Sunday, April 30, 2006

My Mexican Heritage: Or Why This Afro-Latina Caribena is Staying Home on May 1st

I write this from Los Angeles where I've been for the past few days promoting my novel Divas Don't Yield. Only now do I realize that when I return home at 12:33 AM, it'll be May 1, 2006 - the day on which U.S. immigrants are being encouraged to stay home in an effort to demonstrate how vital they are to this nation's economy. So before I began to pack to check out of the hotel and catch my plane, I wanted to share one of the many reasons why I, too, will beg out of the economy tomorrow.

About this time last year, I spent a week in Mexico. As part of the Rockefeller Foundation's Next Generation Leadership program, I and twenty-three other fellows visited Mexico City and Chiapas. Upon my return, I had lunch with my parents at el Gran Bohio, a mom-n-pop shop and one of our favorite restaurants in the East Tremont section of the South Bronx. As I ate my carne guisado con arroz blanco, I shared with my Puerto Rican dad and my Dominican Mom the things I learned during my trip.

Suddenly, my usually reserved mother says in a quivering voice, "I spent two months in Mexico."

My mother is a deep well of complex emotions. She hides this (not so well) behind a taciturn demeanor. Before that moment I only knew that Ma came from the Dominican Republic to Washington, DC in the fifties as the domestic of diplomat at the age of twenty-three. After an argument with the diplomat's wife, she stole out at 4 AM on her day off with only three Dominican pennies in her pocket and none of her paperwork to board a bus to New York City. I had to prod my mother to get this incomplete story so just imagine how much I have to nudge to learn how she ended up living in Mexico for two months. Until that time I never thought my mother had been anywhere besides the United States, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. It gets to the point where Ma becomes so emotional, my father has to complete the tale.

At one point, in order to stay in the country, my mother had to leave the U.S. and then re-enter. So she crossed the border to Juarez and checked into a hotel for the night. However, when my mother tried to re-enter the United States the next day, she experienced problems and was not allowed to re-enter the country. Ma had no choice but to return to the hotel.
She was in her room crying hysterically when the woman who worked for the hotel's laundry service came to her room to return a dress -- the only one Ma had packed for what she thought would be an overnight stay. Recognizing my mother as another Latina, she asked in Spanish what was wrong. My mother explained that she could not re-enter the U.S. but had no money to stay and nowhere else to go.

"I have to leave because I can get fired, said the woman, but you stay here, and I'll be back."
At the end of her shift, the Mexican woman took my mother home with her. Ma stayed with the woman and her three children in their one-room apartment. The children -- two daughters and a son -- usually slept in one bed, but they gave up the bed for my mother and slept on the floor the entire time she stayed with them. After two months, Ma was able to leave Juarez and enter the U.S.

It's at this point where Pa has to take over. Ma is so choked up on tears that she cannot continue to tell the story of this woman - a stranger to my mother who herself was a stranger to her homeland - who opened her home to her and shared with her the little she had. "For years afterwards, your mother would send the woman and her family money," Pa says with clear pride and approval. "Just like she did her own relatives in the Dominican Republic."
"Well, what was this womans name?" I ask.
My mother finds her voice again. "Sofia."
"For real?" I put down my fork. "Wait a minute. . . am I named after her?"
My mother could not believe my surprise. She's adamant that she's told me this story a million times, but as I said, my mother is a woman who has experienced a difficult life and sometimes feels the wounds as if she only incurred them yesterday. This is why it took me until the age of thirty-three to hear for the first time that I was a namesake let alone that the woman I was named after was from another Latin American country.

So I have many reasons why I will stay home on May 1st. Being a Black woman of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent born in the United States, several of the reasons will be obvious to some. I tell the story of my name to share a reason that is not so obvious. Of all the things I can be reflecting on tomorrow's day of protest, I will be thinking about and honoring the Mexican woman whose name I carry.

I don't know if she is alive or if she has transcended.

I don't know if she remains in Mexico or if she has crossed back onto the land that once belonged to her ancestors.

I don't know whether or not, if she is here in the United States, if she has come legally or not.

What I do know is that once my mother found herself in an unfamiliar place, and a stranger who was a native to that land showed her compassion and kindness. I know that this woman did not care where my mother came from or the color of her skin or the amount of money she had in her purse before she decided to support her. I know after my mother who, despite being a contributor to the United States economy and playing by all its rules of residency, still suffered rejection and scrutiny by this country, yet found a haven in this woman's humble home.
And I know that this woman was Sofia Enriquez de la Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Film Executive Is More Likely to Try to Tell Me How to Be Latina

Lusty Lady Rachel Kramer Bussel ( recently interviewed me for the Gothamist. One of the many intriguing questions she asked me was, "Has the publishing world been more open to Latina writing than the film world is to Latina actresses/producers/writers or are there just more opportunities to publish books than to get a film out into the world?"
My answer:
My book was one of three mainstream novels written by and about Latinas that hit bookshelves in March 2006, all published by major houses. When’s the last time you saw that happen in the film industry? Or even on television? Yes, it may be more expensive and therefore risky to produce a film, and many less films are produced in a year than books published, but I think even if you account for the uniqueness of each industry, the publishing world is more proactive about pursuing Latinos readers than the film industry is about reaching Latino moviegoers. And my experience with both has been that the publishing industry is more willing to let Latinos tell their own stories. If you look at the few films released in the past few years set in Latino communities, you’ll find two things. One, they’re independents. Two, the directors are White and usually male. When a Latina filmmaker wants to make a movie like Girlfight, Raising Victor Vargas or Maria Full of Grace, she faces more skepticism about the universality of the story and its commercial viability. I’ve found that a film executive is more likely to try and tell me how to be Latina than a book editor. I have yet met a Latina writer who told me that her editor complained, “You have to put a White girl in your story.”
Yeah, I went there. I had to. To read where else I went, check out the entire Gothamist interview at
And if you've had an interesting experiences attempting to get your book published or film produced, do share!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Making Change and Doing It in Strange Places

I just received the following call for submissions from a listserv I belong to devoted to conscious women in hip hop. This anthology sounds like a fantastic idea. I know I'm going to cop it as soon as it's available, and I hope to discover some new ideas as well as great writers. Maybe you?
Call for Submissions - Young Women’s Anthology “Doing it in Strange Places… And Making Change: Young Women Fighting for Social Justice”

A commonly asked question at social justice events is, “What can I do to get more involved?” This question is usually answered in one of three ways: send money, call politicians, and volunteer. Unfortunately, none of these foster a sense of personal investment or involvement in an issue or offer solutions for how to be personally involved in solving the injustices in the world. It also doesn’t account for the lack of time, money and resources that these three answers require.
What if we could just incorporate our politics into our every day lives, particularly into our seemingly apolitical jobs/careers? In fact, that is just what most activists do. In this anthology, we want to hear from young women from all walks of life around the world, who have found creative ways to use their job/career/talent/passion (from writing to banking to computer programming to being a homemaker) as an outlet for social justice activism. We seek to create an anthology that makes activism more accessible and inspire others to use the resources they already have to contribute to social justice.
Changing the world won’t happen overnight, so let’s share our daily successes and strategies for making all of our visions of a better world possible. Tell us what worked and what didn’t because all experiences are valuable. We want to be sure multiple voices and perspectives are represented in the anthology. Writers of all experience levels areencouraged to submit work. All work must be original and should not be published elsewhere.
Submission Guidelines
* “Young” is about how you self-identify. We do not have age limits.
* We prefer to have submissions sent via email in a Word or Rich Text Format document to with “Doing it in Strange Places” in the subject line. Otherwise, submissions can be mailedto: Mandy Van Deven 955 Metropolitan Ave, #4R Brooklyn, NY 11211
* If you would like your submission returned, please include a SASE.
* Word count: 2,500 - 5,000
* All submissions require your name, address, phone number, email address, and a short bio.
* Submissions should be received by May 15, 2006.
* Please direct any questions you may have to
Topic Ideas Already Submitted Include:
* Biking for Women's Empowerment
* Blogging to Fight Street Harassment
* Living Choices and Neighborhood Development
* Bellydancing to Increase Confidence and Comfort w/ Sexuality
We look forward reading to what you have to say!