Almost White Rick Najera
Smiley Books, New York, NY
A good book keeps you turning the pages. When you put it down for the night you do so reluctantly – you want to know where it is going and how that might affect you. But above all a good book teaches you something you didn’t know, it expands your perspective in directions you didn’t know existed. You learn something new, and you are better for it.
Rick Najera’s new book, Almost White, succeeds on all counts. It is Rick’s story, from his childhood in San Diego to his successes in Hollywood and Broadway, told with a stark honesty of what it means to be an Hispanic in the “white man’s” traditional domain.
We meet Rick first in the hospital ICU where he is recovering from a bout of pneumonia and a vicious fall that nearly kills him. It is a dire situation, but as is true throughout the book, Rick deftly melds humor with drama as he tells his entertaining stories of his climbing the illusionary ladder, albeit often two steps up and one step down – but always forging ahead, knowing that his life’s work is what he was meant to do, not only for himself and his family, but for the many other talented artists of color who do not always find a voice or an open avenue to succeed.
Reading the book you quickly learn that Rick is a funny guy. After all, Najera writes comedy in Hollywood and it is apparent why. In Living Color and MADtv don’t hire hacks, and he has written for both. He has also written, directed and starred in Latinologues, making him one of only three Latinos to do all three on Broadway. So he has the background to make his story a legitimate one. But there is undeniably an undertone of anger present as Rick recounts his experiences as being perceived as – almost white. It is not a manufactured anger of “woe is me”, but an anger built on years of frustration, obvious racism and nailed-shut doors. And you, the reader, understands that anger can often be a positive force. Anger has always been the spark that has fueled positive change, and that is why, I suspect, Rick has written his story.
Now back to my first paragraph, does the reader learn something from reading Almost White? Yes, without a doubt. I have known people who have tried a life in Hollywood, and it is very difficult to succeed. That’s the reality for anyone not named Clooney or Streep. But having read this book I have learned that there is another layer of challenges for anyone born with the last name of Cepeda, or Trujillo – or Najera. It is real, and it is wrong. Almost White is a well-written, informative read that I highly recommend.
Note: Available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and various bookstores.
Discover a part of Mexico that you probably have no idea about. Author Richard Grant takes you on his wild journey into the Sierra Madre to areas unfamiliar to most travelers. It is a land far removed from the sunny beaches and fine-dining of Cancun and Cabo. Go to the Amazon page here to look inside the book for a sample
If you’re like me, you may have been wondering what all the Maya “it’s-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” controversy is all about. As has been widely reported, on December 21, 2012, there will be a rare alignment in the skies when the sun will be positioned exactly on the crossroads between the galactic equinox (huh?) and the Milky Way – my favorite candy bar. Apparently, this is a big deal, so we better all take note.
One thing we know for sure about the ancient Maya is that they were excellent astronomers, and they saw this day coming many centuries ago, naming it the Sacred Tree. So if the Maya really believed this, one would be well advised to pay attention. You never want to be caught with your pants down when cataclysmic events are on the horizon (I refer to Hannibal and the Romans at the Battle of the Trebia, or when the guy jumps out of the trunk in The Hangover).
There appear to be several interpretations as to exactly what will happen on that fateful day. One camp (and we know who you are) is predicting total annihilation of Mother Earth and you darn well better make peace with your maker, if not the IRS and your ex-spouse. Another more scholarly group points out that for the Maya all events are circular – there are no endings. So December 21 will be a reset day – a new beginning for mankind. That doesn’t sound like such a bad idea given the cost of a college education these days. And, of course, there are the New Age acolytes, fully prepared to experience the Age of Aquarius, sung with such passion on stage in the Hair production four decades ago. Love and Peace forever, brother.
Fortunately, Jeanine Kitchel has written an engaging and scholarly book just in time to clear up the confusion. I first met the author about 13 years ago as I passed through Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo, Mexico, where she was living and running an English-language bookstore with her husband, Paul. It was there that she became enthralled with the Maya, reading all that she could about that great civilization, and like everyone else, trying to figure out what happened to cause the abandonment of the thousands of cities and villages, many of which have since been dug out of the dense jungles of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and the southern Mexico states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. In the book Jeanine painstakingly cites all of the Maya-phile works, from John Lloyd Stephens to Michael Coe to David Stuart.
“It was something I loved to read about,” she says. “I was fascinated by the Maya culture and the fact that, at the time, no one could break the code. It was this incredible mystery and a very exciting time in the Yucatan and I was at the source. As each new Maya title was published -about the civilization, the code, the pyramids – I ordered it. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was seriously addicted.”
Jeanine had a lot of ground to cover, as the Maya have been around a long time, dating back to the Pre-Classic period of c. 2000 BC to AD 250. And, of course, they are still with us – about seven million at last count. The advanced, lost civilizations may have mysteriously disappeared, but the people have always remained. There are still many different dialects spoken and in many settlements, way back in the bush, daily life and rituals have been maintained in close accordance with their ancestors of long ago. Many settlements have both secular and religious leaders, and offerings are made in the manner of the ancient Maya. They have a distinctive dress, with the women wearing colorful huipiles (blouses) and the men still working the corn fields of their forefathers. They are truly a fascinating and enduring people – a culture that has survived and adapted, and one that we may all be wise to learn from.
Kitchel has written an essential book for anyone who would like to learn about the Maya. She has condensed volumes of information into an easy-to-read and understand page-turner. So what is her conclusion about what will happen on December 21? Well, just pick up an ebook copy for a cheap price to find out, and you’ll also be helping out some Maya kids. On each book sold, a portion of the profits will go to edúcaTE Yucatán, an educational non-profit organization in Yucatán that helps send poor Maya children to school. To get a copy of Maya2012 Revealed, Demystifying the Prophecy, check Kitchel’s website at www.jeaninekitchel.com or Amazon.com, iTunes and Nook.
Michel Peissel died in his sleep in Paris on October 7 at age 74. His brother Bernard emailed me this information a few days afterwards. I’d failed to see his obituary in the New York Times. Apparently Bernard located a copy of the review I wrote of Peissel’s incredible journey to Quintana Roo in 1958, and he wanted to let me know about Peissel. I was glad he did, as Peissel’s book was a life changer for me and countless others who were lucky enough to locate a copy. I found the book in the mid-80s, couldn’t put it down, and shortly after reading it, booked a flight to Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
In the mid 80s, Cancun was not the sophisticated resort city it is today. It definitely wasn’t a backwater because even then the hotel zone had pizazz. Cancun had a Club Med and had been picked to host the Miss Universe contest in 1983. That put a spotlight on its luscious beaches and turquoise waters. But venture five miles south or north, and you would find adventure. I know I did.
Although I was a seasoned Mexico traveler I’d never ventured to the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Maya pyramids were a real draw. Peissel’s world was penned in 1958 when there was barely a road in Quintana Roo. It was hard for me to imagine a place as desolate and rustic as he described, but I soon discovered that Quintana Roo was truly wilderness. My husband and I wanted to see Tulum and Coba and we started out on a local bus. Back then you just hopped a bus and when you saw a sascab road heading towards the beach you asked the driver to stop and let you off. We did this frequently and found unpopulated, uncluttered beaches with nothing on them but coco palms. (Today these same beaches house all-inclusive resorts). Jumping off was easy, but finding another bus –sometimes not so easy.
That’s what led to our next adventure, as we were standing on the side road to Coba. While waiting for a bus, we were given a ride by the man who became our connection to living in Mexico. He was a contractor, and one thing led to another. We eventually built a house in Puerto Morelos, started a bookstore, and later visited Paris where someone told us we simply had to see Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank, as it reminded them of our humble store in Quintana Roo. A far cry to be sure, but we did find a kindred spirit in George Whitman, owner. When he asked where we were from, I thought I’d throw him a curve and said, “Quintana Roo.”
“Aaah, Quintana Roo,” he sighed. “What a place. I loved it there.”
“You’ve been there?” I said, surprised.
“Oh, yes, in the 30s I was traveling through Mexico. My visa ran out and I helped them build a bridge between Chetumal and Belize to get my papers in order.”
“I first heard about it in the book The Lost World of Quintana Roo,” I said, “by Michel Peissel, a Parisian.”
“Michel, of course.”
“You know him?”
“Oh, yes, he came into the store while he was a student at the Sorbonne, and I’d tell him about my travels in Quintana Roo.”
This coincidence led to a fine friendship with Mr. Whitman, who invited us to tea, and then to stay with him in Paris as he always had a place, he said, for writers and travelers.
So Peissel had heard of Quintana Roo through George Whitman, and that changed his life. Whitman was his game changer as he was mine. I’d come full circle, from finding the out-of-print copy of Lost World of Quintana Roo in California to the source of Peissel’s desire to head to Mexico, George Whitman telling Yucatan tales at a bookstore in Paris. Peissel went on to write 15 more books and produce 20 documentaries. His life was a tapestry of travel and adventure, and after Mexico he shifted direction to the Far East where Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal became the passion that would consume him for the rest of his life.
As his brother Bernard said in my email, “He always lived his life his way, never had an employer and never ran out of ideas.”
Sandra Cisneros, widely acclaimed authority on Chicano and bicultural issues, will keynote the San Miguel International Writers’ Conference this February. The author of the million-copy best seller The House on Mango Street will present a talk titled “Living in los Tiempos de Sustos” (Living in the Time of Fear).
Others among the faculty of 42 distinguished writers include Elinor Lipman, author of nine novels, and Mexican author Mónica Lavín, who recently received the prestigious Elena Poniatowska Prize, awarded by the Mexico City government for her novel Yo la peor (“I, the Worst”) about Sor Juana de la Cruz.
Topics at the sixth annual bilingual conference—to be held February 18 to 20 in historic San Miguel de Allende, Mexico— will include discussions on travel writing, crime fiction, feature articles, personal essays, screen writing, and poetry.
Although San Miguel is known for its large and active gringo community, the San Miguel Literary Sala (www.sanmiguelliterarysala.org), which produces the conference, is committed to including locals in its activities. All conference general sessions are simultaneously translated, and some of the workshops are offered in Spanish. Additionally, the conference will include an intensive workshop in creative writing for 30 promising San Miguel high school students, who will also attend the conference free of charge.
The need for literary events in Spanish was presented in a 2005 UNESCO report outlining the low numbers of readers in Mexico. According to the report, Mexicans read on average just over two books per year, while Swedes, for example, finish that many every month.
The cost of the entire three-day conference is US$375. This includes breakfast every day, a meal in the country, lectures, mini-workshops, and a spectacular Mexican fiesta. Last year’s keynote speaker, Barbara Kingsolver, was so enchanted by the fiesta that she wrote about it in an essay in the paperback edition of her novel, The Lacuna, calling it ” . . . one of the 10 best parties I have attended in my life, and I’m sure I can’t remember the other nine.”
More information on the conference can be found at www.sanmiguelwritersconference.org.
Avant-Garde Art and Artists in Mexico: Anita Brenner’s Journals of the Roaring Twenties (University of Texas Press, 2010) had it’s first public outing in San Antonio last week.
Edited and compiled by her daughter, Susannah Glusker, the splendidly illustrated work in two volumes, includes the years 1925 to 1930 when Mexico, fresh from Revolution, experienced a torrent of renewed appreciation of its history, culture, art and artists. Anita Brenner, then age 20 to 25, and intelligent beyond her years, became embraced early by the inner circle of that brilliant renaissance. The diary she kept swirls with the names of Mexico’s literati of the time, their gatherings, and her daily life and work as translator and writer. The book finishes in the 1940s as this renaissance matures and changes along with Brenner’s ever broadening world.
Glusker’s two other books inviting the world into her mother’s life and times include: Anita Brenner: A Mind of her Own (University of Texas Press, 1998) and Anita Brenner: Vision of an Age (Editorial RM, 2005) authored with Carlos Monsivais. Avid students of Mexico recognize Anita Brenner’s name from her groundbreaking books Idols Behind Altars(1929) written when she was 24, TheWind That Swept Mexico (1943 ) at 38, her guidebook Your Mexican Holiday 1932) published at 27, and her magazine Mexico this Month (1955-1971). Her voluminous literary output also includes books for children illustrated by renowned artists in Mexico.
Without doing the numbers it’s easy to overlook the full scope of Anita Brenner’s powerful drive to learn, experience, and accomplish. Such focus. Despite being cut off financially when, instead of finishing college in the U.S. as her father wanted, at 18 she hied to her beloved Mexico in time for induction into Mexico’s cultural renaissance that changed her life. Besides those early accomplishments mentioned above, at 25 she won a Guggenheim Fellowship, 1930-1932, to study Aztec art in Europe and Mexico, while also marrying. At 29, two years after finishing the Guggenheim, she completed a Ph. D in Anthropology from Columbia University,without first earning a bachelor or master’s degree. She spent 17 years in New York before returning to Mexico to live and work.
When I literally crossed paths with Glusker, just before she spoke about the book at the Instituto Cultural de Mexico in San Antonio, I had come to hear her talk about the new book. In that brief moment of quiet, before she was swarmed by San Antonio relatives and well wishers, I inched in a burning question. “Through the journals, did you learn things about your mother that you never knew?” She answered part then, and part during her talk that followed. Her mother was known by many people in many different ways. Michael Mehl, who introduced Glusker to the audience, worded the thought as “universal ownership of Anita.”
In our evening with Glusker she described the beginning process of reading her mother’s journals as part curiosity and part invasion of privacy. The voyeur in me is overjoyed that curiosity won..
While she wove a picture of Brenner, and the people who frequented their home, and/or who were mentioned in the journals, photographs appeared on a central screen, flanked by two screens displaying photographic portraits of Brenner by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti..
Famous names populated Brenner’s world: Dr. Atl, Francisco Goitia, Jose Clemente Orozco, Jean Charlot, Frida Kahlo, David Siquieros, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Carlos Merida and others including “the fat man” Diego Rivera. When the portrait painted by Diego Rivera of Peter, Glusker’s brother, appeared, she quipped “I found reasons to escape being painted by the fat man,” mentioning his unpleasant body odor. Such are the memories from a child’s point of view. So undazzled by fame.
Near the end of her presentation Glusker said, “I must confess, the most interesting part of her life was her personal life.”
When question time I asked if there were questions she wished she’d asked her mother. Someone else mentioned her relationship with her mother. Like so many of us, she described their life as busy, stretched between overseeing the farm in Aguascalientes, Brenner’s writing obligations, and Glusker raising her own family. Then she reflected, “We don’t make time to talk to our parents when we can.” Later, in reference to her relationship with her mother, she added, “I didn’t have unresolved issues when she died; we were friends.”
And finally almost in answer to the unasked question “Do we ever really know our parents,” appearing on the screen was the famed Edward Weston photo of Anita Brenner’s nude backside bent into a pear shape (one of several similar poses taken the same day). The Brenner who Glusker knew was “prudish” and had written that she believed sex would destroy her creativity. An idea held by Brenner, age 20 in 1925, when the photo was taken. “This is the mother I didn’t know.” she said of the photograph. She recounted that her mother barely mentions the day in her journal. Weston’s journal, however, describes the event in detail. He was shaving. She wasn’t expected. It was inconvenient, etc. But when he saw the pose, his artistic eye seized the moment..
Susannah Joel Glusker teaches Mexican Women of Note and Mexican Art of the Early Twentieth Century at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.
Anita Brenner’s papers are held at the University of Texas, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas. A full description of the Brenner archives can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/27yzqv8
Every once in awhile I come across a book about Mexico that is so inspiring I feel compelled to spread the word. One Hundred & One Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico (101 Beautiful Small Towns) by Guillermo Garcia Oropeza and Cristobal Garcia Sanchez is just such a work. Published in 2008 by Rizzoli International Publications, this generously illustrated coffee table book introduces readers to some of the most alluring places in Mexico. Spanish colonial towns, seaside villages, and even pre-Hispanic ruins are grouped by geographic regions, and almost every state in the country is represented. Lively text giving detailed historical background accompanies the eye-catching photos. Plus an appendix lists addresses of state and municipal tourism offices, hotels, and restaurants, making this a guide that should appeal to both armchair and active travelers who have a passion for Mexico. Click to see more images of small and not-so-small Mexican towns that I’ve visited.