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Cafe Con Lupe

A Monthly Chat with Ann "Lupe" Cardinal

January 11th, 2011

El 9, 10 y 11 de Enero, 2011 – January 9-11, 2011

El Yunque and Luquillo, Puerto Rico

one of El Yunque's waterfalls during our hike (note the tiny writer on the rock below)Oh, there are so many wonderful experiences to cover, it took me forever to get this down. I only hope I can capture a portion of how incredible our last few days of residency were…

After breakfast on the 9th, our guide, Robin Phillips, showed up with his son Daniel, a trunk of Gandalfian walking sticks (have to credit this term to the fabulous Adam Love), and a backpack full of rain ponchos.  Our wily band of 19 made its way beyond where the road closed (due to wash out) and into the wilds of the rainforest. Along the way Robin took time to point out each flora and fauna, and we sniffed wild white ginger and swung from Tarzanesque vines (and yes, I did it too. Though I slid off as I went, only to discover when alumna Hunter Sunrise went next that the best thing to do was to grab it with your knees too. Hey, what do you want? They didn’t teach vine-swinging in the upper west side).

I have to insert here that I have been going to El Yunque Rainforest every year of my life, traipsing along the tourist-packed trails, perusing the shelves of the gift shop, only viewing what Robin showed us in the official movie shown in a dark, air-conditioned theatre in the visitor center. This was an entirely different part of the rainforest, and it was unbelievably beautiful.

We hiked for 2 ½ hours, stopping for lunch beside a man-made lake, the water clear and cool. As we ate our sandwiches Robin said, “If you’re going to jump off the bridge, be sure to do it near the second rung. The water is deepest there.”

Gio jumping off the bridge“Oh no, nobody’s jumping off any bridge!” I yelped. "Louise would kill me!"

Of course, Adam Love was the first of our group to make his way along the metal and cement structure. Not only did he jump off, but he did a back flip, just to freak me out. Gio followed, and of course I had to go. I had to. Casper Martin and I made our way along, all the time I’m thinking “what the hell are you doing, Ann? These people are in their 20s! You’re 47!” Well, I’ve never been very good about listening to authority, particularly my internal one. I jumped off that bridge, and though I swallowed a boat-load full of water I was very happy I did. Robin says the water holds powers of longevity. I don’t doubt it. I swam to shore feeling more alive and exhilarated than I had in years.

Some of our group chose to hang at the pond, but most of us continued on our way to the upper waterfalls. This part of the hike involved climbing a rusty old vertical ladder (probably 2-3 stories high), as well as scaling wet rock face. Rigoberto and I made it up the scary ladder, but chose to remain in the incredible shallow pools at the base of two waterfalls. There we sat in the cool water and reflected on the residency thus far (we were working, Louise, I swear!), while some of our more intrepid travelers made their way up the waterfall. They came down elated and feeling as if they could conquer the world.

The hike back to Casa Cubuy was much faster than the hike up, and we were all quiet, thinking about the incredible day wtrust me, it's best if you don't look down. Really. e had just spent in an untouched part of the world. We didn’t see one other human being. No gift shops, no red-faced tourists, no trash-strewn picnic areas. Just nature, lush and green.

That evening we enjoyed a powerful reading from graduating student Becky Sernett. Her voice was accompanied by the nightly coqui song as we sat on the patio at Casa Cubuy. Laurie Alberts then lead us in a nature writing exercise.

The next day began with the final workshop, then graduating student Jennifer Koski’s excellent lecture titled: Writing Beyond the Stereotypes: Crafting Rural Characters. That afternoon, our last of the residency, our group split for two excursion options: one at Luquillo beach, the other a boat ride and snorkeling. A fabulous and relaxing time was had by all.

Our last night brought a special graduation dinner at Metropol restaurant in Fajardo. We celebrated and toasted our three fabulous graduates: Becky Sernett, Jenn Koski and Karmen Lizzul, and shared photographs from the day’s adventures. That night there was a round of student readings on the patio, and we all made our way to our rooms, reluctant to see our last full day in Puerto Rico come to an end.

Though there were a scattering of cancelled flights the next day due to storms and stranded faculty (sorry Laurie!) nothing could dampen the joy of our 8 days together. I learned so much and am so grateful for the company, wisdom and joy of my 16 pioneering companions. I will never forget the time I shared with them.

I am going to end with the piece I wrote during Laurie’s exercise. It is rough and unedited and probably rife with clichés, but it accurately reflects the emotion of the experience for me. I hope you enjoy it.

Con cariño,


El Colibrí

It was during a slug of water, a draft, the cool mountain spring water cascading down my throat. It was then that I saw it, the purple feathers glistening in the fading sun, iridescent sherbet darting among the waxy, green leaves. I could hear its hum…no, I could feel its hum like a harp string’s vibrato in my chest, the wings motionless in their rapid beating.

I froze, water bottle halfway to mouth, muddy sneakers perched between two slippery rocks. I watched it hover, drink, hover, then fly away. Was it two seconds? Three? My time in the rainforest had been so similar, barely 24 hours but the seconds beating so fast as to seem like days or weeks had passed. Time hovering over the lush green mountains, the warm company of writers like the flutter of wings, propelling, lifting, but passing all too quickly.

I fear the end of its iridescence.

I fear the time moving on to other nectars, other lives.

January 8th, 2011

El 7 y 8 de Enero, 2011 – January 7 & 8, 2011

San Juan and El Yunque, Puerto Rico

It’s interesting to be writing this without knowing if any one will see it! I’m sitting on the balcony of my room at the Casa Cubuy Eco Lodge in the middle of El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s rainforest. I’m typing to a full orchestra of coqui sontour at the Museum of our African Rootsg, accompanied by the roar of nearby waterfalls. Seriously, the view is awe-inspiring, unbelievably lush and green, peppered with splashes of brightly colored impatiens, grapefruit trees, and red ginger plants. Beautiful, yes. Wifi friendly? No. Seems the erratic cloud cover brings the satellite in and out. But no matter. Who needs internet access in paradise?

But I digress. I haven’t yet told you about yesterday! And what a day it was. Once again it began with workshops, followed by a wonderful lecture from graduating student Karmen Lizzul entitled “The Female Hero’s Journey: Mythic Structure in Regards to the Female Protagonist in Classic and Modern Literary Works.” We perched across Tere’s glamorous furniture and were rapt (even with the occasional growl of the tourist buses that passed by on their way to the fort).

Then we made our way up Calle San Sebastian to El Museo de la Raíz Africana (Museum of our African Roots). We had a fascinating tour through the exhibits of tribal masks, religious symbolism, art and music, all part of this important part of Puerto Rican heritage. Once again we were struck by how beautifully this visit tied in with all our earlier conversations and lectures about race and Puerto Rican identity.

Hector Feliciano speaking to our groupAfter lunch, we returned to Tere’s house and  faculty member Laurie Alberts gave an invigorating lecture on travel writing, including a writing exercise where we were each assigned a particular style of common travel voice (I had been hoping for Gonzo but was happy to write in the Search for Self travel writing voice). Then we enjoyed a reading from faculty member Rigoberto Gonzalez and graduating student Jennifer Koski. Both were just wonderful.

Then we headed across the old city to meet with author and journalist Hector Feliciano. He and his wife graciously opened their gorgeous home to us and we sat in the open air sitting room with thView from Hector's roofe mango tree branches waving behind our heads. He told us about the 8 years of research and writing he did for his non-fiction book: The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must feel like to know that 2,000 works of art were recovered due to your research and book? And to remain so humble and warm at the same time… Hector then led us to the house’s rooftop terrace where we enjoyed hors d’oevres, fresh tropical fruit juice, and the view of the sun setting over the harbor while Hector read from the book. The day really could not have been fuller or more fulfilling. 

We spent this morning traveling east along the northern coast, the wild Puerto Rican traffic buzzing around us. We knew when our mini vans slowly snaked up and up along the narrow mountain roads that we were in for something spectacular. We entered Casa Cubuy and took in the expanse of rainforest above and below us with a group sharp intake of breath. Then we made our way down the muddy path that led directly from the hotel to the breathtaking (a cliché, I know, but when the shoe fits!) waterfall below. Many of us swam in the cool, clean water while others sat on the rocks, sunning like lagartijas (lizards).

Tomorrow brings with it a 6 hour hike through the rainforest with an experienced guide. I can only imagine the beautiful writing that will come from that experience…

workshop spaces don't get much better than this

January 6th, 2011

El 6 de Enero, 2011 – January 6, 2011

San Juan, Puerto RicoPlaza de Armas all dressed up for the holiday

¡Feliz día de Reyes! Happy Three Kings Day!

Today is a big holiday on the island, and much of the stores and businesses are closed.  There are usually more activities for the holidays, the Governor gives out free toys to hundreds of thousands of children, but these events were moved to the sports stadium because the immense amounts of people and traffic literally closed the old city in years past. Ah well, people found their own festivities!

Once again our group exercised their minds and stretched their craft with a morning workshop. Then, because the Poets Passage was closed for the holiday, we moved our meetings to my cousin Tere Davila’s house. Tere is a well-known Puerto Rican writer, with works of non-fiction, fiction and children’s literature to her name. Her house is perched near the ancient wall that surrounds the city, so our meetings took place in a gorgeous room with a view of the ocean beyond.

Graduating student Rebecca Sernett gave a fascinating lecture called “A Writer’s Space: The Bridge Between External and Internal Worlds.” This sparked some lively conversation about our own writing spaces.  (Interestingly enough when several people created Our meeting space At Tere Davila'swhat they thought was the perfect sacred writing spaces they found they couldn’t write there. We are indeed strange and fickle creatures, are we not?)

Then we took off for lunch on our own (note to self and to any of you planning an event here in Puerto Rico: leave at least 2 hours for lunch. Service is warm and lovely but on Caribbean time), and returned for a reading from my brilliant and invaluable Graduate Assistant, Alumna Caitlin Leffel. I read from my young adult novel The Gift of the Cuentista which takes place in part in Puerto Rico.

Later that afternoon we all went off to celebrate the holiday in our own ways. I had the opportunity to see my beloved Aunts Georgina and Marijo and Tío Esteban. We had a wonderful meal at Mojitos, a restaurant near the piers.

Tomorrow is our last day in Old San Juan, then off to the rainforest!

El 5 de Enero, 2011 – January 5, 2011

San Juan, Puerto RicoAuthor Mayra Santos Febres at the Poets Passage

Today began with workshops and much rain. The blue cobblestone streets were shiny but the rain had stopped by the time we made our way back to the Poets Passage. Our next visiting writer, the stalwart Mayra Santos-Febres, made her way to us directly from an asthma attack and a hospital trip. Despite her morning trials she was fabulous. Mayra spoke to us about the history of Puerto Rican Literature and her own work, with emphasis on themes of Puerto Rican identity and the role of women in the island’s literary history.

Later that afternoon, VCFA faculty member Rigoberto Gonzalez gave a lecture on the 20th century US Latino poetry and politics—focusing on the powerful Nuyorican (New York/Puerto Rican) movement on the mainland. There have been several themes that have been reoccurring during our discussions here, issues of race, class, oppression, imperialism, and we’ve been gaining an understandinLaurie Alberts and Pam Taylor listening to Kina during tour of 4th levelg of all of these from totally different viewpoints. It is clear that the complexity of the island’s history and people is strongly expressed in the lives and works of its artists and writers.

In between these two presentations we went on a guided tour of San Felipe del Morro, one of the two 16th century citadels that guard the old city. I’ve been going to the fort since I could walk, every summer my parents would drag us children along behind them in the blazing sun as they photographed broken stone walls and cracked cannons. At that time I didn’t understand the draw (and honestly, during the summer it is about 3 degrees hotter than Hades there since the old stone walls hold the heat all too well). But today was the first time I took a guided tour and it was fascinating. Our guide, Park Ranger Kina González Rodríguez (The fort is part of the US National Karmen doing her graduating reading at the Poets PassagePark system) took us around and talked of the fort’s history. It was interesting to imagine the Spanish protecting the island from this stronghold, bringing yet another level to our understanding of the island under the colonial rule of España. And can I tell you? Unlike my childhood visits the weather was glorious. Though it had rained much of morning the sun came out just in time for our tour and the breeze off the ocean kept the air cool and fresh. I could not take enough pictures of our ridiculously photogenic group.

Our evening closed with some powerful readings from graduating student Karmen Lizzul (yay Karmen!) and faculty member Laurie Alberts (who read from a work she’s collaborating on with other VCFA faculty member, Abby Frucht). It was a perfect ending to another rich and full day.


January 5th, 2011

Yesterday was the first full day of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing's first Puerto Rico residency, and what an incredible day it was. It was so full as to be close to bursting, with workshop, readings and visits from Puerto Rican writers, a lecture on Puerto Rican literature, an open mic poetry reading at the Poets Passage, good food and great company.

Students arrived on the island on Monday night, meeting up for a reception at the fabulous Poets Passage in Old San Juan, just a few short blocks from our lodgings in the cobble-stoned colonial city. Our hostess, the gracious and brilliant poet Lady Lee Andrews, welcomed us in her unique space. Warmly arranged with couches, stuffed chairs, rugs and art- filled walls, the space is a touchstone for San Juan's writers. Lady was also our first visiting writer, talking to us about her life as a poet here on the island, of her faith-filled journey to publication and starting the Poets Passage, and sharing her poetry with us.
Artist Raquel Quijano showing us her handmade book
Tuesday was the first full day, beginning with orientation and my lecture on Puerto Rican literature at the Poets Passage. We then all headed over to the Casa del Libro, the House of the Book, where we were warmly greeted by the Museum's director, Gloria Vega Vega. The Casa del Libro is a museum dedicated to the history and art of the book. Though they are currently located in temporary space on the Callejon de la Capilla, their collection of 7,000 pieces includes:

  • A document signed by Isabel and Ferdinand regarding Columbus' second journey, which is believed to be the oldest printed document in the Americas.
  • A copy of James Joyce's Ulysses illustrated by Matisse
  • A single page from a 1450 Gutenberg bible
  • A copy of Don Quixote printed in 1605 (its first year of publication).
They had prepared a fascinating presention for our students on the poetry of Luis Pales Matos. The first part was a lecture from Professor Eugenio Ballou from the University of Puerto Rico on the work of Matos, followed by comments frAuthor Luis Lopez Nieves talking to our group at the Poets Passageom respected island poet Vanessa Drosz. The third and final part was an interpretation of the poet's work by Puerto Rican artist and fine art student Raquel Quijano. Quijano has created an extraordinary handmade book based on a little known poem by Matos, that included intricrately detailed artwork and gorgeously rendered pop-ups. I can honestly say without hyperbole that her work was breathtaking. And this three part view of a writer's work--the scholarly from the academic, artistic from the poet, and visual interpration from the artist--brought impressive depth to the experience.

After lunch and workshop, we returned to the Poets Passage for a presentation from Puerto Rican fiction writer Luis Lopez Nieves. Lopez Nieves was a gracious visitor, talking about his life and work. He also talked about the program he founded at Sacred Heart University in San Juan, the first graduate writing program in Latin America. Though he writes entirely in Spanish, he shared a student's translation from one of his novels.

That evening several VCFA writers participated in the weekly open mic night at Poets Passage. The storefront was filled to capacity with poets, writers and listeners from all over the island. Afterwards many of us Casper Martin reading at Open Mic night at the Poets Passagemade our way to Picoteo, the elegant tapas bar at the historical El Convento Hotel, and talked about the events of the full day to abackground of coqui song (Puerto Rican tree frogs) from the palms that graced the hotel's courtyard.

As graduating student Jenn Koski said, yesterday was like "two days rolled into one."

Full, thought-provoking and fascinating. What will today bring?

June 7th, 2009

Is Cockiness Passé?


Far be it from me to argue with Simon Cowell, but as I watched the finale of American Idol and boy-next-door Kris Allen win the title I finalized a theory I have been brewing for the last few months. You see Simon has told Kris from the beginning that he had to be more confident, cockier, but I would argue that the boy’s humility and lack of cockiness is exactly what won the competition for Kris. And I’m wondering…does this represent a sea change in the arts, particularly in the music industry?  

I actually began thinking about this when I attended a keynote speech given by brilliant Dominican author Julia Alvarez. The conference organizer who was doing the introduction stood before us and read a long list of all of Julia’s publications as people shifted in their chairs. She listed every award and accolade (of which there are MANY) whilst the author herself sat on the stage in her rebozo looking uncomfortable and anxious as we were for it to be over with. Finally Julia leaned over to the woman and told her, “You can skip through all that. Please.” She really wasn’t about all that and clearly wasn’t comfortable being fawned over. Now you could argue that the very fact that she would tell the woman to move on displayed a certain level of confidence, but being confident and being arrogant are two very different things. Ms. Alvarez is the former but not the latter. But that very afternoon I was on my elliptical listening to Latin Hip Hop and Reggaeton and it came to me… Perhaps with the current national climate, the time for arrogance is fading.

I was listening to Pitbull and Daddy Yankee and began counting how many times they repeated their names and their record labels as part of the “lyrics.” When I play Nicky Jam’s album “The Black Carpet” it has become a joke between my son and I how many times he says, “Nicky Jams, yo!” over and over and over throughout the recording, as well as the name of the album. I mean, I KNOW who it is and what it’s called, I bought the damn thing, didn’t I? I stopped and admitted that this had begun to seem arrogant and self-indulgent to me. Now I know it was begun as a way for a people who fought for recognition and a voice to represent themselves, a way for unrepresented people to demand to be heard, and I know this has played an important part in the culture of modern music. But though I am far from the usual demographic I think things are changing. I think in this Obamera (Obama-era…I just made that up!) and with the country struggling with the economy and survival we are turning outward rather than inward, confident rather than arrogant.

Now I know the average AI watcher is not going to be into Reggaeton, but I can guarantee that a large amount of those young girls who voted for Kris also paid 99 cents to download Fergalicious, which could not be more self-promoting if it tried, but it was hard not to respond to his total non-pretention and lack of slickness. Though I am a serious Adam fan I couldn’t help but be drawn in to Kris’s shock as they announced his name as the winner. He, like Julia Alvarez, comes across as someone you could be friends with who just happens to be talented and famous. They don’t need to repeat their names over and over again because we remember their names because we like them. We like them because they’re not obnoxious and constantly reminding us that they’re better or more famous. They’re one of us.

Am I just an aging idealist whose channeling her socialist mother, or do you think the “me generation” is now become an “us generation?” One can only hope.

January 18th, 2009

Home is Where They Take You


When I was growing up, my father insisted that my family move every two years. It was as if he couldn’t stand the feeling of grass growing beneath his feet. As soon as a house became home we had to pack-up our toys and books, and take the pictures off the freshly painted walls. My mother hated this nomadic existence. “I would have made a bad gypsy,” she used to tell me in hindsight as old age overtook her. If she traveled anywhere for more than a day she dragged along a firm pillow, a hairdryer, and—like a good Latina—a make-up case the size of a toolbox with its own light-up mirror.

The year I turned three my father was diagnosed with ALS, and in the confusion that illness brings, the biannual move was forgotten. We spent the next couple of years traveling to see specialists around the country during breaks from school and my father’s academic job. For the benefit of us children these trips were disguised as family vacations, but though we never discussed it I think all of us knew that our time together was fleeting. Despite the fact that I was quite young at the time, the memories of these family trips are strong, particularly of the motels in which we stayed. Each time I would unpack my bags and carefully place my small clothes in a dresser drawer, no matter how short the stay. I wanted to make the motel room mine…ours. Keenly focused images of these places haunt my memory to this day.

The clearest memory I have is of the Tiki pool house—a popular theme in 1960’s decorating—at a motel we stayed at in Washington D.C. I particularly remember walking out of the main building with my mother and brother John. This excursion was very unusual as it was past my bedtime and my mother had never expressed an interest in swimming, but I was not going to question why and take the chance of breaking the spell. I skipped along, giddy with the anticipation and excitement of swimming at night for the first time. I watched my flip-flops slosh along the wet grass and stones, my thirsty stamped motel towel over my arm, the moon gleaming off of my sloppily painted peppermint-pink toenails. I was mesmerized by the steam that poured from the heated pool house into the cool night air, hovering along the ground giving the scene a graveyard feel. I ran ahead and pushed open the door to the pool house and the heat smacked me in the face reminding me of the annual feeling of stepping off the plane into the heat of my mother’s island. What my siblings and I didn’t know was that the next day, under the guise of a two-day business meeting, my father had the nerves from his left hand moved to his newly lifeless right hand so he could hold the chalk and continue to teach his classes in architectural graphics. After he returned (explaining the bandaged hand as an accident) we visited the Lincoln memorial and the White House and I had that anxious yet happy feeling one has on Christmas Eve. My brothers and sister were being nice to me (I suspect that as they were older they had a better idea of what was really going on) and I had my parents’ attention and affection. I could have lived at that Tiki hotel.

Eventually we moved on campus as Dad’s increasing immobility demanded a short commute. A few months after his death a good friend of his, a rabbi, was mugged and murdered two blocks from our apartment. Though my mother hated to move, particularly at a time when the care of children left at home and her full-time job didn’t allow her the luxury of grief, we moved back to the New Jersey town where I had spent the first five years of my life. It was not the same without Dad.

When I hit my twenties and moved out, “home” became wherever my mother was: Manhattan, Morrisville, Vermont. Whenever I went off to visit her I would tell my co-workers I was “going home” for the weekend, even though I had never lived in Vermont. Eventually I followed her and my siblings north. Now, fourteen years after her death though my husband and I own a house, we yearn for the perfect home in the country, acres of land, the only sound the wind in the trees. I yearn for a place to stay for a long, long time. I think that is why I took so strongly to my Puerto Rican roots and feel so comforted by the silhouette of a palm tree, the song of tree frogs, and the constancy of my mother’s family. For me the island represents a history my own childhood lacked, and a family center to visit now that my mother is gone. I yearn for fertile soil in which to sink my roots. To plant gardens, paint walls, and hang family portraits. To call somewhere “home.”

My eleven-year-old son is very attached to this not-so-perfect house on this tiny street, yet when we take vacations to visit family in Puerto Rico, Canada or Connecticut I’ve noticed that he really doesn’t care if we go home at all. As he sat sifting the sand with his father on the warm Luquillo beach he told me he wanted to stay there forever. Then we gather our things and return to the daily grind of life in Morrisville, Vermont and he loses the relaxed attention of his parents to jobs, laundry, a snowed-in walkway.

I’ve come to realize from watching him and with the settling of middle age that it isn’t “home” I yearn for as in a building, but rather the presence of family, unconditional love and the sense that things are taken care of. Someone else will keep you safe. Home is the feeling you have when you are a child sleeping in the back seat of the car while your parents talk softly in the front seat. Half-asleep, half-awake, you smile, feeling comforted and content. You pretend to sleep as your father lifts you from the car and as he carries you to the house. You are sad that the moment has to end, that after a gentle good night kiss you will be left, once again, in your dark bedroom alone. Perhaps I am misguided in my thinking that a lovely little country cape with lots of windows will fulfill my quest for home. Perhaps I should work on restoring the feeling I got in that D.C. motel with my family around me. Perhaps home is not permanent, but rather something fleeting, like most precious things are.



January 19th, 2008

visit me at my new digs!

Cafe Con Lupe is now found at La Bloga! visit me at www.labloga.blogspot.com where I post every other Sunday as their newest Bloguera!

November 3rd, 2007

SpongeBob Philosopher Pants


Indulge me, gentle readers. I would like to speak to you today of SpongeBob Squarepants. I know, I know, with his cube-shaped, gap-toothed smiling face appearing on every lunchbox, notebook and bedsheet set, you’ve had just about enough of him, but hear me out. I am here to confess that his is my favorite show on television: and I’m not alone. The average demographic age for SpongeBob viewers is a surprising 28. Okay, admittedly if you took out those under the influence of some variety of chemical that would probably dip to eight-year-olds, but I would argue that it is actually a pretty complex show.
It was my niece and nephew, Elena and Peter, who first told me about the show. We were parked out on the couch with my then infant son when the first strains of the bizarre piratesque theme song pulled my attention away from the catalog on my lap. “What’s this?” I asked.
They answered rather nonchalantly, “Oh, its SpongeBob Squarepants. It’s about a talking sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea.”
Huh? Slack-jawed I watched the show and was instantly sucked into the bizarre world of Bikini Bottom. What were these writers on when they came up with this? I wondered, trying to imagine the pitch and what kind of producers would have recognized this as a good idea (not to mention the tremendous hit it would become). As my son grew, he became interested as well, and whenever I walked by the living room and saw that bright yellow face, heard the effervescently cheerful voice, and spied the gloriously tropical colored graphics I would stop whatever I was doing to watch. I wasn’t sure why, but I was soothed by the show.
Now, my mother used to say that Mickey Mouse was going to be the downfall of Western civilization. She claimed that he represented what Walt Disney considered to be the typical American: brainless, passive and aggravatingly cheerful. I often wonder: what would she have thought about SpongeBob? I mean, he is so enamored of his minimum wage, fast food job he is willing to pay to work, and he is constantly going along with any exploitative scheme that his cheapskate boss Mister Krabs dreams up. His only goal is to earn his driver’s license so he can buy a boatmobile, thereby contributing to society’s consumerist mentality, and his fleshy pink starfish buddy Patrick is obnoxiously brainless yet somehow arrogant. I mean, really, SpongeBob is the ultimate stooge of a capitalist system. But even knowing all this, he still comforts me. Sorry, Mom.
Because there is another side to our absorbent yellow friend, a Zen side, if you will. He is a type of idiot savant, whose relentlessly positive outlook always brings him further happiness and success. He is happy with the simplest of existences, skipping along through Jellyfish Fields, catching the mischievous blobs only to release them and start again. His patience with and resilience to the acerbic barbs from his cantankerous bachelor neighbor Squidward allows him to remain friends with him despite it all. He trusts everyone, loves his pet snail, and goes through life consistently happy and enthusiastic, all while never venturing into vapidity. The show is smart, funny and simplistically but elegantly rendered, and with its regular cast of allegorical characters, there is always someone you can relate to (I mean, who hasn’t come across a stuck-in-his-ways Squidward in their lives? Or who isn’t tickled by the tight-jawed, Kirk Douglas-voiced Plankton with his silent moviesque evil plans to steal the secret recipe for the Krabby Patty?)
So finally, in my defense, there is something about the show that hearkens to a simpler time, bundled in a modern yet intelligent package with an ultimate message of hope. Unlike the brainless repetitive violence of the vintage Road Runner or the modern scenery chewing voice overs, badly rendered graphics and consumerist teachings of Pokémon, SpongeBob Squarepants is a brightly-colored poster child for Buddhist tolerance and tranquility. I, for one, am striving to be more like him, to find joy in everyday things and not let other people’s negativity effect me, to love totally and unconditionally, and retain a childlike wonder. The only issue that remains is how a giant pineapple would hold up against a Vermont winter. I’ll have to look into that

October 12th, 2007

Fifteen Candles


For a moment, just a moment, we actually considered lying about it to a national reporter. But in the end we confessed that not one of us—the three authors of Sister Chicas, a coming-of-age novel that culminates in the celebration of one of the character’s quinceañera—had had our own Latin equivalent of a sweet fifteen party. For Jane and Lisa’s families money had been tight, and for me, well, my mother was not your typical Puerto Rican mother. She was a self-proclaimed socialist and openly disdained such events. But she had told me all about this ritual that seems to be coming back in style for Latinos in the U.S. with a vengeance. “But I never had one myself, you understand,” she would always say in caveat.
“It is the equivalent of a debutante ball, a coming-out party for girls from the ‘best’ families. It was more about the parents’ standing than the girl’s birthday,” she would tell me. According to her, formal events of this type were very popular when she was growing up in late 1930s and early 1940s Puerto Rico. There are scores of photos of her dressed in starched white lace at different ages, her hair in perfect ringlets, her hand clutched in her cousin Georgie’s, their young eyes weary but resigned to being paraded at carnival as Pierot and Pierrette. And though there is a series of photos of her at age fifteen, glamorous as any movie star of the period, she insisted she hadn’t had the event herself. She seemed proud of this fact. “It was designed to present a daughter of marriageable age to the community, to find her a husband. Bah! I refused to be paraded around like livestock in expensive white crinoline!” At the time I couldn’t understand her problem with it, I mean, isn’t it every girl’s dream to wear Barbie gowns and a tiara and have everyone’s attention on her?
When I turned fifteen, she sat me down and said, “sweetheart it is customary that I should throw you a quinceañera for this birthday, but I really don’t want to subject you to that and besides,” she continued as she surveyed my then thick black eyeliner, spiked ice blond hair and punk attire, “it really doesn’t seem like something you’d be into.” At that point in my life, I had to agree. But that day she gave me a diamond ring, her own engagement ring she had had reset into a simple gold setting. “I felt the need to mark this important birthday in some way,” she had said. I was grateful, but confused by her sentimentality given the disdain she had expressed for the traditions of that particular birthday. But whether or not I understood her reasons, I was always touched by her need to mark the occasion, if not with an all out ball (with the Ramones playing, of course), at least with a symbol that meant so much to her, and was a connection to my deceased father.
Years later I would recall my mother’s disdain for this event during the aforementioned interview with USA Today about the ritual of the quinceañera. “My mother didn’t even have one,” I told the reporter though it seemed odd to me as I knew my mother’s family was well-off and could have afforded one. I went on to explain that with the resurgence of interest in the event I had to admit I didn’t share her disdain. I mean, as long as it doesn’t put the family in the poorhouse to throw one for their princesa, then why the hell not? I myself love to dress up and the idea of sauntering about with your friends and family dressed in a full length gown with a tux-clad, handsome partner at your side sounds dreamy.
Three months later I was on a conference call with my co-authors, typing notes for a sequel to our novel on my computer, when an email came in from my sister Ellen.
“Look what I found in a box in the basement today,” the subject line said. I clicked on the attached scan while chatting on the phone and gasped as it opened up on the screen. It was a faded press clipping from 1939 that was captioned: “Una Alegre Fiestecita de Cumpleaños” or “A Happy Birthday Party.” And there was my mother, dressed in a full length white satin gown, a spray of white roses across her chest and a wide smile on her gorgeous, lipsticked mouth. I did the math in my head…she was born in 1924, so it was…her fifteenth birthday.

“Annie? You still there?” I heard my chicas asking on the other ends of the phone line in Chicago and New York and it snapped me out of my slack-jawed coma.
“Yes,” I squawked, shock still tightening in my throat. “It’s just…well, my sister sent me a clipping that apparently is about my mother’s quinceañera!”
“But I thought she hadn’t had one?” Lisa asked.
“Me too.” I said. I went on to read the article in Spanish and translated it with Jane’s help.
“Whoa, the governor’s children came. Annie, that was a really important party if they were there.” Jane had grown up on the island and understood the lifestyle better than I ever would. “Why do you think she lied about it?”
Truth be told, I hadn’t a clue. It was no surprise that yet another of my mother’s stories turned out to be untrue—I found out long after her death that it was from her I got my fiction skills—but why this? I mean, she wasn’t a socialist at fifteen; that came much later in her life. But as I stared at the pixilated image on my screen and a sea of teenage faces stared back at me, only one—her best friend Maria Mercedes—that I recognized, I realized that though the smile seemed honest, this glamorous event was certainly entirely of her mother’s doing. I knew that very few of those children were actually her friends and knowing her crazy and belligerent mother—God rest her troubled soul—none of the details had been under my mother’s control.
By the time I knew her, my mother had grown into a fiercely independent woman, who survived my father’s long illness and subsequent death and managed to raise her three children still remaining at home on a draftsperson’s salary. As I thought of her uniform of loosely flowing, Bohemian clothing and her radical ideologies I became certain that it was way more than not wanting a fancy party: just the idea of being pushed and pulled around in stiff formal finery by her overpowering madre had been her idea of hell.
After I hung up the phone I continued to stare at the clipping for some time. It was then I decided to cut the woman a break. If she wanted to forget the event ever happened, then good for her. I would forgive her for trading that one small white lie for a white satin formal, with a big fat heaping of rebellion on the side. I had to get it from somewhere, after all.
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