Last week, Hostos Community College gathered some of my favorite Latino artists together for a discussion on their work, their lives and yet, the room was almost a ghost town. Now, the shit is this is how the shit is, you follow me? We throw events all the time for poetry, fundraising, activism, and book releases because we’re all doing so many things. Sometimes EVERYONE shows up and there are fireworks and explosions. Then there are times when the only people at the event are those performing in it. We’ve all been there. Such is life…
But still, I was so excited for this and couldn’t imagine the whole world not being there, as well. I guess sometimes I’m the whole world and that’s all that matters.
Enter Sofia Quintero, Linda Nieves-Powell, Charlie Vazquez and Orlando Ferrand. They handled the room with grace, dignity and that Latino way of working a room as people trickled in slowly, as our panel became a group discussion. As I got virtually one on one time with some of the only Latino mentors I have in this world. Charlie and Linda have guided my work, vision and skills in ways that have manifested and have yet to grow. Anyway, enough groupie talk, ninjas. Let’s get down to bidness.
Sofia Quintero is the author of several novels, including Picture Me Rollin’, which is like the most fun book title ever (see how academic my writing is??). I’ve never read any of her stuff mostly cuz I’m a hermit who reads graphic novels and the internet, yes the internet. Also, I like reading people’s work who I know and now that I know of her, best believe I’m reading her work.
Bronx born Quintero has that vibe like one of your fly ass Titis, real smooth, intelligent and unconcerned with what you may or may not think of her. So yeah, I paid attention when she spoke which is always exciting cuz usually I’m counting daydreams and butterflies. She writes urban “chick-lit”; her words not mine. When she describes her work as that
there is no bullshit. It is full on empowered feminism in action, in real life, where the focus, according to Quintero, is to “raise social and political awareness through commercial publishing and relatable themes.” Literature should be accessible to all people in all circumstances. Duh, right? But it’s not always that simple, Quintero expressed disdain for people who view urban literature as lesser than or place literature written by females for females in a subjugated category of unworthy reading. And by expressed disdain, I mean she was really like, “Fuck that shit” which is how I love women to be. Who doesn’t? There is nothing more badass than a woman of color from an urban environment that can flex academic knowledge and code switch right into hood speak without ever losing her point or eloquence. Quintero pleaded for us/theworld/thereaders to not shy away from stereotypes but to embrace them fully and infuse them with their rightful complexity. This message struck a chord because one of the most intense road blocks in writing and telling ethnic stories comes from other POC telling you that your work is full of stereotypes. As if stereotypes came from an imagined place, as if Puerto Ricans don’t eat rice and beans, as if we don’t have hood rat cousins, as if we must be perfect in the eyes of white people to matter. Quintero said, “give me your stereotypes and make them real people because that is the truth of our existence.” Swoon, right? I’d love a panel discussion based solely on navigating stereotypes, wouldn’t you? Also, this Ivy-league homegirl writes erotica and that is just perfect.
Linda Nieves-Powell is a powerhouse. Man, let’s just lay it out on the table when I first encountered Linda, I GEEKED. I thought I was the only Latina in the world who wanted to make films, perform poetry/art/theater, and be a creative bandit. I just didn’t know any better. I was schooled around all white people so I never saw my people doing anything but working hard at jobs that put food on the table but left no time for poetry, you know? And then here’s Linda Nieves Powell in the world who runs her own production company, puts on Latina themed theater pieces and showcases them all over the United States. She is all of the things and does ALL of the things. Say what you will but if you can’t gush and geek over your own Latina rocking shit out, then who can you gush and geek over? I can’t waste it all on Carrie Underwood…
Anyway, first words out of Linda, besides the whole “I’m from Staten Island” thing which is totally forgivable, were “Racism motivates me.” Done. Yes, can we all say that out loud together? Like just once, isn’t that what should motivate us? The banality of racism is so insidious that most times it’s this low lying current flowing through everyday life. So when someone like Linda pulls it up from the muddy banks, holds it up under fluorescent lights and challenges us to inspect it and uses her own work as an example of how to do that, we must respond. We must write screenplays and make our films. We must make television. We must blog, We must write. We must create because to not is to drown without ever realizing how deep the waters have gotten.
And you don’t have to be fancy about it, you can just fucking do it. Linda made it very clear that her foray into writing and producing wasn’t because she grew up dreaming of becoming an Oscar winner or the Latina Steven Spielberg. Homegirl was inspired by another Latino, specifically, John Lequizamo. She saw him doing it and knew in that moment that it could be DONE. Feel me? This story is proof that we can’t stop creating. That in of itself creation is the divine force that propels all life forward and that as a people, it is our duty to aid in its continuous momentum. Because if John Leguizamo begets a Linda Nieves Powell begets someone like me who begets little homegirl on the block who begets an entire civilization of empowered creative dynamic Latinas, then that’s the point right? That’s Linda’s point and that’s enough.
And there was Charlie Vazquez who is so many things to me and so many of us that being around him is like receiving a visitation from a brother from ancient times sent to the future to protect and guide us all. (No I’m not high so go re-read that sentence until you feel me without judgement.) Charlie Vazquez is a queer radical poet, performer, editor and novelist. His book, Contraband, was reviewed here and is a must read for those into sexy-futuristic-thrilling noir. Charlie works with so many of us young emerging Latin writers, developing our words and styles to bring out the best in what we have. He makes the time to meet, read and discuss all of our poems and short stories; all of the work that reflects our individual narratives in this big old fucked up world of Latino literature which is just literature because words are universal and stories need to be shared and Charlie infuses everything he does with that notion.
At one point in the very free form group discussion, Charlie went in on the imagined invisibility of Latino writers/artists:
…We don’t see the magic in front of our eyes. We are in the middle of a Latino creative arts Renaissance and cannot let the barriers of a dominant white culture blind us from realizing it. This is a defining moment in New York City, specifically, and it must be recognized by us first and foremost…
Word, Charlie Vazquez, muthafucken word.
At this point in the discussion, a super intense question buzzed in my brain and I almost asked it but then Orlando Ferrand paused me. See, in any other situation I might have been annoyed or something but it felt almost right. This discussion felt like being around family, super intelligent well-read and thoughtful family. And what happens when you’re the youngest person at the family table and you open your mouth when an elder wants to speak? You get shushed the fuck up and so in that moment, Orlando played the Tio card and I got to hear his delicious Cuban accent run amok on his life story and writer’s ethic. (But I will pose my question at the end of this blog post which is coming soon so stick around, kids!)
Aside meeting him at this panel, I don’t know Orlando Ferrand or his work so if you’re tired of the gushy love I’ve been spewing then here’s a much needed break for you. Wait, nah that might not be true because I sat rapt listening to this man speak. Like if you could see the notes in my journal wrapped in seriously neurotic scribbling, you’d know how real it got. So Charlie Vazquez likened this current time in NYC Latino Arts to that of the Harlem Renaissance and Orlando jumped right into those sentiments:
…Our experiences are entrenched with a universal commonality that goes beyond specific ethnic idiosyncrasies. Through poetry and the visual arts, we become invincible and shed the fragility of being an othered group of people; we become the movement…
Orlando is one of those artists who does everything: sculpting, painting, writing, composing and making a hellified joyful noise. He believes that teaching is motivation to not be a creative recluse (word). Also, he hails from Cuba and emigrated to the United States in the 90s so there is the element to his voice and spirit that is unlike anything I’ve experienced. What I know of Cuba comes from a biased not completely factual re-telling from old Puerto Ricans, something like “Esos Cubanos no tienen ninguna cosa. Viva los Estados Unidos.” I can’t be the only one…and so I just listened as he spoke and I wish I had the transcript because it was worth being shushed. hearing him speak reiterated the fact that Latino is an easy blanket term to place over ourselves. What does Latino even mean when all of our stories are so different? When some of us are citizens, some of us are not, some of us are born here and some of us die trying to get here. Wherever here is… So how can we speak of being Latino as a universal experience when the lives made up of this experience may never cross paths or planes? Is it the United States that lumps us into this category or do we do it ourselves? As Orlando spoke about communism, socialism and the isms, I wanted the panel to last forever cuz all I had were questions. Also, can I just restate that his voice makes lesbians swoon?
So then I had to leave before the panel was over and without having asked my one really specific question. So I’ll ask it here and if anyone wants to pose an answer, I’d really appreciate it. This goes back to Charlie Vazquez connecting our movement to the Harlem Renaissance:
In my understanding, the Harlem Renaissance was funded by white sponsorship. So must we align ourselves with white money (corporations, production companies, websites etc) to really make a difference? to really make this movement have a lasting impact on future generations? Does aligning ourselves with white money dilute our voices or is it a really smart business move that will allow us to be fully independent at some point in the future?
I ask this with much respect to my people and to white people and to all people. I am so grateful to have been part of this discussion. I want to thank Sofia, Linda, Charlie and Orlando for making themselves accessible and for creating such important works of art.
So real talk: How do we really feel about the master’s tools and his house of stacked cards?