A MAMI’S INTERPRETATION

A Mami’s Interpretation

 
At 12—“Mami, how does this dress look?” Often translates to “Mom, you’re a good dresser and I know you wouldn’t let me leave the house looking stupid. Let’s face it, I need new clothes.”
 
At 16—“Mami, what do you think about Ben?” means “Mom, I respect the strength in your relationships and I really want to break curfew with someone you can approve of.”
 
At 19—“Mami, I need help with a paper?” equates to “Mom, you are so smart and without your help, I will probably get an F and waste the money you worked so hard to earn to pay for those college credits.”
 
Okay wise guys, even a well-behaved, and no malice, best-intentioned kid has been honing their manipulation skills from around birth.
 
But don’t you know, since that same time, we parents have understood the meaning of your every cry: From the high-pitched to the low groan. We know when you are full of – -it! And not just because we learned from you, but because we were you.
 
When you think you’re getting away with something, likely we are letting you.
 
Yes, College is a time for you to explore and find yourself, but it is also the time when you need to accept the full responsibility of your workload.  It (like us) is meant to prepare you for the world that awaits you.
 
So the answer, “So flattered that you think I am so smart… and I am. Do your own work.”—Translation: “I love you baby, I know you can do it. You are a strong Latina and you can conquer the world! I’ll proofread it.” 

Making Me A Believe “R”

Making Me A “Believe”r

 

Making me a “BELIEVE”R

By: Elaine Del Valle

 
 
I have been performing my autobiographical 90 minute solo play for about four years now.  In that time it went from winning small festivals to rave reviews, regionally and then off Broadway.  When the New York Times called it a “Triumph”, there was a certain confidence that washed over me and made theatre’s little pay feel like I had banked millions over.
 
There is no argument that the story of “Brownsville Bred” is that of a Latina coming of age.  There have been many a non-believer…those that felt “how could any other audience get it?” or the better question for those artistic directors and theatre decision makers “How can I get my (non-hispanic) audience to want to be in those theatre seats?”
 
Those artistic believers, who went onward and with bravery into full productions, I thank them and am so proud to say, they never lost a dime and more than money…they expressed a great accomplishment, and pride in the faith that they put in both the play and their audiences.
 
Those producers and audiences were believers.  They believed that every human being has a sense of struggle with their past, with their circumstances, with their environment…They conquer and they laugh.  They want to be happy and they want to root for success.  People who thought they knew me saw the play and felt “I’ve never really known you at all?”, while those who had never met me felt as if they had known me for their entire lives.
 
After thinking I had seen them all, then came school performances.
The play, based on my childhood has reaped many rewards but none more than in its performances within schools.
 
It was never my idea.  It started with teaching professionals who found their way to my play as avid theatre goers but later felt compelled to share it with their students… The students that had much in common with the humble beginnings of this Brownsville Brooklyn born Hispanic ghetto girl as well as the students who thought that they’d have nothing in common with her and yet found so much.  
 
Environment, relationships, challenges and growth exist in every human circumstance, and finding this common ground find us all in a wonderful place…one where all teens, and adults of all ages strive to be…a place of… belonging.
 
There has never been a school that I did not enjoy performing at. A large audience at New York City LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts was one of the first.  They made for a loud and excited group in a theatre that was bigger than many Broadway houses…The Drama teacher invited me.  Before I took stage, she announced to her students “This is an example of doing it all…You can write it, you can perform it, you can produce it!”  Hearing those words before taking stage made the nerves that usually center in my heart quiet in comparison to the chills that coursed up and down my limbs.
 
There were kids of all backgrounds.  Teens who were already pursuing a career that I only started to dream  was possible in my early twenties…
At the end of the show, a standing ovation.  I have received many a standing O, but this one had a certain specialness that I cannot begin to explain.
 
Many other high schools and colleges have come after that school…All of which have been absolutely the best moments of my career.
 
After one such other performance at the Ethnic Pen Annual Conference of the BayShore School District on BayShore Long Island, I thought “nothing could top this”…This because the district is one of a very few that falls in the middle of both a very affluent and a very poor community. It is a place where black and white and rich and poor gather, but understand quite clearly the divide that still exists. After the performance those kids seemed to feel united. It felt better than I had ever felt before.
 
Just after that performance, I was fielding invitations from other schools from both East and West of the city.  It seemed many other district personnel was in house to witness the student response. One such request came from a school called The North Side Charter BELIEVE School in Brooklyn.  BROOKLYN, the borough from where I came… I did not know what to expect, but I never expected what I got.
 
As I entered the building with my stage manager, we had to be escorted by security up to the office.  There was a young hispanic girl in tears.  Her mother spoke in my native “Spanglish” and asked the 15 year old, “Who taught you to kiss a boy?”  The threat of punishment and being transferred from the school all told and seemed wrapped in the clench of the Mother’s fist holding back from the slap I thought inevitable.  As the Mom of a former teenager and playing a teenager on stage, I wanted to say “Human Nature…Stay.  Don’t leave! Watch my show…with your daughter…and know that she has every opportunity in this great country and so do you!”
 
Getting to the auditorium stage for set up, I kept thinking about that one girl and her Mom.  Thinking she may be the only Latina in this school.  This play could really hit home for her.  The mother would see herself in my mothers character and she would feel her own importance.  Her anger would be replaced by confidence in her daughters abilities.  I wanted to shake it but I couldn’t.
 
As the kids began arriving, from back stage I could only hear the chatter of the every day teen as I did my breathing exercises that precede my every performance.
 
In the first moments of my play, a 90 second film of the old neighborhood (Brownsville Brooklyn) plays with the scrolling definition of what Brownsville is according to Wikipedia.  The stats in bold typeface, are meant to hit home as the facts..the lack of expectation or faith.  In short it says everything that we are and nothing that we can be.  The film ends with my handwriting letter by letter, and spelling out, “But this is my story…I was Brownsville Bred and I will not be defined.”  
 
I am usually backstage watching these words scroll and absorbing the relevance of being living proof that otherwise exists…But in the NorthSide Charter Believe School, it was different.  There I had the unique pleasure of listening to the kids all together, as if they were being orchestrated to do so…Their chatter turned to song.  They were singing the words to the popular spanish song that plays during my video. It occurred to me that most of them were Hispanic.  They all became that girl I wanted to be there front and center!
 
I was on emotional overload and the responsibility that usually washes over me before first step onto stage..The one to myself, my community and to the underdogs of the world that the show represents was replaced by a PRIDE that is usually earned at the end of the show…The kind that grows gradually throughout the performance…when you’ve had them laughing, crying and in complete silence…For the first time I was not feeling any pressure to earn that.  For the first time, I felt the benefit of the doubt…I was Home and I became a “Believe”r!
 
Later, I asked the head of athletics, who had invited me to perform at The NorthSide Charter Believe School, how she came to the earlier BayShore High School performance.  It was to my amazement that she said “No, I saw you a few years ago, at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, while you were self producing.  I saw it twice there and it stayed with me!”
 
This will forever stay with me!

One More Opinion Piece on the Hiring Practices of SNL and “Latinos Hopping on the African American Band Wagon”–Que, Que?

In the last few months, I have read countless articles on the hiring practices of African American females by Saturday Night Live. It all started in November with an open letter generated by the civil rights group ColorofChange.org addressed to SNL’s legendary producer Lorne Michaels, asking “Why Doesn’t ‘SNL’ Cast Black Women?”

In an Associated Press interview, Lorne Michaels responded to the groups outrage with: “It’s not like it’s a priority for us…It will happen.  I’m sure it will happen…You don’t do anyone a favor if they’re not ready.”

Oh Lord…did he really say favor? Ay yay yay.

Since then, just two months after the sparring began, SNL has hired three African American females: two writers and one performer.

Great… Right?  WRONG!

Not far behind was another open letter — this one from The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA), and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda (NHLA). Their staunch complaint called the show’s lack of Latino cast members “segregation in the digital age.”

More articles surfaced, followed by other articles, followed by tweets, followed by status updates, followed by retweets, followed by op-ed pieces, followed by… You get the picture. Like a reality TV show, it’s hard to keep up with, but juicy enough to have to.

As the Twittersphere and the land of Facebook went LOCO, other ethnic groups weighed in as well, leaving such comments as, “Where are the Asians?”

Another comment I saw tweeted, “Latinos are jumping on the black bandwagon,” and that is what prompted me to write this piece.

It’s not that we (Latinos) are jealous of the progress of the black community. We are not jumping on any bandwagon. Rather, we are, and have been, pushing that same wagon.

We understand the importance of diversity in the media within our communities, because we too were little kids once looking for hope in the only place to which we could escape: our entertainment.

As a kid, I related most to Norman Lear’s sitcom, Good Times. Maybe because the buildings reminded me of the Brownsville, Brooklyn ghetto I was living in. Or maybe because the cast was comprised of black faces which I had all around me. But Good Times did not just represent blacks. It represented my family as well. I related immensely! It wasn’t like just being a fan of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, which I was. It was special. It was important. It was about me, and people like me. It was a comedy that in its truth made me cry! Turning poverty from shameful to righteous.

Our trials, our inability to get work, the feeling of inequality that loomed. Even at a young age, you can feel social inequality, prejudice, and injustice.

I was 11 years old when my Mom and Dad took me to see Scarface. Yes, that’s right, Scarface at 11… And while you might think it wrong for parents to take their 11 year old daughter to see that movie, first please consider that I lived in the crime capital of NYC and saw drug deals, shootings, etc. long before I saw the film.

I had no idea what Scarface was about going in. I wanted to flee during the opening scenes that looked like a documentary: A ship coming to shore and the Spanish speaking voice over of Castro. I was thinking, “Oh no! I have to see a Spanish language movie!”

But within minutes, I began to get lost in the story of Tony Montana, a guy just trying to make a better life. It had a profound impact on me, because I was so surprised and inspired by just the sight of a Latino on the big screen. The subject matter wasn’t important. I didn’t even know that Pacino wasn’t Latino (and thank God I didn’t). All I knew is that I could see people like my family, and me ACTING in a MOVIE. It gave me HOPE. 

As an actress in my 20s, I remember being informed of the Mastro and Greenberg Prime Time Television study conducted in 2000 which found that compared to Caucasians and African Americans, Latinos were under-represented on primetime television, where they comprised only 3% of television characters.

In 2010, another study titled Portrayal of Racial Minorities on Prime Time Television: A Replication of the Mastro and Greenberg Study a Decade Later found only 5% of all television actors observed were Latino, only a 2% increase from the prior study a decade earlier. Meanwhile, the representation of African Americans remained constant at 16% of all television primetime actors.

This while the US census, in that same year, sited the Hispanic population as the larger of the two.

Furthermore, the new study said, “Viewers still see Latinos as having heavy accents, with little articulation skills, and as generally not well respected—especially compared to either African Americans or whites.” The study concluded, “Latino representations have lost the most ground… Latinos continue to be in a distinct minority.”

Those facts stir this Latina to the core.

As a Latina actress, I have always struggled with casting people and producers. I am not ethnic enough to play the exaggerated Latina roles, while I am simultaneously not white enough to be seen for the non-ethnic parts. Which is it? Do you see me as white, or are you ready to accept my shade as Latina?

And I just love the auditioners who ask, “Where are you from?”

To which I respond, “Brooklyn.”

They continue, “No. I mean where are your parents from?”

To which I answer, “Brooklyn,” while thinking, “Wait… Are my parents up for this job too?”

“No, I mean, where is your Spanish from?” they so sensitively wonder.

According to the rules set forth by the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation for Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) that question is DISCRIMINATORY!

Speaking of SAG-AFTRA. I am fortunate enough to have performed on camera for dozens of commercials…both Spanish and English language. You should know that organizations like the Hispanic Organization for Latino Actors (HOLA) has been fighting the pay scale for National Spanish language commercials versus their English counterparts for years.

It can be the same commercial, appear more times and on what Nielson determines to be the highest rated program of the night and still Spanish language commercial performers receive a “per cycle payment” rather than a “pay-per-play” structure received on the English language counterpart. The four major Spanish language networks are either paid as program use or Wild Spot. For Wild Spot residuals, the television markets are weighted differently than in the English language market to account for the cities with large Hispanic populations.

What’s all that mean? What does it say of our value…as Latinos in entertainment?

But our value is not only questioned by our onlookers…Let’s not forget those hermanos and hermanas that come to discount my Latino experience because of the lighter shade of my tan… It’s no wonder we are torn apart and have not ONE voice. We can’t hear ourselves over each other.  

We are put into boxes and then thrown around. It’s enough to give you a pounding headache! That pounding is what led me to writing…Not just this article but my own truth, because no one can ever take that away.

It wasn’t until I wrote and performed my autobiographical one-woman play, Brownsville Bred that I got people to glimpse at my experience.

I had no idea the success that my play would encounter. I conceived and wrote it specific to my experience as a Puerto Rican girl from Brownsville, Brooklyn–a girl who never fit in. But the more audiences I performed for, the more I came to this beautiful realization: the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. We have more in common than we think.

My play garnered a book packaging deal with Parachute Publishing and I have been writing it ever since. Now as my packager and I wait patiently for a mass publisher to love and believe in the book as much as we do, I continue to do what brought me to that hard to find place of satisfaction: write.

And so now I write, pieces like this one when I NEED to release, and the comedy web series, Reasons Y I’m Single. The show which I also direct and produce as an affordable outlet to depict great women including the character of Doris Martinez, a Latina that is fervent about her Latinaness and yet equally discriminatory. Because the irony begs a question and creates the funny, I have to hold a mirror to it. She has my Latina zeal without my pragmatism or my observing ego.

Doris is not always right. In fact, she is often wrong, because in Reasons Y I’m Single, I don’t need Doris Martinez to be right. I just need her to EXIST. To prove we exist! She keeps me motivated and makes me proud. Reasons Y I’m Single is not a Latino show. It’s a show about three single women, who are lonely and just trying to find a place to exist. To fit. Each character is a fish out of water. Their experiences are sometimes paranoid, always triggered by our human experiences, and riddled with the best survival mechanism I have ever known: self-deprecating humor.

So there you have it. One more opinion piece born from the hiring practices of SNL and the importance of Latinos being represented in entertainment.  And let’s not forget the Asians.  

So let’s keep pushing the wagon… matter of fact, let’s ask others to jump on, so we can take turns, and provide needed rest in between, so the wagon never has to stop travelling until we reach our destination.Image

 FOR MORE INFORMATION ON REASONS Y I’M SINGLE, visit www.ReasonsY.com

For more about Brownsville Bred visit www.BrownsvilleBred.com