Saturday, December 31, 2016

Choosing Chacala

I wasn’t excited when Emilia Robinson, director of Chacalit, Chacala’s first Literary Festival, asked me to teach during my writing residency. Who wanted to take a writing class while they were chilling at the beach? Maybe some of the locals but I’d have to teach in English, and how many locals were bilingual? Would beach-adled minds be serious? I’d feared the class would be painfully small, six at most. Twelve attended my first class and only one was a Mexican local. Most were foreigners from the U.S. and Canada.

I was surprised at the size of Chacala’s expat community, proportionally at least as large as San Miguel’s. Hollywood has infused my notion of who hangs out in a small Mexican village, people who need to hide—hoodlums, druggies or errand heiresses (or heirs). None of the expats I met in Chacala fit this mold. They included a retired Canadian judge; a Mormon couple from Utah; a yoga instructor who had a traveling practice (Hawaii will be her next stop); and a real estate who’d come to Chacala for a quarter to sell local properties. Some were full-timers, others, part-timers who owned homes. I understood the retirees like David, who moved there from Seattle. David came more than three years ago and spearheads Chacalart, the visual art component of The Chacala Cultural Foundation. But young people who are still working and have families—why would they choose to live in a place where nothing happens. I spoke with some of them to learn why they’d chosen to move to Chacala.

Love brought Emilia Robinson—an Oxford grad who studied French and Italian language and literature—to Chacala. When she was 19, a volunteer project brought Emilia to Guadalajara to teach English. She met husband, Arturo, three days after she arrived. When Emilia returned to study for her degree, Arturo decided to check out London. He loved it, and stayed working primarily in food services. They toyed with opening a Mexican restaurant in Oxford after Emilia finished her degree, but discovered Chacala—the perfect beach town that only lacked one thing, a friendly place to get good coffee and decent wine. In 2007, she and Arturo opened a breakfast café that evolved into Chac Mool, a beachfront restaurant that is open from dawn till past dusk. Now that Chac Mool is established and Emilia has two girls, she has relinquished on-site responsibilities and works from home.

Emilia also works to impact her community. Chacala will grow, she knows that, but feels that the present community is in a position to influence the direction of that development. She’s proud of Chacala’s efforts to improve the formal education of the local children. This tiny community has a Waldorf & Montessori School that offers scholarships to 90% of their students. And Emilia has been the motivating force behind Chacala’s Saturday market and has established Chacalit. “It is easier,” Emilia said, “to make a difference to a small town.” She thinks bringing musical, artistic and literary events to town enriches experiences for local people and visitors, including opportunities to perform and produce work. They also bring high quality artists to the area. Emilia feels the arts are empowering, sustainable and encourage diversity, qualities that can benefit her community.

Debbie Slobe described her family as “typical suburbanites.” Before they came to Chacala they lived in Louisville, Colorado, a city that multiple national publications rated as one of the top five places to live in the U.S. Debbie, a manager at a nonprofit PR agency, and husband Brian, a middle school science teacher, choose a place with good schools, safe neighborhoods and a sweet little downtown to raise their daughter. But that’s where typical ended. Both had lived and worked outside the U.S., and they planned to take an extended break from everyday life before retirement. The suburbanites I knew weren’t thinking like that, hadn’t lived in places like South Africa before they started families. The Slobe family isn’t my idea of typical.

It took four years to save for their year off. Debbie and Brian knew they wanted to spend their down time in Mexico—a place they’d both visited, a culture they both loved, a place where they could improve their Spanish. The cost of living was inexpensive enough to make a year off feasible and they’d learned, from previous trips, that Mexico was family friendly.

They considered Sayulita but it wasn’t for them—too expensive, too crowed and polluted. They weren’t sure where they would land until a friend recommended Chacala. Their friend loved the village when she stayed at Mar de Jade, Chacala’s yoga, wellness and vacation retreat center and told them about the town’s new Montessori school. They arrived last November. They should have gone home last month but have been so happy with their decision to relocate in this fishing village that their one-year sabbatical has morphed into two. To finance this additional year, Debbie has gone back to work again, part-time, through the Internet, as a freelance communications consultant.

Jen Barnett and husband Boe have not taken the beaten-path. They lived in Alaska for 15 years before relocating to Mexico. Jen discovered Chacala in 2002 when she brought a group of her homeschooled high school students from Alaska to Chacala for language, culture, & leadership studies. After the program was put on hold because of increasing safety concerns with travel to Mexico, she and Boe vacationed in Chacala as a reprieve from the harsh Alaskan winters when they could afford it. Mid-way through their Alaskan chapter, they started a microbrewery and restaurant with another business partner. It grew so rapidly that they quickly found themselves up to their eyeballs in a lifestyle they didn't enjoy. They bought a 1968 Airstream, sold everything that didn’t fit inside it and started to drive south in search of a new place to call home.

They wandered aimlessly for a year and a half before they headed to Chacala uncertain about which direction they wanted to take—someplace all too normal like New Mexico or move somewhere halfway around the world that would cut themselves further from convention. They didn’t do either; they stayed in Chacala. Their children, Enli (ten), and Parker (six), love life there and are almost bilingual. Previously homeschooled, they are attending school for the first time at the local Waldorf and Montessori School. Boe, a poet and writing teacher for homeschooled high school students, has secured enough work online to keep the family afloat. She and Boe are about to open a little artisanal brewery in Chacala that they hope to build slowly until it sustains them.

Kristina Kieffer and her husband Andy were living in San Francisco. Andy developed business software for various companies and Kristina had been a global project manager in the high tech industry. They were good at their work and it generated a ton of money, recognition, and the opportunity to work with smart people from many parts of the world. But it wasn’t a calling for either of them. Adventure was their calling, backpacking to far off lands. Andy developed a passion for surfing, Kristina’s joy came from her volunteer work assisting refugees adapt to their new U.S. lives.

When their daughters were born, Kristina became an at-home mom. The toxic combination of social isolation, boredom, grey San Francisco skies, and dwindling finances, she said, pushed her into post partum depression. They were walking down a beach in Puerto Vallarta, during a spur of the moment trip, when they decided to pull up stakes and start over. It was important to them that their children learn another language and culture so they decided on Mexico. They wanted a city because of schools, financial opportunities, and easy access to an airport that was close to the warm water surf Andy required. They decided on Guadalajara, a huge city only 3½ hours from the beach. Their work is variations of the kind of work they did in the States—Kristina teaches business English and coaches young professionals on their careers. Andy opened a tech investment fund that focuses on Mexican business problems.

There is a famous surf break just around the point in Chacala. The Kieffers came for a long weekend so Andy could check it out and ended up buying the house they’d rented. They love Guadalajara but it's huge and noisy and dirty. Their girls are 12 and 14 now and they expect to spend more time in Chacala as they get older. And activities of Chacala’s Cultural Foundation will only make the village more appealing. Kristina had only planned to spend the weekend in Chacala but extended her stay so that she could take the memoir workshop.

Emilia thinks the reason they are drawn to Chacala is the simplicity that comes with the old school way of life. Chacala’s current residents have decided that living simply does not have to mean devoid of culture. They have found ways to attract cultural happenings that generally are found in more populated cities to their village.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Writing in Chacala

It was cold when I left San Miguel, not really cold compared with Manhattan where I’d lived for 30 years, but too cold for unheated, concrete building. My spirit had contracted. I was elated when an opportunity to write at the beach fell in my lap.

A friend had been invited to participate in Chacalit, Chacala’s first Literary Festival that included a writing residency. She couldn’t go and recommended me. All I had to do was get there and they would take care of me for two weeks while I wrote. Heaven. My chi expanded when Maia Williams, a poet and co-director of the San Miguel Writers’ Conference, and I deplaned in Puerto Vallarta. The air was moist—no need to slather my skin with oil to counteract San Miguel’s dryness.

Children’s book author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh, the third residency writer arrived late with his wife Patty (a dancer who’d studied with my favorite dance company, Alvin Ailey), and their 18-month old daughter Vida. We each had separate living spaces in the family compound of organizer Emilia Robinson, a Brit whose husband was Mexican.

I was expecting our hosts to be older, stodgier, like the too-too proper Bermudians who invited me to perform my one-woman show on their island. But Emilia and her husband Arturo were an easy-going young couple. The night Maia and I arrived, their girls, Chloe and Ela, played under the palapa that sheltered the outdoor dining area while their dad grilled chicken for dinner. We got acquainted and shared a meal.

The next morning, I woke up just before dawn, watched the squirrel play in the tree as the sun rose, and worked for several hours revising my memoir. I was more focused than I’d been for weeks at home in San Miguel. I worked until we left for lunch at Emilia and Arturo’s restaurant in town. That afternoon I prepared for the memoir workshop I was scheduled to lead the following week. I’d taught playwriting and dramatic writing for more than 20 years but this would be my first memoir class. I wanted to be prepared. That was my pattern the first week. The second week, I taught two afternoons and spent the others developing a new project, a book I want to translate into a musical.

What was it about Chacala that incited creativity? First, it was a new environment and new always stimulates me whether I love it or hate it. Second it was surrounded by jungle. I’d never lived that close to nature—at night raccoons devoured any food we left on the counters of the outdoor kitchen. But there was a familiarity to Chacala—it made me think of my past. When I grew up in the 50s, children were allowed to run free. In Chacala parents could still let their children to do that. The palapa at Chac Mool was like hundreds of other palapas I’d sat under, having a meal or a drink, during my 30-year love affair with the Caribbean. It took me back to West Africa—the area around the restaurant could have been the business strip in the neighborhood where I stayed in Accra. But mostly it was the people—people who chose a lifestyle that a city girl like me could never fathom, to live in a place where nothing happens. There was an intimacy in this village of only 300 full-timers that made me feel as if I had become part of a community after two short weeks.

It was a productive time—I revised the first section of my memoir, finished a blog I’d been trying to write since Trump won the election, and sketched out a couple of scenes for the play.

Now I’m back to real life where shopping has to be done and food has to be cooked and houses have to be cleaned. I’m back to the distraction of friends and family in the height of the holiday season but carving out two or three houses most days when I reconnect with my Chacalit focus.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


I have low expectations of America. They have great words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal
But can’t actualize them. After 240 years equal treatment is still a pipe dream for millions. So, how could my expectations be anything but low?

But even low-expectations Cynthia thought America was better than this. I thought it inconceivable that someone with Trump’s values could be elected to our presidency. All along his constituency tried to show us that they didn’t give a shit about his values. There wasn’t the outcry I’d expected when it was revealed he hadn’t paid taxes in years—that shows he’s smart, he manipulated the system to his advantage. Almost none when it was revealed that he’d stiffed hundreds of people who’d worked for him, working stiffs like them. No one seemed to care that Trump University was one big scam—I guess scamming is alright with these folks. (He’ll scam for us and get us what we need—is that the thinking?) And pussy-grabbing doesn’t disqualify you for president. This is bottom-of-the-barrel low. I didn’t realize we were there.

It didn’t surprise me when older white men got on Trump’s bandwagon. All of us people of color knew what he was saying when he declared, Let’s Make America Great Again. He was talking about making it white. Of course white men would want to go back to the days when manufacturing and they were king but children were also spouting this hate speak. The first day after Trump’s election, high school students in Pennsylvania carried a Donald Trump sign down the hall and proclaimed white power. Fifth graders in California chanted, “build the wall” at Latino students. If it’s spread to the children, will we get this genie back in the bottle and how long will it take?

Trump’s appeared to wave a white flag with his concession speech and subsequent 60 Minutes interview. Were people buying this? I thought, especially his conversation with Lesley Stahl. Really, he didn’t about the rash of racially charged attacks on minorities following his election? And when Stahl asked if he wanted to say anything to these people, he puckered his lips into an anus-like pout and said, “stop it.” That was it? His incendiary language lured the racist out of the shadows, fanned the hate flames. And he thought “stop it” would quell the fire he’d ignited?

I’ve watched in amazement as Republicans who had denounced Trump, got on board. Listened incredulously as some Democrats say be fair—wait let’s see what kind of President he’s gonna be? This man who lied to us incessantly on the campaign trail. You don’t know? Why do you want me to believe his new lie that he will be president for all Americans? Why give his words more weight than his deeds—appointing Stephen Bannon as his chief strategists or proposing Jeff Sessions for Attorney General.

This is democracy at work, some right wing newscaster said. Your team loses, you make deals with the team that won and get on with it. It didn’t work like that when Obama won. The hypocrisy is immeasurable.

Since Trump’s election I’ve had two reoccurring thoughts—Einstein’s definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result and Douglas Turner Ward’s play, Day of Absence.

My friends with higher expectations are already organizing to try and stop the racist/misogynist/anti-climate-change President from destroying everything we value. Me I’m gone—headed to the jardin for Traditional and sangrita.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Girls Last

2015 spring, I was visiting a friend at the beach. We were talking about the upcoming presidential election, both of us incredulous about the vitriol directed toward Hillary. Were they talking about the woman we knew? The woman who tried to give us national health care twenty-years earlier, who was a constant advocate for women and children, who was a consensus-building senator for NY state. Many bitched that in a 40+-year career, in both public and private life, she’d changed her opinion on several key issues including trade and gay marriage. But isn’t that what thinking human beings do—learn, grow, change? People who don’t change are the ones who frighten me.
I watched from the sidelines as the election approached. Listened as Trump speeches continued to be peppered with lies and half-truths. Prominent newspapers—The NY and LA Times, The Washington Post—exposed him. Still Americans generally considered him more truthful than Hillary Clinton. Why did Hillary generate this loathing? I didn’t get it until I did. It was so simple I couldn’t see it. Hillary was a woman who was unapologetic about her quest for power. She wasn’t perfectly coiffed with expensively highlighted tresses, wasn’t flashing leg or a hint of cleavage to make her mission more palatable.
The discrimination I encountered growing up was because I was Black not because I was female. Consequently I thought Blacks of either gender were lower than women on the American totem pole. I was wrong. Women and girls are last.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Dallas Thoughts

I am appalled by Dallas. Not as much, I admit, as when the white kid opened fire in a Black church killing nine people last January but horrified. Nothing justifies this—shooting random policemen to protest police brutality against Blacks. The President said this attack was vicious, calculated and despicable. I’d add one more adjective, understandable.

There’s no contradiction here—understand doesn’t mean I condone, just that I know where this comes from. And so do the rest of you. Brutality against African Americans by law enforcement, especially Black men, has been going on since we were stolen from the Motherland. It’s institutionalized in the U.S.

Things are better; a whole lot better than it was when I was a teenager. But it still happens. Every adult African-American can recount a time when someone in law enforcement disrespected or harassed them just because they were black. It seems to be happening more since we elected a Black president. And even with video evidence from phone and body cameras no one’s punished. At least nothing that’s commensurate with taking a life. There’s no way the punishment can fit the crime when in some states feeling threatened is the only justification a policeman needs to take a human life. Police brutality is given impunity for the most part. Which is why we still have “the talk.” The talk where the guardians of African-American youth warn them that police officers may view them prejudice.

And yes asshole-Giuliani, we know Black youth face a myriad of dangers in the world. And we, their elders, warn them about all that we know of, not just possible mistreatment and harassment from law enforcement. But this one is particularly odious because it’s from people who are paid to protect us. People paid with our tax-dollars. We also know all cops aren’t bad but since you won’t police your ranks the few bad apples control the narrative.
50 years ago my mother had the talk with me. It was the day I got my driver’s license. Was the one blemish on this celebratory day that gave me access to the world without an adult chauffeur. “Yes sir,” Mama made me say again and again until she was satisfied with my intonation. Not subservient like Stepin Fetchit, or arrogant like Muhammad Ali. Knowing that 50 years later we still need to have this talk infuriates me.

This morning I heard Cameron, the son of Alton Sterling who was slain in Baton Rogue by a policeman last week, urge protestors to express their outrage over his father’s murder “the right” way. He spoke against violence. Wasn’t angry. Hopefully he’ll have a different relationship with law enforcement, one that won’t cause him to grow into an angry Black man.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Bernie or Bust

One of my closest friends is a Bernie-or-bust person—she’s not going to vote if he isn’t the Democratic nominee. And the possibility that Trump could become our president, if she and other Bernie supporters stay home, isn’t enough to make her vote for Hillary. She echoed Susan Sarandon’s sentiment that a Trump presidency might bring about revolution faster.

I was flabbergasted. She’s not stupid, not an asshole. She’s smart, analytical, well read and well traveled. I couldn’t believe someone I respect had this view.

Both my friend and Sarandon talk about revolution, something we’ve never had in the U.S. unless you count the one that separated us from England. And with the checks and balances we have in place, how does revolution happen in America?

Bernie says the plethora of new, young voters he’s brought into the political process will force their congressional representatives to, “vote the right way.” I couldn’t decide if I thought he was naïve or delusional when he said this during his Hardball conversation, or should I say monologue because he interrupted every time Chris Matthews tried to speak. Scads of new voters supported Obama’s first presidential run but didn’t stay engaged. Why does Bernie think he’ll have a different outcome?

I agree with something that Bernie supporters have been posting on Facebook, “that the real enemy is the multi-national corporations who are trying to control this nation and the world.” Where we differ is, I don’t think Bernie, a progressive socialist, is the person to lead this fight in a capitalist democracy.

I share many of the same opinions with my Bernie-or-bust friend. I want to get corporate money out of politics, want the minimum wage raised, significantly, what public education to prepare students for the current work market whether that means free higher education or restructuring the secondary education system. But if by some miracle Bernie is the democratic nominee, I’ll vote for him. Even though I think he doesn’t listen to people whose views don’t mirror his, that he doesn’t know how to make alliances and build bridges and that a President Sanders will assure four more years of congressional gridlock. How does he expect to get Congressional support? His ideas are far more radical than Obama’s. Does he think he’ll get more cooperation inside the beltway because he’s white?

I can’t risk a Trump presidency by staying home because the candidate I prefer doesn’t win the nomination. I have to do everything I can to ensure that Trump doesn’t appoint the next Supreme Court judge. That he doesn’t alienate many of our global strategic partners and that the U.S. doesn’t become theatre of absurd.

Unlike Susan Sarandon, who is someone I can ice—I’ll never see one of her films again, this is someone I want in my life. I’ve never known my friend to be a selfish person but staying home if Bernie isn’t the nominee is a profoundly selfish act. Decisions like hers could negatively impact the lives of millions.

Friday, April 29, 2016


Everyone knew what I wanted for my 50th birthday was Prince in my living room performing Nikki Grinds. It was a ridiculous want.  But there was a slight possibility it could’ve happen. I was close with a couple of people who had access to him.

He was my guy. From the moment I saw him on Dick Clark I was hooked. He was something new—an androgynous, sexy, energetic ball of funk. Wrote the music, played all the instruments. I saw him live as soon as I could. The next time I was in home, in Atlanta, he was playing at a club across the street from the Fox Theatre on Peachtree, promoting Dirty Mind. His guitar licks were masterful, close to Hendrix, and he had more energy than Patti LaBelle as he bodaciously danced across the stage in bikini briefs. Prince was phenomenal. I placed him next to Stevie in my musical lexicon.

I bought every album. The recordings were great but couldn’t compare with seeing Prince, which I did as often as I could. His 40th birthday tour was scheduled for the Metro New York area. So I went to Baltimore. Took the Greyhound. Saw the concert with my friend Van. Prince danced all over the stage, on the piano. And we danced too. Everybody was on their feet, gyrating with Prince. For more than two hours he captivated us. Prince was definitely getting better with age.

Prince was the only person who owned a color. It was a purple world for a couple of weeks after his death.

Prince was music—the instruments he played, his soaring vocals, the songs he wrote for himself and those other musicians recorded. He was a poet, I guess I should've known by the way, you parked your car sideways that it wouldn't last. And audacious, his sixth album Purple Rain, was also a film. He helped promote other artists, Shelia E, Morris Day, Judith Hill, Misty Copeland who performed in his music video and toured with Prince before she became a prima.

But what made Prince, Prince was that he set his rules. My Way should have been his theme song. He maintained privacy, didn’t believe his musical celebrity gave fans access to her personal life. He wouldn’t be categorized, not his music, which contained elements of everything, or his persona—am I black or white, straight or gay. And his battle for control of his music that became public in the 1990s when he was in open conflict with the music industry. Wrote the word “slave” on his cheek and changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph. The different ways that music is delivered today can be credited to him—he was one of the first to offer his music as a download, gave copies away concert tickets and later in British newspapers. He was an original.

Prince may be gone. I’ll never see him perform live again but I’m waiting for them to release the music in the vaults. Rumor is Prince recorded everyday. Everyone played with him. I know he and another of my icons, Miles Davis, spent several days in the studio. I'm waiting for those tracks.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Same Coin, Opposite Sides

My friends and I thought it was a joke when Trump announced he was running for president. There’s nothing presidential about him. Who would vote for this hot-tempered, braggadocios, misogynistic, bad hair, reality television star. Incredulously I learned lots of people. His messages, I’ll make America great again … make Mexicans pay for a wall to keep out their illegals … stop allowing Muslims into the country and monitor those that are here, resonated. Trump hurled insults, his approval numbers soared. I’d thought we hit bottom when we elected Bush, Jr., a “C” student who’d never been successful, but this was much worse. Things that would have ruined campaigns in earlier years energized his. Establishment candidates floundered. Trump supporters want radical change.

I realized, as Bernier Sanders’ pole numbers, lots of Democrats did too, A Jewish socialist started nipping at Hillary’s heels, changing the dialogue, shifting the focus to income inequality. Like the right, they want an outsider, are asking for radical change, pissed off for more or less the same reason as the far right; the American dream no longer seems possible. Manufacturing jobs, which made the middle class, had been leaving the US for a couple of decades. Both Bernie and Donald say bad trade deals had something to do with this. I don’t know enough to evaluate but I’m sure a major contributor was capitalism—why pay Americans when they can hire outside the US and pay workers less in a week than Americans make in a day. The financial meltdown following the housing scandal brought everything to a halt in 2008 and the recovery was one-sided—the rich got richer and the middle class disappeared. If you peel past the rhetoric, the far left and right want the same thing—a chance.

The possibility of a president Trump horrifies me but neither Cruz nor Rubio want the kind of America I want—the Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, American. And I hear Bernie when he says American should provide what the rest of the civilized world provides, free education and free health care. But European countries are small, most no larger than Texas, and nothing’s free. Who pays for it is the first question we want answered in capitalistic America. Will Democrats in Congress support Bernie’s ideas? Raising taxes in America is always a fight.

We’ve been stalled. It’s time for movement.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Blacks in Film

For the second year in a row, only white actors were nominated in the top four categories for Academy Awards. #Oscars So White exploded igniting a bevy of conversations about Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett and Will Smith announced they’d be staying home and called for a boycott of the February 28th broadcast. Within a week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' board of governors unanimously approved a series of changes designed to double the number of women and minorities in the academy by 2020 and limit lifetime voting rights. Even with these new rules, it will take at least a decade for the demographics of the voting members of the academy to change significantly.
My nominees would have included Idris Elba as Best Supporting Actor for Beast of No Nation, as well as a Best Actor nod to Sam Jackson for the Hateful 8. (I was surprised that my other friends didn’t feel Sam had been overlooked this year. But hey, the nominations are subjective. That’s why we need a diverse nominating committee.) And I would have added Straight Outta Compton to the best picture category, a particularly prickly omission since 10 films can be included in this category and only eight were nominated. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution was ignored but they did nominate What Happened Miss Simone in the best documentary category.
Good work by blacks in the film industry was ignored this year. That was frustrating but remember last year? Selma and Belle (a British import)—was there anything else? That’s what disturbs me, that so few movies featuring black characters are green-lighted.