Chico and Rita

The film opens with Chico staring out of the window to view, the old streets of La Havana. Just as the city itself has deteriorated over time, so has Chico’s motivation for life. He changes the radio station only to find that most of them are broadcasting Fidel Castro’s speeches, but then he finally finds one, playing music. It’s the Melodies of Yesterday playing on the radio. The song takes him back to the Havana of his youth where he met Rita.

Chico and Rita met in 1948 before the revolution when Havana was a bustling city with colorful streets, historical buildings, large casinos, fancy hotels and bars. Back then, musicians gathered freely to play and sing without fear that the government would shut them down. From the moment Chico met Rita, they were drawn to each other, but neither wanted to show it, so they played hard to get until Rita decides to join his group of friends. Later, in the middle of the night, when everyone goes home, Chico plays the piano as she sings to the melody in a shoddy bar. On the screen, Rita’s voice moves along with her curves underneath a yellow dress, twirling about and giving sensual glances and smiles at Chico.

Just as their romance quickly begins, it erupts into anger when Rita discovers that Chico has a woman on the side; though he doesn’t actually care for her. Chico continues to chase Rita until she agrees to sing with him in a competition. They win and eventually get offered an ongoing singing gig at a famous hotel. Through one misunderstanding or another, they are once again embroiled in an inconsolable argument, and Rita abandons Cuba for New York City, thinking Chico betrayed her.

The paring of the animation and music creates a sultry world where characters seem to naturally fall in love. La Havana has a magical quality with illustrious architecture. The detailed chromatic animation, done by artist Javier Mariscal, captures the tone and mood of Cuba and New York City in the late 1940s and 1950s. The directors (Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando) were actually able to replicate many of the streets from photo archives the Havana city government had kept since 1949. We also get views of the urban, sometimes snowy landscape of NYC. When Chico and his friends arrive to New York City, they witness their first blanket of snow. They also visit Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, and famous hotels and music venues like the Village Vanguard where many Jazz legends played. Much of the soundtrack includes original Jazz and Bolero standards by Cuban Jazz legend Bebo Valdes Valdés.

The music and drawings are favored over longer dialogue and character development, to the point of leaving many things to assumption. Some characters appear one-sided, and without giving much time to reflecting on their actions. There are some missing scenes that could have been used to broaden out the story.

The film has a quick pace as we are taken from Cuba to New York to Paris to Las Vegas, as Chico follow’s Rita’s path. Between these moments the two try to stay together only to distance themselves once more because of their fiery tempers. When Chico returns to Cuba, he finds La Havana without music or life, now that his girl is gone.He sees the political situation worsening, with the onset of the revolution and Fidel’s communist government. Only the complaints of neighbors about the power outages can be heard. Rita was his heart and soul, which he expressed through piano melodies.

It almost seems unfair how destiny keeps playing with them, but it also seems silly how moments arise, which could have easily been solved, but yet, they give in to an absolute fate. “Why does it always have to be so dramatic?” should be a common thought, but maybe love and suffering go hand in hand for these two.

Queens is home

The other day I happened to turn on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. I hardly ever watch it, for one since it’s on CNN, and I find the dialogue over-reaching, but I guess that’s his style and it goes with the dramatics of CNN.

On this particular episode they were in Queens out of all places. The Queens of my childhood was on TV with images of Rockaway, Jackson Heights, Jamaica and other neighborhoods. Bourdain visited several restaurants and talked to business owners, residents, many of them immigrants. When they focused on Jackson Heights, I immediately recognized the place they filmed— right outside the 7 train near the street closed off to traffic. They must have filmed it during the election or right after, because there were protests that felt critical, right around inauguration. I realized I had been away from my city in the pivotal moment when people were most distraught. I was in Peru during the inauguration. I could think of no better place to be, although it did feel like I was taking the easy way out, by abandoning the place I called home since I was a child.

The Queens episode was such an emblematic one, especially within the context of the current political climate. As one friend said, it reminded her that this was always a nation of immigrants; Queens was proof that immigrants made this nation prosperous by finding economic opportunities, moving out of poverty and helping others along the way. I could see it in these neighborhoods, where people of different nationalities coexisted and found a new identity far more home. The changes from one ethnic enclave to another are often within a few blocks or segments; they don’t constitute large areas, in what is referred to as little Italy, little India, little morocco or little Korea for example. The episode reminded me of the physical smallness of Queens: all the stores next to each other, the small enclaves, the hidden stores found down a flight of stairs, the narrow corridors, the anonymous faces on the street, the silence of the train platform before an incoming train, the cool energetic breeze that is ever-present in the fall.

Jackson Heights

To many immigrants, Queens represents a starting point where anything is possible, where you can find opportunities and a feeling of being welcomed. The people who came before you, know the struggle of starting a small business without a storefront, job hunting, going to school, juggling different jobs, or learning a new language. There was a story about Korean man who had been adopted and never really knew much about Korean food, until he started his own restaurant business in America. He found his Korean roots among other Koreans in a country far away from his own. There was the story of a Mexican woman selling tamales in Junction Blvd. She made them in her kitchen. During first couple of years, she would get arrested along with her husband , since they did not have a license to sell until they bought a registered cart. In a couple of years, she turned the business into a full-time job, selling over 2,000 tamales on weekends. There was a story about a guy from Jamaica who bought a historical Irish bar in Jamaica and saved it from closing.

Being away from Queens has allowed me to appreciate it a bit more. I remember growing tired of the crowds, but now I think back to the times where I found it mesmerizing; it was a chance to feel distant yet close to the field of people walking at their own rhythm. There was something comforting about loosing yourself in a crowd.

The eateries Mr. Bourdain visited



Fall of 2001, the year high school began

Freshman year began a couple of days before that early morning in Astoria, New York. But instead of attending class, I was heading to an immigration office for my appointment. I ate breakfast then put on dark jeans and a soft pink shirt with small sleeves. I packed a backpack in case I got out early and made it to school. I never did much with my hair during that year, mostly because I rushed for fear of being late, an ongoing dilemma at the time.

My dad took off work that day and drove us in his 1998 burgundy Toyota minivan with the heavy door. (Years later he would find that car in Corona after all its interior parts were stolen.) At the immigration office, my fingers were smudged with black ink, pressed onto white cards, and later I was asked to initial my name multiple times. We left, thinking I would be able to go to school, since it was still before 9 a.m.

On the highway heading home, we were listening to music at a low volume, and with my parents talking and my own thoughts, I couldn’t make out the songs or when it switched to chatter. I recognized a radio personality, but her voice was more subdued than usual. She was a popular host on Hot 97. I raised the volume. I heard something about planes and bombs, and I quickly changed the station. I kept changing the radio station, but they were all talking about the same thing. “Escuchen estan diciendo algo.” “Listen, they’re saying something,” my dad said, and told me to stop changing the stations. My mom was also not paying attention, until two radio announcers from a news program began describing a scene.

“They’re saying that it was a plane heading to…”

“The north tower was hit, and we’re seeing a lot of smoke right now…”

“We have confirmed reports that …”

“Witnesses said a second plane…”

“They don’t know if this was the pilot or someone one else…

In that short car ride the bursts of information left us disoriented: the tower, smoke, fire, running. I could envision a dark, sinister future. Their words were turning into fragmented images of what was unfolding. It was too outlandish to be true, too violent to be close to home and be factual at the same time. There was a mood of confusion in their voices, as if they didn’t believe what they were saying.

“Algo paso.” “Un atentado.”

“Something happened. An attack,” my dad said.

In my 15-year-old mind, I didn’t want to comprehend, “Un atendado.” We were no more than 30 minutes from those buildings that we often forgot about in our view of the skyline. “We have to pick up your sister,” my mom said. I held my backpack hoping everything would get solved. Could this be a depiction of a movie? Was this going to turn out like those fake snow days that never amounted to the real thing? “Only a few inches of snow,” and with that school would be back on.

When we entered my sister’s school everyone was rushing in the main office — phones were going off and parents were waiting to pick up their children. No one knew anything. While we waited, I asked my mom about what I heard on the radio. “Creo que es algo serio. No se lo que esta pasando.” “I think it’s something serious. I don’t know what’s happening,” she said. They finally dismissed my sister, who was confused and needed time to come up with her own questions. School had suddenly stopped, but teachers didn’t give them any details. “It was sad; kids were happy to go home without knowing why,” my sister said years later. “It was something bad, and we were told to line up in the lobby, so our parents could pick us up.”

When we got home, we turned on the T.V. and those words from this morning were pieced together with images, which flooded my mind, until I chose to stop watching in fear of not being able to see anything but the towers falling, and people sitting by those windows, as billowing clouds of smoke overtook the narrow streets.

Some of my friends who we’re in school, told me they were in the cafeteria having breakfast or in gym class when teachers told them what was happening. Some kids chose to get close to the window, thinking they could see it for themselves. Our school was next to the East River, but you could only see the smoke from far away. One of my friends whose school was in direct view of the towers said, her teacher let them stand by the window and watch across the river where the clouds of smoke expanded and curled up to the sky.

Someone’s living room

I’m just a llama in the city.

There are days when I can’t wait to get out of Manhattan. I find myself running to the train after work and inevitably catching the rush hour crowd, and wondering why I live here. Mornings have been hellish trying to get to work. Trains are either too crowded or they don’t working properly. We are squished in like sardines, and when the doors finally open we all fly away like wasps.

Being in overly crowded neighborhoods of the city has made me hate it entirely. And this is no surprise since the last couple of months I’ve been working in Midtown. After returning  from a mostly quiet New Orleans, I was struck by the change of pace in NYC. While walking in the Union Square subway, people were fast walking not looking anywhere but their phone. Everyone is walking fast, going somewhere, not sure where, but they know they have to be there now. I guess the pace caught me off guard, or maybe I’m just getting too old for this city. Being in the meatpacking district a few weeks ago further exemplified my need to get out of NYC for good. The city has become saturated by Disney-themed establishments: glitzy bars, clubs, and flashy restaurants. This is old news, but it always hits me when I come back from some place that is quiet in comparison.

Now that I’m free to set my own schedule, I’m where I want to be.  Since my hours are truly mine the pace has certainly slowed down. I don’t feel the need to rush anywhere anymore. Last Friday I left my house for the simple task of returning clothes around Union Square Park and getting a library book. I love simple days when one is able to roam. I didn’t leave with the morning folks on the 8 or 9 a.m. train, instead I took the comfy noon train to Manhattan. I read a small book about our closeness to nature, and no one shoved me out of the way. Once in the park, I walked to the organic market. The street art on this day mostly consisted of a lady dressed in rags sitting on the floor with fake pigeons and rats on display. Also a guy was finishing a classical canvas painting. He was lying with his paintbrushes and fabrics spread out over the floor. This could be someone’s living room.

Up ahead I saw white tents from GreenNYC where they were distributing free black “I drink NYC Tap Water” canteens. In order to get one you had to sign the pledge to only drink tap water and not buy bottled water. The line was increasingly bigger by the minute, so I hopped in line, behind a guy who was on his toes, eagerly waiting to get a canteen. I was too.

I filled my new canteen with water from the fountains GreenNYC set up. Then I entered a store to return some shorts, quickly got out and made my way for Paragon where I found a tiny backpack.

Back in the park, I walked by the Krishna followers playing music as they do regularly near the fountain, and a guy was holding a platter of vegan sugar cookies. “Would you like one?”

The people were dressed in a beautiful array of yellow and orange. A bald guy with a nose piercing, smiled and handed me a flyer.

I walked with a cookie in hand enjoying its sweetness. I couldn’t deny the sun was out, and despite the heat, I loved being out here.

Over on another table there was a group of Hasidic men dressed in black suits. Are you Jewish? They asked as people passed them.

It was getting close to lunch, and I could enter a restaurant and have a meal. But no, I wasn’t in the mood to sit down. I walked by the organic market again. Everything looked yummy. They had an assortment of breads, desserts, cheese, eggs, and meats. I stopped by a fruit stand selling peaches. White peaches in this hot sun, I thought. I searched for one that was ripe. They also had tiny and cute apricots. The sign on top said, “very sweet.” I took a couple, and paid the lady two dollars for everything. I walked around the park eating my white peach.

Sometime later I took the train heading for the New York Public Library to get a book on hold. It was waiting for me on the shelf. And while I could have stayed to go somewhere else, I was all tired out from the heat.

I took the 7 back to Queens, which never ceases to surprise me. It’s at once the best and the worst place, though never as bad as the N, which chooses not to work during random hours of the day. I was reading  my new book, when finally the train arrived. I went inside to find a group of kids wearing yellow shirts. They were dispersed throughout the entire wagon. From the letters on their shirt, I assumed they were from a Chinese summer program. Some were sitting on seats others on the floor playing cards. Their loud, screechy voices and laughter filled my ears.

A guy walked in behind me. “Can you believe this?” He looked incredulously across the wagon, and then back at me.

The kids had turned the 7 train into their personal living room. I felt a smirk coming on my face. In front of me a group of boys argued about cards, throwing them on the floor, laughing and giggling about their clever winnings, which ended with a smile to the side. They could be playing a version of Texas hold ’em I didn’t know the rules to. A girl with a pink backpack stood over them showing them her cards. On the floor five girls sat Indian-style playing Uno. One was wearing a cap leveled on the tip of her head. She was the ringleader calling the shots.

Others sat quietly, observing. A chubby boy in the corner calmly looked around and analyzed his classmates like a wise philosopher watching kids play. He was one of the few not to revel in mischief. Some boys carried water guns. I assumed they were returning back from the park since they looked wired and agitated.

I looked around: where are the monitors and teachers? An older girl next to me woke up from her nap and started yelling in Chinese across to the opposite seat for the boys to stop throwing water. The train had become their territory; it was suddenly filled with hustlers, con artists, detectives, and rebels. The children ruled over the train. And any adult who walked in had to submit to their seating arrangement. We adults had to hide by the corners, next to the door, or tippy toe around them so as not to fall over and disrupt their card games.

The Boy Detective: A walk of happiness


Rarely do you get a memoir that is filled with unending variety of structure. The Boy Detective is hardly deserving of that title alone but something akin to a detective story moving along random thoughts, witty statements, and poetic lines.

Roger Rosenblatt (Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats) reminisces on New York City neighborhoods, including his home in Gramercy Park of the 1950s. He recounts the childhood games and the mischievousness of a nine-year-old discovering a city, pretending to be a detective, uncovering new cases, strange characters and studying mysterious events. As an adult he walks through memorable blocks, revealing why this particular place causes him to stop. Perhaps this is where the kids played or where that old flower shop use to stand. Forward to modern-day when there are people quickly walking, texting, or taking selfies. What is most endearing is the memory of his family. His dad, silent and stoic on most days.

As we read on, Rosenblatt’s comes to terms with his place in the world through this long arduous walk.  His words intersect between memory and philosophical inquiry at times, often bringing up his favorite quotes from other writers or professors. In this case, the words of his astronomy professors.

“Then he walked to the other end, holding a speck of dust, which he called the earth. He stood silent for a moment before saying, as it if to himself: “either we are alone in the universe, or we are not alone. I find both propositions equally unbelievable. ” The word planet comes from the Greek word planasthai, meaning to wander.

Tanja Vetter (b. 1973, Pforzheim, Germany) - Starry Night, 2015    Paintings: Oil on Canvas
Tanja Vetter (b. 1973, Pforzheim, Germany) – Starry Night, 2015 Paintings: Oil on Canvas

Similar to a detective, a writer can be going after the “wrong guy.” Though Rosenblatt suggests, ” but if your walk is illimitable, no trail goes cold.”

Every time you embark on long walks through city streets, you’re a child once more encountering new and strange things; there’s something impermanent about how the city flows, the random faces, and the stories you tell yourself about them. Rosenblatt suggests that in our walks we participate in the imaginative construction of the self, as it’s beautifully demonstrated in the “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” by Wallace Stevens.

For a long-time New Yorker like myself, you can’t help but feel nostalgic, when you’re transported to the old Manhattan of small shops, immigrant communities, and risky characters. For anyone new to the city, The Boy Detective, is a fresh way to discover its history and demand for constant change.

Despite the lovely ruminations and a whole lot of references to detectives in literature and movies (many which I’ve noted to watch or read later), his writing often turns to rambling. Words go too fast, losing meaning along the way. Rosenblatt is truly powerful when he stops to describe and ponder the meaning of life.

That’s the thing about wandering: sometimes you get lost or meet a dead end— but it’s not so much time being wasted, as it is, a chance to improvise. If The Boy Detective is taken in that sense then all is not lost. The book is not for those wanting a structured memoir of the city. It’s a personal, often historical connection to a place through the eyes of a fictional detective. At the center is a youthful fascination for uncovering the mysteries that exist within the self and the place we call home.

Discovered Poets at the NY Chapbook Festival

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath

I’m a little late on this, but I’ve been too tired to face the whiteness of the screen. The Chapbook Festival Award Ceremony took place on April 2. It’s a great event to meet new and veteran poets.  On this particular night in New York City, the 13th St. Repertory Theater was crowded. People were even sitting on the stage and standing behind the last row of seats. “Who knew so many people liked poetry?” remarked the hostess. There was wine and cheese—and plenty of tiny warm smiles.

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The ceremony is part of the PSA Chapbook Fellowship Program that gives new poets a chance for exposure and mentoring from veteran poets. The first judge to introduce their selected poet was Elizabeth Alexander who read for Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Her fellow, Callie Siskel read poems from her Chapbook, Arctic Revival. Her most memorable poem, whose title escapes me, was about a child entering her mother’s house and making her presence known while her mom and presumably a boyfriend were just setting up for a romantic night. The little girl represented her father in that moment when she hurled her school book bag on the floor. I thought it was powerful as it built up toward the ending.

Forrest Gander presented his fellow, HL Hazuka. Gander has a unique way of reading poems, almost bluesy, with ingrained beats while he taps his foot. It was lovely to watch him read Alfonso D’ Aquino’s Fronda and then Mano one of his own poems.

HL Hazuka’s Chapbook, True to Life: cuttings, mechanics & modification are mostly fragments of loose thoughts from films or visuals images. Gander described them as “landscapes in words,” and “how we understand the present.” The writer was not there to read her poems, so we were left without hearing her voice. But nonetheless as conveyed by Gander, we got a sense of her poems’ ethereal lightness similar to clear April morning.

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Eva Maria Saavedra

I was also delightfully surprised to hear there was a Peruvian poet among the Chapbook Fellows.  Marilyn Hacker,  known for her formal yet colloquial style, presented Eva Maria Saavedra’s.  For Hacker, Eva’s poems in Thirst demonstrate “the personal is political,” and that “double-consciousness” often paints the world of immigrants. I’m one of them. I know few Peruvians in New York and fewer Peruvian poets, so it was refreshing and familiar to hear words that felt close to my homeland. In one of her poems she mentioned pampas, meaning fertile plains or lowlands in Quechua. The world alone transfers a feeling and a memory. Here are some of her published poems: After Monet’s Water Lilies, 1919, Abuela Maria’s Refusal, 3 Poems.

Valentine is one of those approachable poets with a friendly smile. Just from her reading you can tell her humor is soft, but wise and she offers it to everyone gladly. Jean Valentine‘s  presented Max Ritvo’s AEONS, and mentioned his “playful deep sense of wonder.” One of his poems mentioned “lyrical company” —and I thought yes one must always have that. He used words in juxtaposition to create something akin to language poems. The language appears to carry the meaning, and his readings are mini performance pieces.

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Jean Valentine

A friend who invited me, managed to ambush (friendly ambush) Valentine, one of her favorites. She took out a copy of Home Deep Blue with big curious eyes: “This is why I’m here!” She headed towards the stage to Jean. Last I saw they were all smiles. Before Eva left,  I said hello, and chatted with her for a little. It was a swell night all around, and everything under one of those spring nights.

You can purchase Chapbooks here.

Upcoming poetry readings in NYC:

04/21 – 09/22          Bryant Park’ s Word for Word

4/26     Queens Writes Poetry Workshop

Various dates  KGB 

Fragments from a static radio

Music in Bryant Park: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra…

The songs pull me, and I find myself staring at the white ice— the skaters going round, some with more gusto and fancy arms, others trailing, dragged by their heavy skates, with caution so as not to fall. The dancers and the ice, the music is loud and beautiful, and I watch. I find a seat and eat my grapes.

The clumsy  little girl skating, holding onto the fence for dear life, as the last people leave

Behind her is the voice that keeps ringing, “clear the ice!” Everyone is gone except for her. The last one, she makes it out, almost falling, saving herself from slipping and smacking the floor. She walks out to the carpeted area and sits down near her parents. Her parents never look at her.

 Man in the train with the name tag on his waist: Jasmin K

The creepy man with a beard, stares. And me uncomfortable, trying to grab the pole next to the door, next to the sweaty man, then there is a smell, and people keep entering at every stop. When does it end? The smelly man, the creepy man, my arm hurting from holding the pole that ten people are grabbing. Finally they left, and I was left at the pole, alone across a guy not seen before, a blank face leaning on the door, who I was too tired— shy to smile at.

 The thrift shop, the walk to the bus

I walk from Broadway thinking it would never come. Finally I had the good sense to wait on the stop. There’s a lady in a wheel chair, and some people sitting on the bench. I sit next to an old guy, playing with his radio. It’s only a radio. First there was news then he switches stations, switches, again: the static and voices continue. He says something blurred to no one at all.  He goes back to his radio, mumbling. The bus. Everyone gets on, except for the old man with the radio. I wait for the lady in the wheelchair to enter. She smiles at me. She is wide-eyed and has blond streaks on her hair. She’s in a good mood and has made a friend with a woman. Her aid pushes the wheelchair in the bus. The ladies make friendly conversation and laugh about the small stuff. I get on, the bus leaves, and the old man continues playing with his radio. Through the window, the last I see of him are his dentures sticking out in a smile.