Friday, February 29, 2008

The Play's The Thing


A founding member of Teatro Campesino. Henry Reyna in the movie Zoot Suit, for which he also wrote the music. Producer of La Bamba. Songwriter: Primavera; Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun. Linda Ronstadt and Canciones de Mi Padre. Playwright. Actor. Musician.

The list of Daniel Valdez’s accomplishments reads like a dictionary of Chicano Culture. He's done it all: Movement theater to Hollywood productions; sentimental love ballads to re-imagining Mexican mariachi classics; edgy drama to slapstick comedy. Valdez has provided more than thirty years of political entertainment. In many ways he is an artistic conscience for the Latino generation that came of age at the beginning of the farm worker union organizing movement in the mid-sixties, matured through the antiwar struggles, and that continues to push a progressive agenda.

His latest endeavor is Ollin – an art performance piece that had its world debut in Denver on February 21 at El Centro Su Teatro (last show is March 29.) I had the chance to speak with Daniel for a few minutes during his hectic schedule while he was in town for the premiere. It was supposed to be an interview, but anyone who has ever talked with Daniel knows that the Q&A format isn’t big enough for what happens when Daniel gets going. Here is my impression of a few of the things he touched on when I began the conversation with the simple query, “What’s Ollin about?”

Ollin refers to the Fifth Sun – we are still in the time of the Fifth Sun of the Mayan prophecies. Ollin actually means “movement.” The piece is about the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. Valdez sees that episode as a “cosmic clash” – he referred to a “big bang” theory of history between the Spanish and Indio.

The story is told through the perspective of Cortez, and the audience learns his ambitions and his struggles. His story is contrasted with that of Moctezuma, the Indio King. Moctezuma was aware of the prophecies and he looked at the conquest as fate; it had been predicted by Quetzalcoatl. The piece also gives us Malinche, forced to be in the middle, she has the third point of view. Valdez suggests that “she saved lives” by her involvement and influence. She was the bridge between the other two, the symbolic mother of the first mestizo.

The narrative starts 800 years before the conquest, with Quetzalcoatl. Ironically, Cortez arrived on the day that Quetzalcoatl had predicted his own return. Many Indios thought Cortez was Quetzalcoatl because of the prediction, but only 300 Spaniards conquered 500,000 natives, so something else was going on – “destiny.” Valdez imagines Moctezuma as believing that the conquest was destiny, fate, inevitable. And the numerous tribes that were unhappy with the Aztecs – the smoldering dissension - added to the clash. There was no way to avoid what eventually happened.

The piece started as a radio show back in the 1980s for National Public Radio. Valdez wanted to bring “light and understanding” to the conquest. He wrote what he thought would be a 2-3 page poem but that ended up being 22-23 pages, the beginning of the narrative for the current piece. He realized then that he needed to expand his vision for the poem.

Valdez told me that Ollin is more of an art performance piece than a play. It incorporates dance, music, and spoken word, and is presented in a poetic format. He calculates that eighty percent of the piece is music, with several pre-Colombian dance episodes. The play is primarily in English with some Spanish and Nahuatl.

Kids can understand the history. Valdez's intent is to bring “clarity to the conquest." Teachers at an early performance told Daniel they liked it and that they thought it would be excellent for children.

This is Daniel Valdez's third collaboration with Tony Garcia, Artistic Executive Director of El Centro Su Teatro, and the Su Teatro company.

As for future plans, Valdez said that he would love to take Ollin on the road, if the opportunity presents itself. Meanwhile, here in Colorado, he is scheduled to get involved with a project to produce an oratorio about the history of Pueblo, Colorado, a unique community with a long and proud Chicano working-class presence.

At the end, after he finally took a breath, he encouraged people to bring their kids to the performance; he insisted that the piece is family oriented; that it is a fun play; and that it can bring generations together. It should be "shared by a family."

He concluded, with a laugh, “Ollin is a poor man’s version of Cirque du Soleil.”

Written and Directed by Daniel Valdez
February 21 – March 29, 2008

Major players: Bobby LeFebre, Jesse Ogas, Felicia Gallegos Pettis, Valarie Castillo, Lara Gallegos

Joaquin Liebert, David Carrasco, Anthony Saiz, Jose Guerrero, Natalia Romo

Tony Silva (Musical Director), Angel Mendez Soto, Robert Gale, Rogelio Ransoli

El Centro Su Teatro
4725 High Street



Written by Octavio Solis
Directed by Juliette Carrilo
The Ricketson Theater, Denver Center for the Performing Arts
January 18 - March 1

This superb play highlights a mini Golden Age of Latino Theater in Denver. Since the beginning of the year, Denver audiences have been treated to Las Chicas Del 3.5" Floppies (Luis Enrique Gutiérrez Ortiz Monasterio); a special reading of Sunsets and Margaritas by José Cruz González; Ollin (Daniel Valdez); José Mercado directing Comedy of Errors; and the world premiere of Lydia. We could get spoiled and expect this all the time. Which will happen if the audience is there. Support these events, gente.

Lydia has an excellent cast: Carlo Albán, Christian Barillas, Stephanie Beatriz, Ricardo Gutierrez, Catalina Maynard, René Millán, Onahoua Rodriguez - not a lightweight in the bunch, all with extensive experience although several are making their Denver Center debut. Under the precise direction of Carrilo, Soliz's story of family warfare rips the audience and movingly exposes the characters' fears, ambitions, and mistakes. The program summarizes the story this way:

"Ceci Flores introduces her family: her father Claudio, a Mexican immigrant working as a cook in El Paso; her mother Rosa, whose dream brought her family to the U.S.; her tough-acting elder brother René; and her more serious younger brother Misha. Ceci herself has brain damage, and although the audience understands her, she cannot communicate with her family or anyone else -- until the new maid Lydia arrives, fresh from Mexico. Ceci's cousin Alvaro has recently returned from Vietnam; his appearance, along with Lydia's knack for interpreting Ceci, dredges up secrets from the past and reveals the desires that could bring the family together or tear them apart."

This is heavy, as they used to say. It's encouraging to see such a broad range of themes and formats in these plays. The courage displayed by the writers as they confront controversial and sensitive topics should inspire us all. The pen continues to be a powerful force to beat back society's demons.

Finally - Feliz Cumpleaños to Rudy Ch. Garcia. This is a big one, dude. Time to drag out all the bromides about age. Here's one to get you started; it's schmaltz but I think you respect the source:

It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.

Gabriel García Márquez


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Happy Birthday, Rudy!

Estas son las mañanitas, que cantaba el Rey David,
Hoy por ser día de tu santo, te las cantamos a ti,
Despierta, mi bien, despierta, mira que ya amaneció,
Ya los pajarillos cantan, la luna ya se metió.

Que linda está la mañana en que vengo a saludarte,
Venimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte,
Ya viene amaneciendo, ya la luz del día nos dio,
Levántate de mañana, mira que ya amaneció.

Juan Felipe Hererra on raulsalinas

photo of raulsalinas by Bruce Dye

From Lisa, La Blogista: We hope this stirs and ignites you. Please leave a comment and more importantly take raulsalinas' example to heart....Gracias to Juan Felipe Herrera

hail raúlrsalinas :: 1934 – 2008 :: hail liberationlove
raúlr was in red. he came in lower-case, strutting down thru the brown cadre in red, a red bandanna across his forehead & taut around his black tresses down to his shoulders, smilin, boppin’ slow & glowin’ hard, in blue tramos planchados & curled to show the calcos spit-shined black solid, bluish tattoos, turquoise rings & gold medallions, a slung-fine chain swingin’ down the black spaghetti-thin belt, under the amber light in the center of the waiting audience, this is where the street-royal carnal found his calling, throttled the mic & peered into the brown cadre huddled on the floors, some of us squeezed against the shadowy aisles, the rest of us in crescent shaped circles, in strange awe, smeared hot against each other’s shoulder bones, the dark jeweled man in red stood under that first-time sparkle-light, his veined muscled arms swayed at his sides, then, he spoke, his bold baritone sounds found a silky-river way into our head, then coursed through our blood as if we were one blood, what was he all about? what was happening to us? where were we headed, now that we had been set off in motion? raulr was riffin’, blowin’, boppin’, snappin’ spittin’, talkin’-singin’ for the new freedom-body, without the locks, fetters & guards of officialized history, policies, and summations of our multi-dimensional self. november 13th, 1973, raulr appeared in the morning, at the floricanto first national chicano literature conference at USC, thirty-eight years old, one year after he had finished doing his time at leavenworth penitentiary, i sat in the center row, dressed in a tzotzil tunic i had brought back from chiapas in ‘70, miguel mendez, tomás rivera, teresa palomo acosta, zeta acosta by the doorway, then raulr popped the mic again & flowed into “un trip thru the mind jail y otras excursions,” he was speakin’ black, caló, tex-mex, chicano & some kind of san francisco beat mantra chakra choppin’ language meant to pierce your awareness: who are you? who did you think you were? what is oppression? how is it constructed? how many of your rooms does it occupy? who else resides in these chambers? is there a way out? then, the baritone voice slid back into the crimson body under the lights – raúlrsalinas ambled away, into the fresh trembling borderless nation. raúlr’s nation was borderless, he had crossed it, on foot as on the page & the stage, speaking, riffin’ & teaching human verses & unity actions – from working class “barbed-wired existence” barrios, from the land of high school force-outs, from grave stones of bullet-riddled camaradas, from “narcotic driven nerviosidad,” from suicided “colonias” & familias, to “ex-convictos activistas doing good in cities of chavalos gone bad,” to “trenzas indigenas,” dedicated to a revitalized indi@ collectivity, to “cantor de cantinas, pasándole poems a perennial pachukos prendidos, hoping to ease their pain,” “cantando colores de flores in arco iris danza,” ”learning en la lucha,” honoring the oak tree at the margins of a desolate collective capitol, honoring “indias, comadres wearing ski-boots so essential para caminar.” raúlr too was a walker, a walker-writer of the chican@ inferno & finder-seer of "rainbow people spirit." raulrsalinas was a true liberator: a kind fire-word man of soul-jazzed languages, a writer within & without prison walls, a socio-political mind-jail wall-breaker-scribe-singer, a collector, reader & translator of stolen cultura-tablets, a speaker of & for tender homage & eulogy to the invisibilized, a fearless warrior seeking the paths to our indigenous selves, lands & pueblos, relentless in responding to the “animales transnacionales” & militarized hydra machines, a shaman in demin, re-conjuring herstories of unwritten pachuka murders & oppressions across the southwest & pacific northwest, undoing the anthropological & sociological tyrannies of el pachuko, that is, all of us, in lower-case motion – raulr sings in a mid-fifties bebop alto & baritone gold-gilded sax voice, from pine ridge to chiapas, from el barrio de la loma to the diné rez, from shoshone & arapaho tierras to la selva lacandona, healing-gathering, healing-working – “respeto, paz y dignidad,” raúlr offers his life-quest harvests to all of us. what else, raúlr? you were speaking of lower-case love – everything we all are, have been & will ever be. in liberation --juan felipe Herrera, 2/25/08


And from poet Oscar Bermeo:

Just wanted to pass along that last week, there was a tribute to raulsalinas

Among the readers sharing their thoughts and presenting the work of Raul

Alejandro Murguía
Tomás Riley Francisco
J. Dominguez
Marc Pinate
Naomi Quiñones
Leticia Hernández-Linares
Lorna Dee Cervantes
Nina Serrano
Jack Hirschman
Darren de Leon


More teatro news, Denver-style

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare Thursday – Saturday, February 28 – March 1 Thursday – Saturday, March 6 – 8 7:30pm King Center Rawls Courtyard Theatre Auraria Campus, Denver Tickets: $12 General Admission $5 UC Denver students Sponsored by: Theatre, Film and Video Production Department.

José Mercado, new Assistant Professor of the Theatre, Film & Video Production Department, directs a contemporary telling of a classic comedy driven by mix-ups, coincidence and slapstick humor, with the events confined within the action of a single day. The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s earliest, shortest and most farcical play. It tells the story of two sets of identical twins and the wild mishaps that occur through mistaken identity. Before joining the faculty at UC Denver, Mercado was head of the theatre department at North High School where he directed "The Zoot Suit Riots", the first high school production to play at Denver Performing Arts Center’s Buell Theatre. Prior to teaching, he worked as an actor in Los Angeles after earning his Master of Fine Arts degree in Theatre from UCLA. He is a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild and Actor’s Equity Association. He is also a member of the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs.


Women and Creativity Conference/Lisa Alvarado Shameless Self-Promotion Department

Gente: I've been blessed enough to have been asked to perform The Housekeeper's Diary at the conference -- Friday, March 7, at 8 PM at the National Hispanic Cultural Center's Roy E. Disney Center for the Performing Arts, as well as a reading for high school students at the Center's Wells Fargo Auditorium, Monday, March 10th at 10 AM.

Conference Info: Women and Creativity 2008 is organized and presented by the National Hispanic Cultural Center in partnership with more than 25 local arts organizations, artists, writers and independently owned-business. This year, we have an inspiring offering of more than 50 exhibitions, performances, workshops, classes, and engaging discussions in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Women and Creativity
partners invite you to dedicate an afternoon, evening or entire weekend in March to attend events and workshops that awaken and nourish your own creativity and support the creativity of our communities. Although we shine a special light on women’s creativity during this festival, we invite and encourage the participation of men at all events.

The National Hispanic Cultural Center, along with our partners in Women and Creativity 2008, believe that creativity, art and self-expression are central to sustaining healthy individuals, organizations, business and communities – so, join in and celebrate the creative women in your community and the creativity inside yourself.

There will also be a fabulous PEÑA FEMENINA Sunday, March 9th at NHCC's LA FONDA DEL BOSQUE;

Other Artists:
Alma Jarocha,
Leticia Cuevas, Anabel Marín,
Otilio Ruiz, Victor Padilla

Jessica López

Bailaora Xicana, Flamenco
marisol encinias, vicente griego, ricardo anglada

Lenore Armijo


National Hispanic Cultural Center
1701 4th St, SW Albuquerque, New Mexico


Teatro Luna Fabulousness!

Teatro Luna has a BRAND NEW SHOW opening on March 6th, but you can catch it now! This Saturday and Sunday see a sneak preview of Teatro Luna's most intimate show yet... SOLO TU, a collection of
four interwoven solos all about different women's experiences with PREGNANCY.

One woman thinks she's finally built the perfect family - Mom, Dad, Cute Kid- until an invasion of mice makes her wonder what's really going on. Another woman finds herself caught up in the worst kind of Baby-Daddy-Single-Mama Drama. Meanwhile, a woman in her third year of trying to get pregnant decides her pregnant friends make her want to vomit, and her close friend wrestles with pro-life activists, hospital robes, and how she feels about having an abortion in her 30's.

Saturday @ 7:30 pm and Sunday @ 6pm

SHOW RUN: March 6-April 6 2008
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays @ 7:30 pm
Sundays @ 6pm
Chicago Dramatists 1105 W. Chicago Ave, at Milwaukee
Tickets $15, Student and Senior Discount on Thursdays and Sundays only, $10
$12 Group Sale price, parties of 8 or more
For tickets, visit

Lisa Alvarado

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Inspiring Future Writers and Artists

By René Colato Lainez

Children need to see their faces on books. If a child can see a boy or girl just like him or her on a book, that child will get inspired to create and explore his or her culture and heritage. This is the main goal of these three great multicultural anthologies published by Children's Book Press.

Honoring Our Ancestors: Stories and Paintings by Fourteen Artists. Edited by Harriet Rohmer

This original collection brings together fourteen artists from different communities to honor the ancestors who most touched their lives.

Just Like Me: Stories and Self-Portraits by Fourteen Artists. Edited by Harriet Rohmer

This remarkable collection highlights the art and inspirational paths of fourteen outstanding artists who have shared their art and lives with children. They present self-portraits and brief descriptions that explore their varied ethnic origins, their work, and their feelings about themselves.

On My Block. Edited by Dana Goldberg

In this lovely homage to neighborhoods everywhere, 15 gifted artists portray the places most special to them. Readers soar from the rooftops of south Brooklyn to the desert of Taos Pueblo, from a basement in San Francisco’s Japantown to a Mississippi Gulf Coast porch. A garden in Mexico overflows with brilliant flowers while one in Tehran hums with the purring of 32 cats. Moving, funny, and unexpected, the stories and images encourage children to explore and observe their own neighborhood and to ask, What is my world? What is my special place?


Join Borders at ABQ Uptown for special events for Reads Across America weekend on Saturday, March 1, 2008:

1 p.m. – Storytime
Our storyteller will read the new Fancy Nancy book, Bonjour, Butterfly. In her latest escapade, Fancy Nancy’s grandparents show her a thing or two about throwing a truly fancy gala.

2p.m. – Storytime & Signing
Rene Lainez Colato to sign Playing Loteria.
A little boy visits his grandmother in Mexico, and with the help of la lotería, learns a new language and how special the bond between a boy and his grandmother can be.

2p.m. – Discussion & Signing
Ellen Klages to sign The Green Glass Sea.
Set in Los Alamos during World War Two, this coming-of-age novel about friendship and loss at the beginning of the atomic age is a compelling page-turner. Klages brings history to life for the reader with an unusual setting, complex issues, and fearless writing.

2p.m. – Discussion & Signing
Glenys Carl to sign Hold My Hand.
Glenys Carl's life changed for ever with one phone call saying that her son Scott, who was halfway round the world in Australia, had suffered a traumatic head injury and was not expected to live. It was the start of a remarkable journey for Glenys – and for Scott, who survived with his personality intact but could only move one arm. In this inspirational biography, Glenys describes her fight to rehabilitate Scott after the doctors advised that no more could be done to help his mobility and he should be put in a home. A wonderful story about the power of hope, courage, and mother’s love.

Borders is located at 2240 Q. Street NE, Albuquerque, 505.884.7711

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Review: Three cups of tea. Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

NY: Viking, 2006.
ISBN (hardcover) 0670034827 9780670034826
ISBN (paper) 9780143038252

Michael Sedano

An interesting variation in the subtitle of David Oliver Relin’s telling of Greg Mortenson’s story illustrates two ways to sell the book. The hardcover book calls itself “One man’s mission to fight terrorism and build nations-- one school at a time.” The paperback edition titles itself, “One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time.”

The work offers a creative nonfiction account of a mountaineer who stumbles off the Himalayan peak K2 in 1993. Taking a life-threatening wrong path, he stumbles into an unmapped village far from his intended landing. It’s a life-changing error, both for the mountaineer and the villagers who save Mortenson’s life.

During his recuperation in the village, Mortenson observes the village girls conducting school in the open air because they have no teacher nor a structure. He promises to return and build the girls a school. The adventurer’s gratitude takes on missionary zeal and he cannot stop with the one promise, instead devoting his career to building schools for girls across rural Pakistan. By September 11, 2001, Mortenson’s success has led him to Afghanistan, where he runs afoul of the Taliban, opium traders, moujahedeen, and the CIA. Here is the source of the spin given by the hardbound subtitle as the final chapters of the story focus on Mortenson’s experiences in Afghanistan. It’s an inescapable perspective, but the paperback volume’s subtitle about peace more accurately describes the likely outcome of Mortenson’s actions had there been no attack by the U.S., and a workable strategy should our nation choose alternatives to invasion and religious enmity.

The girls and villages benefiting from Mortenson’s work are Muslim. Mortenson is the son of Christian missionaries and not a convert to Islam. While religious schism plays little role in Mortenson’s commitment, it informs the story in surprising ways. The fathers and village men do not oppose education for their girls, yet one conservative cleric declares fatwa on Mortenson’s efforts, preventing building schools in the region. All of Mortenson’s local supporters are Muslim, too, but are powerless to intercede directly on his behalf. Instead, they petition the “supreme leader” of the Shia in northern Pakistan, who not only declares the fatwa inconsistent with Islam, Syed Abbas offers his wholehearted support to Mortenson’s project.

The story of Mortenson’s various projects fills the book with numerous emotional peaks. Dismal stories of government incompetence, generations of neglect, and abject poverty are sure to be depressing. Then, when the reader gets to see villagers hauling heavy loads up steep mountain tracks, followed by frantic construction ahead of winter culminating in the opening of a girl’s school, knowing that these children’s lives have changed forever is sure to bring tears to all but the most cynical eyes.

Three Cups of Tea offers a compendium of intercultural communication. “Dr. Greg,” as Mortenson is known, adapts to local custom. A natural linguist, he becomes proficient enough to earn the honor explained by the title. Mortenson’s second father, Haji Ali, teaches him that the first cup of tea taken with a villager is taken as a stranger and given out of obligation. The next cup is offered for a guest. The third cup makes one a member of the family.

Perhaps guilelessness helps. In one frightening instance, Mortenson disregards a friend’s advice never to travel alone. He finds himself imprisoned by a warlord and seems at risk of being executed. Beheading has not yet reached the news, so Mortenson fears only being shot. He doesn’t speak the captor’s tongue—he is blazing a trail into new territory—and requests a Koran. Having learned the proper manner of ablution from one informant, and how to read the pages from an illiterate, Mortenson makes a favorable impression. Doubtlessly, the captors have checked out Mortenson’s background and they release him.

Mortenson’s good works created a good name for “Dr. Greg.” As he advances into Afghanistan’s northern frontier, he goes in search of the principal commandhan of Badkshan, a man described as tying spies between two jeeps and pulling their bodies apart, the fiercely reputed Sadhar Khan. Alone and lacking any documentation, having sneaked into town hidden under rotting goat hides, Mortenson approaches a jeep of substantial appearing men. In a strange coincidence, or perhaps a bit of fiction has sneaked under the radar here, when Mortenson says he’s looking for Sadhar Khan, the driver says he is Khan! After a few moments explaining why he’s here, Khan shouts, “You’re Dr. Greg!” A couple years earlier, some riders had appeared near the Pakistan border after an eight day ride, beseeching Mortenson’s building a school for their village. Mortenson had promised he’d see what he could do and was in Badkshan looking to keep that promise. The riders were employees of Sadhar Khan, and they had related the story of the schools and water projects Dr. Greg was fomenting.

Three Cups of Tea has won numerous prizes. The CAI, Central Asia Institute, lists them on their website:
Kiriyama Prize - Nonfiction Award, Time Magazine - Asia Book of The Year, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association - Nonfiction Award, Borders Bookstore - Original Voices Selection, Banff Mountain Festival - Book Award Finalist, Montana Honor Book Award. Throughout the book, however, come allusions to the ultimate prize, the Nobel Peace Prize. Cynics might point to the softcover subtitle as evidence of a campaign to garner that for Mortenson and his CAI. The hagiographic treatment of Dr. Greg’s career might offer support for that view, if not for the actual good that inheres in building schools for girls in the middle of a culture that putatively forbids that type of education.

There may be a segment of reader who would dismiss Three Cups of Tea as one of the “blame America first” crowd. The “fighting terrorism” spin might support that view. For example, as the book draws to a close we see Mortenson meeting Donald Rumsfeld and being fascinated by the man’s expensive and highly polished shoes. Mortenson addresses a military audience at the Pentagon and relates the contradiction between the U.S. war machine and the need for security, telling them:

“these figures might not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we’ve launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missile tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced nonextremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?”

Mortenson has his day before the military to no impact, except for a man who offers him unlimited funds to build schools. But Mortenson recognizes his doom would come from any association with the military and he turns down the bribe. Later, he discusses terrorism and security with a Pakistani Major General. They are watching CNN images of civilian casualties in Baghdad. (p. 310)

“Your President Bush has done a wonderful job of uniting one billion Muslims against America for the next two hundred years.”

“Osama had something to do with it, too,” Mortensen said.

“Osama, baah!” Bashir roared. “Osama is not a product of Pakistan or Afghanistan. He is a creation of America. Thanks to America, Osama is in every home. As a military man, I know you can never fight and win against someone who can shoot at you once and then run off and hide while you have to remain eternally on guard. You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance.”

To writer David Oliver Relin’s credit, he controls the political spin exemplified here, spinning out just enough politics to contrast with the warmth and love that fill the first two hundred pages of the book. It’s clear why the hardcover came out with the “fighting terrorism” tag, given the closing pages’ focus on the existing conditions Mortenson works under. That he’s continuing the work building schools for girls in Muslim countries—and finding support from religious and ordinary citizens—is truly encouraging. Wouldn’t it be great if some reader in political authority is reading and learning the cultural lessons of this hopeful book?

That’s the final Tuesday of leap year February. La Bloga welcomes your comments and responses to what you read, or don’t read here. And, as we frequently offer, we welcome guest columnists. Let us know by leaving a comment, or email here, that you have something to say.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Max Benavidez comes to the Web

Max Benavidez is an award-winning author of six books including Gronk (UCLA CSRC and University of Minnesota Press) and Maria de Flor (Lectura Books). A former university professor and administrator, Benavidez is currently completing a novel, a book for young adults and a screenplay. He lectures widely and has presented his work at universities, libraries and conferences around the world.

Benavidez has finally made it to the virtual world with a new website. He is a writer of and for the City of Los Angeles. Benavidez says:

“The city of lilac sunsets at the beach and fiery riots in the inner city. It is my city, my home. A fragmented beautiful scar on the West Coast, sitting on the Pacific Rim gazing toward Asia—the classic decentralized 21st city of extremes and grotesque juxtaposition. It’s in my DNA. My mother was born here. She lived up in Chavez Ravine before it was buried under Dodger Stadium and told me how she loved seeing the city at night with its lights aglow. L.A. is an alluring mix of the utterly familiar with the pure potential of the apocalyptic unknown; it's transcendent and trivial all at once as if you were living in your own hyper-detective story. We call it the City of Angels but it’s really a true hybrid of saint and sinner and all the in between trespassers and bystanders. It is my muse, a great swirling maze of energy and madness that invites me to be the co-author of its destiny. Welcome to L.A., my L.A.”

◙ Speaking of websites, Melinda Palacio has also launched one. Palacio holds two degrees in Comparative Literature, a B.A. from Berkeley and an M.A. from UC Santa Cruz. In 2003, she won first prize in poetry at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Melinda is a 2007 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellow. Her work has been published in a wide variety of journals and anthologies, including the forthcoming Latinos in Lotusland: an Anthology of Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press).

◙ As I noted recently, the February issue of Tu Ciudad magazine is now out. As I turned to page 48, a shock ran through my body. The article on the clergy sexual abuse scandal entitled “Betrayed by Faith” by Dennis Romero was illustrated by photographs of three victims who agreed to be interviewed for the piece. And there I saw the smiling face of a good friend of mine (in younger days), Jaime Romo, shaking hands with Monsignor Leland Boyer, his abuser. I’ve known Jaime since high school and then we both attended Stanford University where we helped each other make it through (at least he helped keep me sane). We kept in touch throughout the years. I was his best man when he married, and he was mine when I married. Romero’s article is well-written and avoids sensationalizing what is already a sensationalized topic. Jaime and the other two victims are very brave to share their suffering with the world in this way. I strongly urge you to pick up a copy of the magazine which is sold at newsstands and stores throughout Southern California including Ralphs, Vons, Rite-Aid, Barnes & Noble, and Borders throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties. Visit the magazine's website for more information.

◙ Writing for the El Paso Times yesterday, Rigoberto González offered a moving and necessary tribute to poet and Chicano activist, Raúl Salinas (1934-2008), a.k.a. raúlrsalinas, who died recently. He noted, in part: “Salinas leaves us an important legacy. He was a citizen poet who led by example, and who did not succumb to the disappointing times we live in -- he confronted them, he overcame them, and he removed their many disguises to disclose for his readers, his listeners and his pupils, the difficult truths to be reckoned with.”

◙ In December, Daniel Alarcón (author most recently of Lost City Radio (HarperCollins)) recorded a radio documentary in Ancash, Peru, for the BBC3 Sunday Feature. They had 14 hours of tape, and it was edited down to a 45 minute narrative, now available online for the next week or so. Find the audio here. Here is a description of the program:

The Padlocked Town

Exploring the theme of disappearance, Peruvian-American author Daniel Alarcón journeys deep into the Andes, to Corongo. Now known as the 'Padlocked Town', Corongo is a semi-deserted place which residents left as they searched for a more stable and prosperous future in the capital city.

Daniel follows their journey to Lima, finding out how Andean culture has transformed the identity of the sprawling city over the past 30 years. He also discovers how a major earthquake in 1970 followed by years of political violence has forced the disappearance of many similar Andean towns and villages.

◙ Pablo Jaime Sáinz, a bilingual writer and journalist in the San Diego-Tijuana region, has some great news: Calaca Press, in San Diego, just published his first fiction chapbook in Spanish and Sinaloense, Conjunto norteño / Relatos para la plebada. It's a collection of stories on narcocultura in Los Angeles, growing up sinaloense in L.A., and narcocorridos and Los Tigres del Norte. ¡Bravo!

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro! And happy birthday, Rudy!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Evan Fallenberg talks about his novel, the art of translation, and the lost love of a chocolate brown Triumph Spitfire

I met author Evan Fallenberg at an MFA residency in Vermont earlier this winter. He was there to give a workshop on translation and is in fact helping the college set up a program in the art. After he left I was perusing the books the local bookseller was peddling at one of the open readings, and I saw his novel, Light Fell among the titles. Curious, I bought it and proceeded to spend every free moment of the next few days completely absorbed in it.

Light Fell tells the story of Joseph Licht, a literature professor who is about to host a reunion with his with five sons and daughter-in-law for his 50th birthday. With him we look back at how Joseph arrived at the day of this event: his realization about his sexual orientation, his brief and tragic love affair with a married rabbi (I fell in love with Rabbi Rosenzweig too, I have to admit) and the repercussions these self-discoveries bring to his life. We follow Joseph through his struggles with identity, self-worth, spirituality and parenthood, and in the end we are lifted up with him as he achieves tremendous personal growth and rebuilds bonds with his sons.

Besides being beautifully written, the characterization is brilliantly rendered, and the conflicts are so realistic you can physically feel them as you rush to turn the pages. I was so drawn into the complexity of the parent/child relationships, that even after I put it down I continued to think about them, as if they were people I actually knew. In addition, I was impressed with the courage it took to write something that could be considered controversial. When I read the last word of the novel, I held it to my chest and said out loud, “I love this book.” There are few times in my middle-age life this has happened, and I knew I had to interview Fallenberg and help introduce people to this ground-breaking and gorgeous novel.

To give you some background, Evan Fallenberg , is an Ohio-born writer and translator who has lived in Israel since 1985. In addition to being the author of Light Fell, his recent translations include Meir Shalev's A Pigeon and a Boy (winner of the 2007 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction), Ron Leshem's Beaufort, Alon Hilu's Death of a Monk and Batya Gur's Murder in Jerusalem. He is a graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the MFA program in creative writing at Vermont College. He was a MacDowell Colony fellow in 2002 and is the father of two sons. I had the pleasure of communicating with Evan via email between our homes in sunny dry Israel and snow storm-ridden Vermont.

The father/son relationships in Light Fell are so realistic as to be almost painful. Is this parent/child relationship something you write about often in your work?

I'm definitely intrigued by parent-child relationships – how we are shaped by our parents, how we accept and rebel and accept and rebel, how often we run as far as we can from our mothers and fathers only to smash right back into them, like children running circles in a forest. My characters have histories, which I always plumb, and whether or not I ultimately include what I learn about their parents and grandparents, I feel that I myself need to know where they came from in order to understand who they are and what decisions they will make.

Once I was grilling a novelist friend about her family. She knew very little about them and I found that astonishing. Then suddenly I realized that her five or six fine novels were bereft of family histories. Her characters are all very much of the present. Mine carry the past on their shoulders.

As a translator and a novelist can you speak to how the two different skills draw on you creatively?

When I'm working on the translation of a very fine novel – and I have had the privilege of working almost exclusively on those in the past few years – then the parts of my brain and soul that I use are very close to the parts I muster for writing. It's the same creative excitement, the same feeling of discovery. For the very best of them I am pushed to my limits to come up with fresh new idioms and images. But there is a price to pay for this: so far I have been unable to translate and write during the same period of time. It's one or the other.

Have you translated your own work, or has it been translated by someone else?

I cannot and will not ever be able to translate my own work. As good as my Hebrew is, I came to the language too late for it to feel natural when I write in it. And if I can't write in Hebrew, I can't translate.

As a child I was terribly jealous of people who were exposed to more than one language and could speak them with ease. I was sorry I hadn't been born in Europe, where I was certain I would have spoken three languages by the age of ten. But in the end, I'm thankful that now, as a writer and translator, I know a smattering of languages but have one that will always stand out, one that will always be richer and deeper than all the others and will always feel like the most home of homes. English will always be the language into which I translate and in which I write.

One day I hope to see my own works translated into Hebrew and other languages. I look forward to being involved in that process, much as I have sat and pondered words and sentences with the authors I've translated.

What is the biggest challenge of translation?

Voice. I'm always obsessed with voice. Each piece has its voice, and when I begin a new translation I wonder how I'll find the comparable voice in English once again. It means becoming somewhat of a ventriloquist, really. Mostly I feel I've found it each time, in each new book, but there was one project I stopped very early on because it was clear to me at once that this voice was so far from my own experience and style that I was simply the wrong person to take it on. I could never have rendered it in a convincing and honest manner.

Your bio indicated you've lived in Japan, Switzerland, Paris and Israel. Just how many languages do you speak? Have you translated in all of them?

When he was a little boy, my younger son used to add a language each time he told someone how many languages his daddy spoke. I put a stop to it at fifteen! In truth, after English I speak a good Hebrew, a very decent French, barely adequate Spanish and miserable Portuguese and Japanese. I translate only from Hebrew to English. Even with French I feel I would miss too many cultural references and have had too little exposure to French literature to be able to knead a text into another language. Anyway, I'm lucky – modern Israeli literature has come into its own, with a huge variety of voices and styles and stories, so I'm at no loss for wildly interesting work.

It is quite a challenge to write a love scene and find the balance between realism and tasteful without falling into graphic, yet you manage to render them artfully in Light Fell. Do you have any tips for those of us who struggle with this?

First of all: thank you thank you thank you. Writing about love is terrifying, because what can you possibly have to say that hasn't been said, and how can you render in words what leaves you absolutely speechless? But there it is, that most awesome, riveting, inspiring, humiliating emotion of them all, which wanders its way into every good book and every good life. There's no getting around it, and no reason to get around it other than fear.

So, as with all fears, the best thing to do is hit it head-on. Write that terrifying love scene first, before you've created all the backstory, before your characters themselves have realized they are going to fall in love. You'll come back to it again and again, but getting it out, on the page, as raw and terrible as it will be in that first draft, at least puts some perspective on it and you can get on with all the other writerly tasks at hand.

Incidentally, getting it on the page early and coming back to it over and over also helps a writer tap into the honesty you need for such a scene. Readers are always particularly aware of phoniness in love scenes, and once you've stumbled over your own infelicitous word or image for the twelfth time you'll finally remove it and plunge yourself into that place where you go to find the realest, truest emotions. Once you've opened that up, you'll remove the artifice and be left with something pure and honest.

You also run writers' retreats in Israel, tell me about does it feel to be a facilitator?

Oh, the retreats are great fun. We get the most wonderful groups of 30 to 35 people each time, people who bring their rich life experience along with a desire to hone their craft. They are inspired and inspiring.

I am planning, with several prominent and excellent writer-friends of mine in Israel and abroad, to hold an international writing retreat in Israel in December 2009. It's only in the planning stages now, but the ideas are mouth-watering…

In the meantime, although I'll be abroad again several times this year for events related to Light Fell, I am hoping to create a writers' center close to home – that is, in a studio in my own back garden. The writing center I envision will offer workshops for writers at various stages in their writing lives as well as sessions with visiting writers and a host of other options I can only dream about at the moment.

Tell us something that's not on the official bio.

I eat half a dozen bananas a day, they're sustenance for me and comfort food all in one. I've never recovered from owning a chocolate-brown Triumph Spitfire convertible in my early twenties (which I sold for $2000 when I moved to Israel) and am sorely tempted to buy a roadster now, even though my kids say they'll be too embarrassed to drive with me. I miss the four seasons of my Ohio childhood, but the Mediterranean beach near my house quite adequately dulls the pangs of longing. I studied ballet at the age of forty in order to understand a character in my second novel, and resumed piano lessons recently – after a thirty-year hiatus – because I felt it was time to progress beyond my abilities as a sixteen-year-old

Friday, February 22, 2008

Old and New

The Chicano / Latino Literary Prize:
An Anthology of Prize-Winning Fiction, Poetry and Drama
Stephanie Fetta, editor
Arte Público Press, May, 2008

Arte Público has announced the upcoming publication of an anthology based on the first twenty-five years of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from the University of California, Irvine.

From the first winner, Ron Arias' short story The Wetback in 1974, through almost all the winners, several second- and third-place winners as well as honorable mentions, the collection has 320 pages of fiction, poetry, and drama covering a key period in the development and expansion of what has become known as Latino Literature.

Now entering its thirty-fourth year, the award has recognized a wide variety of writers. Many of the names are familiar to La Bloga's readers: Juan Felipe Herrera, Michael Nava, Helena María Viramontes, Lucha Corpi, Demetria Martínez, Gary Soto, Cherrie Moraga, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Graciela Limón and, as the press publicity says, several "pieces in this anthology are considered to be foundational texts of Chicana/o and Latina/o literature, and those that are not as widely recognized deserve more serious study and attention."

Stephanie Fetta is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Irvine. She has taught in the Chicano Studies, Women’s Studies, and Spanish and Portuguese departments at UC-Irvine and studied at Bryn Mawr College, Stanford, and Cornell. She is the translator of a book-length study by Spanish Anthropologist Francisco Checa entitled Spain and Its Immigrants: Images and Stereotypes of Social Exclusion and has published several articles in the United States and abroad. She lives in Southern California.

(Text from Arte Público)
The Case Runner
Carlos Cisneros
March, 2008

Alejandro “Alex” del Fuerte, fresh out of law school, is returning home to South Texas, ready to open his solo practice, humble as it may be. He’s got dreams of making his mark in the world and in the courtroom. But when he meets Porfirio “Pilo” Medina, who just crossed the border in search of his wife and son, Alex is suddenly dragged into a world of wrongdoings and political pay-offs rarely covered in law school.

Rampant corruption and big-money politics are set against the rich backdrop of border culture, with its distinctive way of life and unique perspective. And Alex, something between saint and sinner, is an apt guide to both the light and dark sides of the region. This is Cisneros' first novel.

Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works
Edited by Julián Olivares
March, 2008
trade paperback

Julián Olivares brings together the late author’s entire literary production: Rivera’s classic novel, ... y no se lo tragó la tierra, translated by poet Evangelina Vigil-Piñón; his short fiction collection, The Harvest / La cosecha; and his poetry collection, The Searchers: Collected Poetry. In addition to his creative work, this volume collects Rivera’s influential critical essays, including Into the Labyrinth: The Chicano in Literature, Chicano Literature: Fiesta of the Living, The Great Plains as Refuge in Chicano Literature, and the previously unpublished Critical Approaches to Chicano Literature and its Dynamic Intimacy.

Under the Bridge: Stories from the Border
Rosario Sanmiguel, translation by John Pluecker
March, 2008

Mexican writer Rosario Sanmiguel crafts intriguing narratives about solitary women in search of their place, caught between the past and the present. Set in the border region, this collection follows these women—some from privileged backgrounds and others from more desperate circumstances—through seedy bars, hotel rooms, and city streets. A woman who has escaped the night life, dancing on platforms in front of thousands of eyes; Francis, who finally finds the strength to leave her married lover; young Fátima, whose mother abandons her, leaving her to take her place as a maid in a wealthy El Paso family’s mansion; Nicole, who has risen from dismal poverty to become an accomplished immigration attorney.

Originally published in Mexico as Callejón Sucre y otros relatos (Ediciones del Azar, 1994), this edition contains a profound English translation by John Pluecker. The seven stories included in this collection interweave the opposing themes of solitude and connectedness, longing and privilege, fear and audacity, all of which are juxtaposed on the boundary of self-awareness.

El Lab is a center for the Latino literary arts presented by The Lab at Belmar. El Laboratorio is proud to host some of Colorado's most acclaimed Latino writers, artist and scholars for literary workshops, public readings and conversations. El Laboratorio aims to be a true laboratory, where all audiences can experiment and gain insight into the ways Latino culture is changing the landscape of the United States.

March 15: Aaron Abeyta and Mario Acevedo; 6 PM reception, 6:30 PM program. Aaron Abeyta will read from his book of poetry As Orion Falls and his novel, Rise, Do Not Be Afraid. Mario Acevedo will read from The Undead Kama Sutra, third in the Felix Gomez vampire detective series. Now that's diversity.

$10 - $5 members. The Lab is in Belmar, 404 S. Upham, Lakewood, CO; 303-934-1777.

The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare
February 28–March 1
March 6–8
King Center Rawls Courtyard Theatre, Auraria Campus, Denver
Tickets: $12 General Admission
$5 UC Denver students
Sponsored by: Theatre, Film and Video Production Department

José Mercado, new Assistant Professor of the Theatre, Film & Video Production Department, directs this comedy "as if it were set in the world of Tim Burton, with bustling, haunting, and mystical action" according to a publicity release. The Comedy of Errors is a story of mistaken identity and family reunion. Confusion, mischief and familial squabbling abound…all in a single day.

Prior to joining the UC Denver faculty, Mercado led the theater program at North High School, directing Zoot Suit Riots, the first high school production to play DCPA’s Buell Theater. He worked as an actor in LA after earning his MFA in Theater from UCLA where he won the Jack Nicholson Prize in Acting. He is the founder of Labyrinth Arts Academy and member of the Denver Commission of Cultural Affairs (an advisory board to the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs).


Thursday, February 21, 2008

raulsalinas lives

Juan Felipe Herrera will grace La Bloga next week with some
thoughts about raulsalinas...

Here's some things to ponder....

Politico, Prisoner, street poet...aside from these obvious roles,
what is the lasting impact of raulsalinas?

What are both the specific and universal messages in his work?

What were his spheres of influence as a writer and poet?

How has he personally affected your writing, your ethos, your sensibilities?

How would you summarize his example as to what it means to be a man,
a Chicano (a), a creative person, a spiritual person?

Share your thoughts and your stories here with us next week....

Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera

Gente: La Bloga is fortunate enough to have an interview with Juan Felipe Herrera, whose life's work has been the poetry of sinew and bone, of La Raza, of people's movements and people's poetry, and whose new book was profiled in La Bloga.

But before you drink in our conversation, take a look at some info about his latest work -- a remix/compilation of truly razor-sharp and brutally beautiful writing.

And if you haven't read my review, take a look here.

From City Lights Publishers:
187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border:
Undocuments 1971-2007
by Juan Felipe Herrera
February 15, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-87286-462-7 $16.95

1. This newest book, 187 Reasons Why Mexicans Can't Cross the Border is a collection of a life's work in many ways. Some reviewers have described you as a moviemento elder statesman. What's your thoughts on that description?

Elder statesman...ha! Well, if the movimiento was still alive...Things have changed, the Chicano Movimiento probably started when Cesar Chavez went on strike in McFarland, Ca., with the rose workers in 1964 and it ended about ten years later when Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino gave its last debut in Mexico City at the TENAZ International Teatro Festival, the same year Gary Soto inaugurated his first book, The Elements of San Joaquín, which signaled a new trajectory in our poetics.Rather than a movimiento, since '74, we have streams, fugues, variations, implosions, counter-currents all at the same time.

The upside/downside?
There's no up or downside to it.

Given that, what's the importance for you in mentoring younger voices?

Mentoring is most important aspect for me. teaching and learning at the same time, expanding our thinking, and our action, our sense of community and self.

2. What do you think is the poet's responsibility to make social commentary, particularly in the current anti-immigrant (read Mexican) climate?

As a Chicano and person of color, it is part of my poetics to respond to and transform and transcend the negative, narrow and easy explanations, summations and projections of who we are. Oddly, we are perhaps the most misunderstood ethnic group in the U.S. To begin with, we are not immigrants. To end with, a Mexican is always connected to the indigenous history of the Americas.

And given your perspective, do you have a particular spin on what constitutes 'Mejicano/Chicano (a) themes?

There are no themes...they are all in flux... perhaps a most pertinent theme today is that of going beyond ethnicity and history without foregoing an activist perspective. Something is askew if only the military, corporate trade systems and the internet are global and the rest of us, in particular ethnic enclaves operate in closed communities and political segments.

3. There's been a critique swirling around concerning spoken word for a while -- that many times it ends up limiting and ghettoizing poets, particularly younger poets, who do not develop a critical grasp on other genres. Can you comment?

Spoken word has its own cultural systems, canons, genres, institutions, actors and audiences which generate its values. Academic poetry, although related, is another cultural arena and another class sector. The less borders between these is best.

Another way to put is that Spoken Word by its very nature is public, oral, interactive, spontaneous, experimental and subversive. Because of these transgressive and explosive qualities, Spoken Word thrives at the margins. Otherwise, it would be more like its fair-haired cousin, text-centered academic poetry, which lives closer to the center of the literary capitalist paradigm, more or less. The problem arises when poets begin to quote themselves and cease to speak and also, as you say, loose touch with the larger world of conversations and silences.

4. What are your ongoing sources of inspiration?

I don’t rely on specific inspiration sources. All is inspiration – twigs, people, clouds, shapes, names, words, sounds, colors and forms. Nature and culture are just two of thousands of possible channels of and for inspiration. Deep inspiration probably comes from the unnamable. That is why we want to write it, even though it is impossible.

Something like love.

5. How does your relationship to family feed your creative and personal life?

My familia provides contrast, balance and a natural and organic play of feedback to my life as a whole. This is more significant and meaningful than providing thinking-talk-feedback to my writing. Deep and sincere relationships are at the core of creative life. Without these, we are just fooling ourselves and others.

6. Where would you like to see your work evolve over the next ten years?

I just finished a writing a musical for young audiences, Salsalandia, for the La Jolla Playhouse.It is touring – with a beautiful cast and production crew – throughout the schools and communities of my hometown, San Diego. I am thrilled by this.

The play is about a White & Mexicano “blended” family and it is about loss and painful border realities. Yet, it is funny, serious -- there are songs and dances and deep journeys all in the mix. Cristian Amigo composed the music – we had worked together in Upside Down Boy, the first Latino musical for children in New York. I want to write more theatre, and also, for dance and possibly opera. Pavarotti is one of my heroes. So is Lanza – whom my mother loved. Imagine, my campesina mamá? And all the great Italian composers.

Musicals, children’s animation and opera – here I come!

7. Who are some of your favorite poets and why does their work resonate for you?

The Post War Poets of Poland and Middle Eastern Europe move me – Rózevicz, Szymborska, Herbert, Celan, Rodnoti, to name a few. Because they speak of brutality with clear boldness, wet hearts, and razor-sharp precision. We are in such a time. Our words must not get over-excited or too under-stated. We must navigate between archipelagoes of world kaos, natural beauty, suffering lives and global military order. To do this, we must be daring, tender, unyielding and precise as rain.

8. Tell us something not in the official bio.

I have always been a clown. I love solitude. The most simple things in the world move me to tears -- like clouds, mountains, an elder woman crossing the street, the voice of sincerity.

I have been a cartoonist since 8th grade. Water is my favorite drink with fresh-squeezed lime juice. I have five Sharpei dogs – Rocko, Tai, Pei-Pei, Lotus and Duddy Li.

Lisa Alvarado

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Las Hijas de Juan and A Land So Strange

By Guest Writer John Saunders

Las hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed by Josie Mendez-Negrete. Duke University Press, 2006. 200 plus pages.

Josie Mendez-Negrete tells the story of her mother and her sisters as well as her own story. She tells her story in a straightforward and deep fashion. Total and complete sincerity. She hates her father for what he has done. Josie's mother married at fifteen and came to live in the United States. Josie's father was a tyrant. He was also a drunk. He was a figure who wanted total and complete control over the women in his family. He was repeatedly guilty of incest with his daughters. One of the daughters became pregnant and gave birth to her father's child. Josie's mother seems to have been in a state of denial. For Josie school was a place where she could escape from her father. A family friend alerted the authorities as to what was going on in the family and the authorities got involved. The facts came out at the trial. How Josie and her sisters managed to survive in this abusive incestuous situation is beyond my comprehension. The fact that Mendez-Negrete was able to share her story is a service to all of us. If there are other incest stories out there as sincere and believable as this one ---- I would like to read them. Mendez-Negrete's writing skills are excellent. The story flows! It really does. This book is one that alerts us to what goes on in all cultures, I would suppose. It is a story that deals with one Hispanic family. Yet the story has a universal dimension to it. For some reason ---- Holocaust stories come to mind. Josie and her sisters suffered inhumane treatment at the hands of their father. Everything in the book rings true -- in my opinion. I recommend this book for teachers and for the general public (adult public, that is). A story well told. A topic that all of us need to be aware of ---- no matter who we are. Josie Mendez-Negrete is Associate Professor of Mexican American Studies in the Division of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca by Andres Resendez

This is an amazing book that is packed with information and told in a manner that would interest the general public. It tells the reader much about the resilience of four Spaniards and one Moorish slave who wound up on the west coast of Florida when they had expected to settle in Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca and the slave Estebanico are the two principal characters in the narrative. What amazes is the fact that Cabeza de Vaca had respect for the Indian tribes and wanted all Spaniards to live in harmony with the Indians --- and not see them only as slaves. Of course Cabeza de Vaca was never able to convince the political powers to see the potential benefit of equality for Indian tribes. Cabeza de Vaca comes across as an admirable individual with englightened views. The three Spaniards and Estebanico survived years among the Indian tribes because they were seen by the Indians as healers. As the fine historian that he is ---- Resendez is able to flesh out the viewpoint of Indians as well as those of the three Spaniards and their Moorish companion. What amazes me is the economy of the book. Resendez sticks to basics. He places this saga in perspective. This is one of the finest books I have read concerning a neglected episode in the history of North America. Resendez is such an amazing teller of stories. Throughout the two hundred pages of this book I felt that I was right there living this story with the three Spaniards and Estebanico. I highly recommend this book. My guess is that if you read it ---- you will continue until you reach the final page. Many helpful footnotes as well as recommended reading. Andres Resendez is truly a master at his craft. He has a degree from El Colegio de Mexico and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago. He is a member of the faculty at History Department, University of California at Davis.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Oedipus the Pinto

Report: Luis Alfaro's adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus El Rey. A staged reading performed at the Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, Califas.

Michael Sedano
The recently completed run of Oedipus El Rey’s four performances has been one of those only in Los Angeles classical theatre experiences made possible by the Getty Museum's Villa Theater Lab. Last year, it was Culture Clash’s uniquely staged Aristophanes The Birds. This year it has been Alfaro and earlier in February, Ellen McLaughlin’s one-woman original work, Penelope. Upcoming in April and May are Director Michael Hackett and actor Henry Goodman with Sophocles Philoktetes, followed by Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company in a new work, Icarus. At $7 a head, the Getty offers the best bargain in El Lay arts (add $8 for parking).

Alfaro’s done it again with Oedipus El Rey, turning in a remarkable treatment of other people’s material. A few years ago it was Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Superhero Girls Like Me, turning short fiction and poetry by the superb trio of Alma Cervantes, Sandra C. Muñoz, Marisela Norte into a devastatingly funny and moving masterpiece. Then it was Electricidad, borrowed from Sophocles, that, unlike Black Butterfly, made it to the Mark Taper main stage. Now Alfaro has adapted Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos moving it from plague-ridden Thebes to a modern-day California. Joined by director Jon Lawrence Rivera and a superb cast with first-among-equals Marlene Forte’s Jocasta, Oedipus El Rey will breathe new life into classical drama, and educate a new generation to the actual meaning of “oedipal”.

Evidently, such renewal is long overdue. Alfaro laughed at the audibly stunned college audience Friday night when Justin Huen’s Oedipus comes to his own realization that the man he killed on Highway 99 was his father, which means Oedipus’ wife is…gasp!! These young people must have been reeling at that point, as they thought back to their laughter following the torrid mating scene when Huen and Forte undress one another then spend three weeks cavorting in bed.

There is not much laughter in Sophocles’ play, but Alfaro injects a hugely hilarious Sphinx into the action. The Million Dollar Farmacia on Broadway is run by a three-headed critter straight out of rasquachi teatro with a strong affinity to the twin-headed beast from Men in Black 2. After solving the riddle, the old gals are out of business and the Pico-Union barrio returns to its old order. Here the overlay of ancient Thebes upon modern LA doesn’t work so well and is stretched too thin. Oedipus and Jocasta have the community’s respect. They behave like cold-hearted Don Corleones rather than the gangbangers in the news whose power derives from intimidation and extortion, not doing favors for community people while maintaining a kingly dignity and honor. And therein lies the major problem with this work-in-progress.

Turning stereotypes on their heads is part of the job description of a revolutionary poet, to affirm what would otherwise be vilified even within la cultura . And when a gifted poet is himself a pinto, his themes and images resonate with gut-wrenching authenticity. Which is why work of the late raúlrsalinas, “A Trip Through the Mindjail”, and Ricardo Sánchez, “Soledad”, should be included in any anthology of letras chicanas, along with such non-pinto pachuco poems as José Montoya’s “El Louie”, Tino Villanueva’s “Aquellos Vatos”, and J.L. Navarro’s “To A Dead Lowrider.” Powerful work that was necessary for its time.

But that was the 60s and 70s. Chicano culture has reached a kind of maturity today, and there’s less, if any, requirement to lionize our criminals. Pintos are not heroes, and they’re certainly not gods. Yet jail is where Luis Alfaro starts off his work-in-progress Oedipus el Rey, and pintos form his Chorus. It’s a strangely inappropriate starting point that Alfaro explains in the program like this: “the more versions (of Sophocles) I read, the deeper the themes of the play started to take root inside my head. I began to obsess about the notion of destiny. Well, of course, that little idea kept me awake for endless nights. Aren’t we all masters of our own destinies? That got me thinking about the sizable population that makes up our ever-expanding prison system.” Destiny? That got me thinking what about our kids who see the military as their only chance off the block?

Fortunately, Oedipus El Rey will change and grow. As Alfaro and director Jon Lawrence Rivera (pictured right,left respectively) noted during the post performance Talkback session on Saturday afternoon, Alfaro didn’t have much of anything finished even as the superb cast came together for the first rehearsal. Rivera, Alfaro, and presumably dramaturg Christopher Breyer (his name didn't come up in the Talkback), indulged the playwright’s stream of consciousness for this set of staged readings. I hope they’ll iron out the prison wrinkle in favor of something more appropriate both to Sophocles and for a contemporary audience. That noted, John H. Binkley’s spare set is beautiful and need not be changed in a finished production. Stainless steel cables hang from the ceiling suggesting the cages these men live in, and a handful of black chairs. Elizabeth Huffman’s costumes are a few red shawls, two shirts for Huen, two dresses for Forte, the other actors appear in their streetclothes. Dark glasses and cane for blind Tiresias (Winston J. Rocha) constitute the props.

I attended in the company of two high school girls. As we left the auditorium, I asked them how they reacted to the graphic profanity of the opening three minutes. “We hear worse than that in school every day,” they answered in unison, not that they enjoyed it. Their mother shrugged helplessly at that truth. Although the Getty forewarns, “This workshop contains adult themes and strong language”—it is Oedipus after all so adult themes definitely come with the territory. But strangely, only that opening dialog featured foul language. Worse, it was neither artful nor funny, neither authentic nor effective. I’d like to sit Alfaro down and pull his ear about that crap, encourage him to find what Villanueva said about his vatos, they were “uncouth but squared away”.

The cast includes gente you’ve seen and will continue seeing on television, movies, and regional theatre. Laius is Geno Silva, perfectly mature and powerful. Michael Manuel as a sappy Creon. Javi Mulero, Daniel Chacón, Bobby Plasencia play several roles but especially the three-headed hilarious Sphinx. Híjole, guys, don't change a thing, in fact, give us more!

That's the view from the coast this penultimate Tuesday of 2008's leap year February. Ordinarily, La Bloga runs Monday through Friday and many Sundays. RudyG's delayed Valentine on Saturday is a good reminder it's always good to check in on weekends, a ver que pasa. Remember, La Bloga welcomes and encourages guest columnists. Let us know in a comment or an email that you have something to share. If it fits, if it's finished, let La Bloga's readers share it with you. We love your comments, but La Bloga apologizes in advance if some spammer drops their piece of you-know-what on our pages. We'll delete it as soon as we notice it. Until next Tuesday, hay les wachamos.