in the Central Valley and wore t-shirts in neutral colors and faded jeans over white canvas sneakers. We got to know each other over curling ribbon on the quarter pound bags of candy.  I could tell she was overwhelmed by our campus so I gave her advice on classes and the best places to study.  In gratitude, she bought me a Chinese fast food dinner. 

From that first work day together, Cheryl became my loyal new friend. She wanted to know everything about me. She wanted to meet me outside of work to hang out at a café or share a meal.  I was a first-year grad student so I was busy with my two jobs, coursework, and student-teaching but she would call me on the phone when I declined her invitations. I liked her and wanted to support her. Soon, her behavior went from charming to irritating. She wanted to know all about Peruvian culture and food and asked if she could meet my family some weekend.  She loved my clothes and shoes so she went out and bought her own.   When she started chatting up my ex-boyfriend Julius, a security guard at the campus store notorious for his womanizing ways, I really became disturbed. The other CS girls joked that I was just jealous but they had not experienced Cheryl’s neediness the way I had.

One afternoon, I stopped in to check the schedule.  Cheryl presented me with a tissue-wrapped object.  It was a simple sterling silver ring. She proclaimed me her best friend. Freaked out, I made an excuse and left.  I threw the ring away and stopped taking Cheryl’s calls.  Within days, there was an awkward conversation at work in which she focused on Julius as the problem between us.   In delayed response, I wrote her a note requesting that she leave me alone.   If we worked a shift together, we did so in relative silence.  Eventually, she took a position in a different department and I never saw her again. 

Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t too harsh with Cheryl.  She was younger than me. She really needed a friend. She wasn’t a terrible person, just lonely.  I could not and did not want to live up to her expectations. I can only hope that she learned that friendship doesn’t happen in an instant. 

Smartphones killed the personal bond

“In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind
we’ve gone too far…” as sung by the Buggles

I turned off my phone last night. It was quite blissful, well as blissful as an evening alone with a sleep-deprived toddler can be. Several episodes of The Wonder Pets later, my grumpy little one fell asleep next to me in her street clothes.  When I awoke three hours later to move her to her room, I easily could have gone back to sleep. But I had to check my phone.  That’s how these things go. 

Ironically, I often criticize others with my problem.  A few months ago, as M and I had our usual zany conversation over old school barbecue downtown, I watched the family in the booth across from us eat their meal in silence. There was no tension. They all seemed content. All three, from the middle-aged Dad to the teenage daughter, were simply too engrossed in their smartphones to say so much as “pass the rolls.”  Two weeks ago, a different family exhibited similar behavior at our local pizza joint while they waited for their to-go order. The two tween boys kept up a steady argument over a shared iPhone, almost coming to blows, as their Mom and Dad remained glued to their respective iPhones.  Last weekend, it was a trio of Mom and kids chortling over profanity-laced YouTube videos at the hot dog place.  As self-righteous as I can get, I know I also have a major problem with being online.

In the past year, I’ve likely logged more minutes online than miles run (I trained for and ran a half-marathon and a 5K.) Most of these minutes, since our house was Internet free for almost 5 years until this summer, were on my phone.  Not surprisingly, Blues and I signed a contract which I constantly test and/or break.  So turning off my phone is a brave move, one I hope to make more often. 

Family bonds aren’t the only ones tested by smartphones. I honestly miss phone conversations with friends. I can’t count the number of times a text or Facebook comment has annoyed or even angered me. Online conversations, as witty as they can be, lack the inflection, tone, and personal warmth you get from an actual voice. And Facebook will never, ever be as great as face to face time.  The other night, my best friend, my daughter, and I were literally kids in a candy store, as we wandered around the bright pink and green shop filled with shelves and buckets of candy. You can’t have moments like that on a phone or computer.

It’s not about turning off the phone. It’s about reconnecting in the best way possible, with those who matter most.  

Half an hour with the Devil

I do believe in the Devil. I’ve seen him. Live. Twice. Maybe a third time but it’s one I can’t remember at all and no one in the family will confirm my fear that something scary happened to me in Peru when I was ten. In any case, I have been afraid of the Devil for a long time. It started with a forbidden screening of The Exorcist when I was six years old. I had to sleep with a nightlight until I was eleven. Even now, nothing soothes me quite like light, be it a bright bulb in my bedroom painted like the sky or my favorite light, the sun. Being a good Catholic, I acknowledge the presence of evil in the world and I accept the existence of the Devil. Call it superstition or my trademark hysteria. But I know him. This week, I spent thirty minutes talking to him in my office.

The last time I encountered the Devil, I was ready to send a heavy glass ashtray into my monstrous ex-boyfriend’s skull. When his eyes burned into me with hatred, they were his cocaine-fueled glare but also the stare of someone else. Possession isn’t always about spinning heads and pea-soup vomit. We take evil into our bodies by choice. I know because to this day, I believe God kept me from giving in to that same awful presence. Had I surrendered, I might have assaulted Monster. I might have been taken away in handcuffs or on a stretcher and my life would have been different.

This week’s meeting with the Devil was different in many respects. I was not poised to attack anyone. The eyes that looked into my soul were filled with a mixture of fear, anger, pain, and sadness. There might have even been tears or perhaps those were mine. This time, I was talking to a child, one who was terribly defiant and loathsome, violently aggressive to everyone but me. I made every effort to convince him that his life of violence would end badly. I became a woman of great compassion. I truly felt love for this child who had threatened other lives. But I also felt the fear of something even more malevolent. In my heart, I begged for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In my mind, I thought of Mary. Through my voice, I tried to be human to this boy–and to the evil. Because no matter how scared I was, I know that my tiny, weak humanity is my greatest strength.

I’m sicker than I have been in years. I can’t keep food down. It could be a virus, bad food, stress, all of these factors. Or it could be the aftermath of surviving yet another harrowing encounter with darkness.