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Friday, January 25, 2019

Not My Abuelita,But That's What TV Is For

1962 Nueva Ciudad Guerrero, Tamaullipas, Mexico. 

I can imagine my Mexican grandmother, Ventura Molina Flores, so vividly. She was married at 13, had nine children and was fiercely anti-church but a great devotee of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I have a memory from when I was about seven. She stands five feet tall, at her mesquite wood fireplace, cooking our breakfast and uses her bare hands to turn the tortillas she has just made on the blazing hot comal. After breakfast she stands out in her backyard of chickens, pigs, rows of corn and fruit trees watching patiently as my muscle bound teenage brothers try with all their might but fail to cut the mesquite logs for her to use in the fireplace. Nana, which is what we call her, wears her traditional black dress that all widows wore, pale flesh colored cotton stockings and tan cloth shoes that resemble moccasins. She sees the boys have given up chopping and trots out beside the now sweating grandsons and takes the ax.  Next, she expertly chip-chips ting-tings at just the right spots upon the logs to chop them to proper fireplace proportions. All our grand kid eyes are bugged out in surprise.

January 24, 2019, Netflix's "One Day At A Time" Episode 13 "Quinces"

"Quinces" is not the way my coming out would have played out with my abuela. She more than likely would have come after me with her ax instead of sewing me a tux for my quinceaƱera. The Cuban grandmother character played by Rita Moreno struggles in her three inch dancer's heels to climb her own tall mountain of centuries of her culture's homophobia, but she reaches the top. She chooses her granddaughter over convention.  Many tears of joy, disbelief, and wonder flowed at my house.

Does this only happen on TV? Does TV reflect cultural change or does it spark the change it first shows? Yes, yes and yes in the case of One Day At a Time producer Norman Lear, who has broken at least as many cultural barriers in his nearly 80 years of working in TV as my grandmother chopped mesquite logs.  

God bless all the abuelas as they stand guard protecting their children in the best way they know how.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Oh, the good old days of no social media

Is anything as heart wrenching as a teenager's mauling and cruel self judgment? Eighth Grade made me step back in time into my moccasins, tee shirt and cut off jeans when my world revolved around (some) my family and (mostly) friends.

1968-69 my eighth grade year ranks as the worst year in my until then much loved and secure life. That fall, I got tossed out of a girls catholic school I'd attended for nine years for exercising my writing and artistic abilities on school bathroom walls. And since my subjects were both innocent and came from powerful families, the nuns showed me the door. I never even got a chance to give my reasons for the graffiti:  a full-on war had broken out between two neighborhoods. It was rich versus the poor and the victor (the rich) had taken the spoils: the boys in my old neighborhood had left us girls they had grown up with for new girls who owned swimming pools, and whose maids served sodas to visitors. Was I pissed!!!

The spring semester of eighth grade I enrolled in public school where I knew not one person. My mom and I had to scramble for clothes for me to wear. I had no school clothes, only my old uniforms (bye bye) and play clothes. Add to this the general awkwardness of being 13, the onslaught of puberty, the crushing beauty of everyone around you-- except your own--to which you were blind. 

I made it to the end of eighth grade in my new school with some new friends to replace my old gang from catholic school and when the next year began, I flew like an eagle, joining clubs and becoming a junior journalist. I ended the ninth grade semester being awarded more recognition at the school assembly than I thought possible. There was a God and she was two people, my Journalism sponsor, Margarita Newton and my Physical Education coach, Gracie Alderete.

The heavy lifting during this hard time came from me, however. Losing like a cocoon the protective environment of my old school, where I had made merry mischief since kindergarten was harder than I expected. I cringed to think what people said behind my back, but thank God that I had no actual proof or even an idea, because there was no social media to document the gossip and rumors. 

Watching Eighth Grade makes me think how much harder it may be to grow up today because of the the additional pressures of images and text to tell you exactly what everyone is writing and saying about you --or not writing and saying. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

No Patriarchy? No problem.

Today the Los Angeles Times reported on toxic masculinity.

Always the late bloomer, I've just realized that I've lived all of my life, save for the first three years, without a father and thus, outside of the standard, mainstream brand, under-the-nose patriarchy. 

My dad died on my third birthday. I'm told I was the light of his life and that I was a very happy baby girl. What his loss meant for me was clear from the start: I missed out immeasurably from his absence. I lacked his approval and affection, his support in all manner of experiences. Perhaps the most important was the hole he left in our family, leaving us without  a counterbalance to my mother, left alone to juggle roles of widow, mother of five children. Mama was thrust into a role of leadership that her traditional Mexican culture had sorely under-prepared her for, providing her with sewing instead of school lessons. 

What hadn't been clear to me were what advantages came with being brought up fatherless. From my earliest memories, I grew up in a tribe full of brothers, neighbors and uncles, who I studied carefully, learning about their strengths, weaknesses and character. Think of the church and its teachings then add in the mostly manly representations in movies and TV and my heaping plate of male culture was lacking nothing. On the other side of the equation, there were the amazing teachers --all nuns or old-school women teachers that I had until high school. And, back at home, on the main stage, my mother's example, keeping it together for the family despite many, many challenges. My lone and imperfect parent, who for better or worse always knocked herself out for us was my biggest teacher. And she taught me a gal did not need a man to do what needed doing in this world.

1. Go Your Own Way. You may as well follow your bliss. The regular rules do not apply in the absence of a husband and dad.  Outside, the patriarchal culture sits like a fog bank safely outside your living room window, but inside, the coast is clear. Keep building the world you want to live in.

2.  No patriarchy, no problem.  My own agency and accountability served me more than being dependent on approval stamped legitimate by tradition, society or culture. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year's Painted Night Skies

Fireworks are illegal in the city limits and that is why the Woodlawn Lake Park Rangers quickly patrolled over to any arriving visitors at the park to inform them of the rules. We all know the rules. Following them is another story. 

It was an hour before midnight and we strolled with the dog at the dark and empty park to walk off a delicious dinner celebrating decades of friendship. The light fog rose on the streets and under the lamps suspended water particles mixed with fireworks' smoke and debris from hundreds--no, thousands--of yards and driveways surrounding the dark, lonely, law-abiding island. All around on the West Side there were youngsters, hipsters, dudes and dudettes, grandpa's and abuelitas setting off cohetes, fireworks--tradition and sheer fun silencing the law. 

Back on our Woodlawn Avenue porch near midnight, the explosions registered in regular rhythm from miles around.  At the stroke of midnight the thunder roared without a pause and the light show expanded its panorama. We looked in each direction and the heavens were painted with flying light spectacles rising, exploding and drifting downward. It was hard to hear each other talk or glimpse even a quarter of the night's lighted splendors. 

Several cars stopped on the street near us to take in the free light show and sit out the fever-pitch of explosions. Up the street a group of people squatted in between the street and the sidewalk to shoot their contraband fiery missiles and add their flares and explosions to the giant night sky canvas. They, and all of us gazing at our human-made-stars-of-only-a-few-seconds.

My thrifty mother's voice in my head asked, "How much money went up in sparkle and smoke tonight that could have paid for house paint or porch repairs?" Not the point. A better question might be: How many of us need to launch our dreams and hopes for the new year arriving with our own bursting, booming mark on the sky?

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Bruce Springsteen at the Altar of Life 
Bruce Springsteen and I grew up together. We lived and loved in different parts of the country during those same decades that defined us.  During the flight across the sky that is our era, we got knocked around in some of the same turbulence, and yet, both of us landed gently enough to look backward with gratitude.

In the tradition of his Irish and Italian ancestors, Springsteen is both a storyteller and a cultural high priest. The kind of priest who is comfortable in a pub filled with hard working hand laborers of all sorts. As he shepherds us through the early years of his life and career, Springsteen confesses to us that he’s never had a job like those who inhabit the working class lives of his songs.  He explains he wrote his stories of laborers in the voice of his father, a figure so important to Springsteen that it cannot be overstated. His father, "with the legs and ass of a rhinoceros,"  held numerous factory jobs when he was well but suffered from depression. It was fascinating to watch Springsteen credit both his parents, two opposites, while giving careful consideration to the resilience and optimism of his mother who informed the artist's lifetime of energy, drive and commitment to his work.

Springsteen's story has taken him around the world several times over only to return to live 10 minutes away from where he started, the town of Freehold, New Jersey. His hometown is a major character in his life: its bars, factories, the neighborhood full of his relatives where he grew up and the giant tree in front of his home that was the center of his life.

I found in the songs and storytelling such love, humanity and a surprising lack of ego for a troubadour who won over the world while staying rooted in his hometown.  

The transformation I witnessed as Springsteen presided at his stage and altar, as he took us from his childhood to manhood, surprised me as it corresponded with my own growing up and maturity as a woman of Mexican heritage living in the U.S. I stood beside him as he described, with an Apostle's Creed cadence and the precision of a surgeon, his family's geography and the impact their lives had on him. With each story's turn, I saw reflections of my own story growing up to the same songs, TV and movies 1,911 miles away in South Texas' Laredo.  Watching him on his Netflix special, I'll bet I'm not the only Baby Boomer to imagine myself standing behind Springsteen as he performs, not as a backup singer, but as someone who mines the same territories of memory to make sense of family, fortune, loss and perseverance.  

Toward the end of the performance, which is based on his Broadway show, I had the same overwhelmed feeling I often get after attending High Mass and standing for more than two hours in an overfilled church. I had been taken on a holy journey. I turned off the TV set and stood up from the sofa exhausted, my thoughts and images still gelling from the immersive music and words that Springsteen performed with fearless grace and candor.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Roma is Alfonso Cuaron's love song to his family and neighborhood in Mexico City.

I was so prepared to dislike Cuaron's entitled family in the film, Roma, but the unflinching honesty of his story-telling made me appreciate the possibilities that can arise after painful rebirth. Think of the many films the child whose story this is grew up to give the world.

Roma is Alfonso Cuaron's love song to his family's neighborhood in Mexico City. It's a stunningly visual film, of course, but its magic also draws from two other sources. The audio track and the many years elapsed since 1971 are as important as the images in this loving but open-eyed inspection of family, class, country and the shifting models of maternity and paternity that this movie shines a light upon.

The music of the era -- Juan Gabriel's classic, "No Tengo Dinero" enters and exits as you glide by street scenes of urban choreography, crowded with street vendors, traffic and pedestrians in purposeful and poetic pandemonium. The frenzy is balanced with thoughtful and carefully mined collections of day to day scenes that paint a detailed portrait of people persevering despite displacement, theft of lands and destructive tremors to supportive structures.

Cuaron re-opens the case against authoritarian abuse with his account of of the killings of hundreds of protesting college students by young men displaced from the countryside, trained by the U.S. CIA, and posing as students.

In Cuaron's middle-class family, the violence is no less. His medical doctor father's decision to leave the household of his wife, her mother, four children and household staff of three (only in post-colonial countries like Mexico with such low wages for domestic workers could this be possible) strikes like an earthquake leaving trembling walls that are no longer reliable. 

Upstairs and downstairs residents alike are adrift in this new landscape. The roomy Ford Galaxy the family used before Cuaron's dad's departure gets lodged between two cargo trucks and is smashed into the walls of the family's driveway by Cuaron's mother in a performance that merits its own recognition as metaphor for a marriage's inability to fit where once it did.

The story is a truthful telling of changing roles for mothers and fathers, emerging democracies' efforts (the city that gave us the first university in North America is also the site where at least three times in its history college students would be mowed down by the government) and class as seen through the lives of women who need each other in ways material and spiritual in order to make it through the upheavals of divorce, abandonment and ultimately, making the inner journey with each other's help and understanding, to reach new shores, new beginnings.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Choose Your Superpower

Three of us are about to pounce on a beautiful turkey at Thanksgiving when a text arrives from a young friend. At her dinner table across the country, the question her Thanksgiving Day companions are considering, perhaps in order to avoid controversy, is "Which one of these superpowers would you choose, invisibility or flying?" We three answered in unison, "Flying, of course. We are women of a certain age, and are already invisible!"

As a superpower, invisibility has its attractions but also its drawbacks. It's like a car without a steering wheel. You  don't select when to be visible or not. Like beauty, invisibility is in the eye of the beholder. You don't know when you've suddenly turned invisible, but, like obscenity, you recognize it when it happens to you. 

The day before, I was the last patient for the staff at a health clinic before a four-day holiday. The dazzlingly beautiful, 35-year old dermatologist I had come to visit for the second time swept into the room where I had been brought to wait. She asked good, detailed questions about my skin issues and attended me with extra care and enthusiasm. Before she finished, I showed her the new spots on my cheek that keep showing up to remind me of sun-worshiping days long ago.

In retrospect, I see that I started what would later became a problem. I said to the doctor that surprises like those age spots, wrinkles, and delayed metabolism remind me of the  Bette Davis quote, "Old age is not for sissies." 

She turned and looked right through me, she responded in a slightly reprimanding and condescending tone, "You have a lot to be thankful for!" I naturally responded, "Yes, of course. You're right."  

I was, after all, in to see the dermatologist for mundane repairs, not battlefield scars, leprosy or another serious malady. I was still trying to understand her way of  speaking past me,  averting looking me in the eyes.  It was then that I remembered a 93-year old friend's disdain for being reduced to a "sweetie" or "honey" by store clerks or health professionals. 

After the drive home and the requisite 2-3 hours delay for witty comebacks expired, I realized that the doctor had done to me what I had done at her age to older people I knew. She assumed, as I had during my days as a dazzler, that feeling strong, self-possessed and nearly immortal with energy would be everlasting. Aging changes that, but no one admits it until they are forced to. I imagined responding to the doctor, "You don't know the first thing about me. How would you know what I do or don't have to be thankful for?" 

Some of the superpowers the aging enjoy, besides eventually hitting on a good way to answer dumb statements, are finding that your wisdom expands your sense of life, joy and learning. Which superpower would you choose? Invisibility or flying? How about ditching the need to be a people pleaser? Saying what's really on your mind?  Others?