November 1996 : Edition
Volume 2, Number 9
Table of Contents
The rhythm of the clave pulses through their deep red blood, sways with them as they walk, falls from their mouths in musical words, from a musical, rhythmic language, manipulates their hands, their imaginations, their food, their passions, their lives. It is the foundation of their music, and hence, the foundation of a major part of their lives, their beliefs, and their loves.
With the publication of his third volume of poetry, East of the Freeway, Austin's own hijo, the self-proclaimed "cockroach poet," Raul Salinas, returns to the barrios of his youth in 53 poems spanning three decades, to leave a powerful testament to the struggles and pride of his people.
The "warehouse district" that is growing so rapidly of late, namely the area between 3rd and 6th and from San Antonio to Brazos, owes more than it collectively knows or is willing to recognize to Michel and his theater.
The clock is ticking away, slowly but surely, as midtown East Austin becomes the next gentrification project for deep pocket development interests.
I am a Jewish/Catholic, Hungarian/Russian, Colombian/Irish American woman. How's that for PC terminology?
Every day, people make important decisions based on little, if any, information, while they aimlessly stumble through the world of politics and politicians, trying to make sense of it all. Somewhere along the way they teach their children the skills they need not only to survive, but to understand the world around them.
Austin Tiena Su Propo Son by Manuel Gonzales
Night falls, Cuba awakes, and the son rises...
When I feel listless, apathetic toward my life, my surroundings, my friends when I've got the reds, those ugly, Holly Golightly reds and the world looks sluggish, harsh, and cold, I reach deep down inside Austin and pull from her depths the sounds of Latin America -- more specifically, Cuba. I take a shower, make a quick change of clothes, toss on my dancing shoes and head to the Continental Club where, Wednesday nights, those Afro-cuboppers, Grupo Son Yuma, and their blend of twenties, thirties, and forties Cuban son can feed my tired soul with the sounds and smells of good music. With the first notes, warmth spreads through me quicker than a shot or two of Famous Grouse. Rey counts off or Andrea or Matt tap out the clave. Then they plunge. They envelope. Rey's hands sing as they fly across the tight bongo heads; Michel's chops pierce beautiful, discordant notes and rhythms from his trumpet; Horacio's fingers roll down a constant, yet simply flavorful bass line; Barry and Francisco compliment each other, calling and responding to each other in a dancing six-string language; the maracas, alternately played by Matt, Andrea, and Rey, give the music body, shape, life; and behind it all the clave. Constant, pure, simple. The Cuban heart beats to the clave. The rhythm of the clave pulses through their deep red blood, sways with them as they walk, falls from their mouths in musical words, from a musical, rhythmic language, manipulates their hands, their imaginations, their food, their passions, their lives. It is the foundation of their music, and hence, the foundation of a major part of their lives, their beliefs, and their loves.
I'm at Kim Phung's with Rey Arteaga, Barry Cox, Andrea Pryor, Francisco Cortes, and Michel Navedo, eating a late lunch, trying to learn more about Grupo Son Yuma and the magic of son cubano. Missing are bass player Horacio Rodriguez and Matt Willard. I listen for a few minutes as they talk shop and then ask them a few questions about their history, where each came from, how they learned about son cubano, and some background into son cubano.
The word son simply means "song" and is used throughout Latin America and the West Indies to indicate a style of music. Son cubano, a musical genre which mixes Spanish and African influences, had its beginnings in the eastern disricts of Cuba: Guantanamo (with Chang), Baracoa (the supposed origin of the Cuban tres guitar), Manzanillo, and Santiago de Cuba, where son could be heard, played, and danced to in the streets, back alleys, and neighborhoods. And like most South American and Carribean music samba, capoeira, tango, reggae son was first dismissed and then prohibited by the government because of its base, primitive, common sounds, and because of the unrest expressed through its lyrics. Around 1909, son migrated from the eastern districs into the western districts of Cuba, ironically enough, through the aid of the military, where, hitting La Havana, the spirit of son caught and spread like wild fire. National troops from Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, transplanted from their homes and towns, brought with them their instruments the tres and the marmbula and their songs, and it was in La Havana that son took on larger proportions, adding brass to the mix and replacing the marmbula with the bass.
Son groups usually consist of the tres (a six-stringed guitar whose strings are grouped in twos like the twelve-string), the bongo, the marmbula which is replaced in most cases by a double bass, the maracas, the claves, and sometimes a trumpet or two. Two cylindrical, identical, tuned and polished wooden sticks, usually rose wood, an inch and a half thick, six inches long, make the clave. You can hear its sharp, high pitched long-long-long, short-short above the rhythm of the tres and the beating of the bongo, and like the constellations above or the sun that rises every morning, the clave is always present. "It's funny the way they see the clave here compared to how they see it (in Cuba)," Andrea says in regards to a percussion class she took once in Cuba. "In Cuba, the first thing they ask you is if you can play the clave. Then they ask you to play the son clave, then the rumba clave. And that's how they separate the class. They don't care how well you can play the conga. If you don't know the clave, they put you into the beginning class."
In Austin, however, fans and curious onlookers often assume that since she often harmonizes with Rey, Barry, Francisco, and Matt, that she is a singer who plays the clave while not singing. Whereas, in her mind, "I play the clave and, since I'm on stage, I might as well sing."
As son is a mixture of different rhythms and influences, so too is Grupo Son Yuma, its members hailing from lands as far away as Horacio's homeland, Columbia, Michel's Puerto Rico, Francisco's Tamaulipas, and Barry and Andrea's Illinois, to our close neighbors: San Antonio for Rey and Dallas for Matt.
Grupo Son Yuma had their beginnings at the end of last year. Barry and Andrea had recently moved from Illinois, and had begun to look for a Cuban connection. They heard Rey announcing a Latin American radio program, called him, and the three of them connected. A month or two later, at a party, the speakers blew out, the music died, and so stepped in Rey, Barry, Andrea, Francisco, and Matt with an improvised jam session. Michel hooked up with the rest of the band through a friend who'd been playing bass with them but, while Michel stayed, the bass player later moved on to other projects. The rest, so they say, is history. They had their first gigs at Ruta Maya Coffee House, two shows in December, and then in '96, a show every couple of weeks or once a month. About the same time, the Continental Club began experimenting with different venues. Traditionally a country and blues club, the Continental gave Beto y los Fairlanes a chance to headline their Wednesday night show, taking the stage after 8 1/2 Souvenirs. By late February, Grupo Son Yuma found their spot and developed a niche in the Austin nightlife. Now, every Wednesday, you can be sure to see Grupo Son Yuma, dressed in their cream guayaberas and living their music on the stage of the Continental Club. And if you miss them on Wednesday nights, you can catch them at Borinquen on Friday nights or at Miguel's la Bodega on Saturdays, where the music and the dancing are just as hot.
For a month during the summer, however, you couldn't catch their show Wednesdays, Fridays, or any other day of the week as they took a sabbatical, a field trip so to speak, and left for Cuba. They stayed in La Havana and Santiago de Cuba, and there they learned from some of the best son players in Cuba. They returned revitalized and with experience under their belts. "There's a difference in just hearing and listening to the music and seeing it performed. We learned a lot from just watching how they handle situations on stage, how they play the music."
It wasn't until after they returned from Cuba that the band began harmonizing: "It didn't matter how well you could sing," says Rey Arteaga. "If you were on stage, you sang. Everyone sang." And watching them on stage, most everyone, whether miked or not, sings. Michel, Matt, Barry, and Francisco add their rich tenors to the mix while Andrea's cool alto fills in any gaps. The harmony adds a carnaval-esque feel to the music and encourages dancers and listeners to sing along as well. According to Michel, the dark-haired trumpet player from Puerto Rico, "A lot of the regulars know most of our songs by now. It's impressive to us that week after week we'll see the same faces in the crowd of dancers, sometimes two or three times a week. And they're singing along."
I ask them how Cuba received an American band playing Cuban son. "Pretty well," Andrea says. "They liked us a lot, if only because we're playing such an old style of music. We're young and Americans, and here we are playing son, a style of music which is disappearing in a lot of Cuba. Sure, they had a lot of suggestions and told us up front we needed work, but they were willing to help us and let us play with them."
And coming back to the states, the improvements are well appreciated and on-going. "We had to assimilate everything when we got back, but now, I think the changes are noticeable, and you can tell we're playing son."
Rey's voice echoes over the microphones: "We're Grupo Son Yuma, playing classical Cuban dance music of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s."
But who dances son? Rey says, "The only people you'll see dancing son are Cubans. And not many of them even dance it. Most people, at our shows, dance salsa or merengue, and it works fine. Son's steps are like salsa, except you move your feet on a different beat, which gives the dance a different feel." Of course, every member of Son Yuma can dance son, and during breaks, when salsa is playing over the speakers, you can sometimes catch Barry and Andrea dancing salsa together. And if you ask nicely, any one of the members will give you an improvised lesson on how to dance, if not son, at least salsa, because it's difficult not to dance at a Grupo Son Yuma show. The music is infectious: the rhythms force your feet to tap and your hips to sway, and the dancing itself, made of intimate looks, twirls, spins, and fluid motion across the floor, smells of tropical nights spent in La Havana, captures your imagination, and drags you onto the dance floor.
And you won't be alone. Latin-mania continues to grow in Austin as bands like De Orfeu, El Clave, Cula du Cafe, and Quarteto TeMere, keep playing two to three nights a week. Old dance favorites like Susanna Sharpe and the Samba Police and Brave Combo, with their nuclear polka and radioactive cha-cha-cha, still come around to La Zona Rosa and Liberty Lunch. Calle Ocho and Miguel's la Bodega offer salsa lessons, Calle Ocho on Thursday and Friday nights, Miguel's on Thursday nights. And not all of the latin music is dance. Wednesday nights are also latin music nights at Flipnotics. Now Correo Aereo play their traditional and original South American music from Venezuela, Mexico and Argentina for your listening pleasure. So it's possible on any given week to relax to traditional Latin American ballads Wednesday evenings at El Sol, bop over to the Continental Club and listen to traditional Cuban dance music, learn salsa and merengue on Thurdays and Fridays, and dance the rest of the weekend, or the rest of your life away at any number of Latin dance clubs around downtown Austin. And somehow, the Latin flair works its way into other non-Latin groups around Austin: Citizen Lane with its mournful, Latin trumpet serenades performed by Isaac Pena amidst a grooving-jazz-funk repetoire and the Voodoo Dolls with a light, but distinctive clave beat behind many of their songs, to name two.
As for the future of Grupo Son Yuma, they are concentrating most of their efforts on expanding their repetoire. "We feel we owe it to the people who come out and see us to give them new music to dance to." Their goal is another night's performance worth of music, their performances usually lasting three and a half to four hours. They also hope to expand their stage experience and play at Cedar Street, Stubb's Bar-B-Q, The Gingerman, and other clubs around Austin. "But we haven't really given much thought to recording a CD mainly because we're concentrating so much on the music. In Cuba, all they did was perform play music so people could see them and dance or just listen. Nobody was out to record their music, just to play it and play it the best they could." So for now, Austin's going to have to satisfy its Cuban hunger the old fashioned way in living color.
Anyone interested in good Latin American music recordings, here are some labels to check out: Nimbus Records, Corason, and Timbau.
Unfortunate admiral! Your poor America,
your beautiful, hot-blooded, virgin Indian love,
the pearl of your dreams, is now hysterical
her nerves convulsing and her forehead pale.
-- from "To Columbus" by Ruben Dario
Ah yes, October 12th, that glorious day when banks close, the mail stops, and the kiddies get a break from school to commemorate 504 years of genocide, oppression, and cultural castration. From the tundra of Alaska to the paradise of Hawaii, from the plains of the Dakotas to the Rio Grande valley, from East Los to the East Coast there is reason to celebrate. That reason is, despite hundreds of years of "melting people into the pot," of pouring them into the mold of americana, shreds and fragments of indigenous cultures have survived, even flourished, in each of the aforementioned regions. Probably the best example of such endurance is Chicano culture, which blankets the great southwest, and is pocketed in cities and towns throughout the country. It encompasses elements from the Aztecs to the Apaches, its language a mix of Spanish, English, and regional dialects, and its people have passed it on to their children through customs, comida, and pride. Immense pride.
With the publication of his third volume of poetry, East of the Freeway, Austin's own hijo, the self-proclaimed "cockroach poet," Raul Salinas, returns to the barrios of his youth in 53 poems spanning three decades, to leave a powerful testament to the struggles and pride of his people. The majority of the poems are written in English, intertwined with regional Spanish and street slang, and it is through this unique voice that the poet serves as an activist and scribe in the resistance against conformity.
For those who are unfamiliar with Raul Salinas, the man is quite simply a dynamo in the ongoing battle against socio-economic injustice. Along with owning and operating La Resistencia Bookstore and Red Salmon Press, he has served as an advisor for street-gang peace treaties, worked extensively with the American Indian Movement and the Prisoner's Rights Support Network, and just recently returned from Mexico City, where he marched as a delegate of the National Indigenous Congress in protest of events in Chiapas, Mexico. He has survived the federal penitentiary and the pitfalls of the streets to become an internationally known voice for the cause of equity.
For those unfamiliar with Raul Salinas, the poet, he is stylistically one of the most perceptive, unsung beat poets I have ever read. His work ebbs and flows, like cool jazz from a late night dive. He is masterful in the use of double connotation and selective capitalization as tools of expression, but the profundity of his writing sets him apart from most other beat poets. A good example of this can be found in the poem "On the Police Murder of Jonathan Rodney" :
Dead peoples who are Black' n' Brown
which just amounts to being down
Doors slammed in your face
graces American avenues
news becomes old hat/
jive dis' n' dat,
As we raise high the banners
torn from tattered
soaked in blood.
In other poems such as "Riff(t)s" and "Shame on the Shaman," Salinas not only maintains the unconventional meter associated with Beat poetry, but he addresses the differences between himself and beat icons Kerouac and Ginsberg with insight and wit. Where as the latter two were concerned with individual freedoms, Salinas, in the tradition of the great Pablo Neruda, is concerned with la libertad de la gente.
Salinas shows the diversity of his skills when he strays from beat and writes in more traditional formats. The poem "A Fantasy of Southtown Streets (an excuse for a love poem)," is an impressive example of descriptive verse, reminiscent of Roethke's work. It is also textbook in its use of alliteration. "About Invasion and Conquest" utilizes a more conventional meter to set a somber tone against which the poet paints a painful(but true) portrait of the plundering of the Americas. Other poems in which Salinas tackles events of historical significance are "Remember Vietnam?" and "Solidarite," recounting the horrors of war and its survivors, and giving a glimpse of the compassion the poet feels for all people.
Still, when Salinas takes the reader to the streets of the barrios, he is at his very best. In "Pueblo Querido" he contrasts his memories of his youth with the variables of his incarceration, and while the poem ends with a sense of melancholy, there are no regrets. He addresses the violence of survival in "Letter to Lefty" and "Al Fin Llegaron las Lluvias" and the hardships endured by Chicanas in "Homenaje a la Pachuca (Blues for Blood)" :
dance into eternity
so long as
quarts of milk
upon her multi-fathered children's table.
Throughout East of the Freeway, Salinas remains a realist in the purest sense, yet even among the brutal imagery of "A Walk Through the Campo Santo," or the good ol' boy bigotry of "Rememorings," that realism maintains hope, and sus recuerdos are all written of with a wistful fondness. While the poems comprising this volume are of a reflective nature, their images ultimately create a bridge to the future for all who face day to day survival in the barrio.
Symbolic is the fact that the poet doesn't capitalize his name, spelling it "raul r. salinas," saying something about a man who is more concerned with the respect of his people, than with his own recognition. He feeds off of the historical legacy of brutality and oppression against indigenous people everywhere, drawing the strength and inspiration he needs not only for his poetry, but for his tireless pursuit of justice. Poet, wise man, y soldado, Salinas not only continues to preserve his heritage, but he is a torchbearer, lighting the path for his culture to follow into the 21st Century.
The heartbreaking news of the closing of Capitol City Playhouse and all its communal implications was quickly and completely overshadowed by the devastation of Michel Jaroschy's death. Michel suffered a fatal heart attack on the evening of October 11th. The loss of a space as integral to a shaky theater scene as was Capitol City Playhouse is worrisome and very troubling. The loss of a man who had as much to do with the survival and growth of Austin theater as anyone, and more than most, leaves a void that's impossible to fill. It's been said that Capitol City was Michel and that Michel was Capitol City. Well, you can put folding chairs in a warehouse and detour play-goers to an alternate venue; you can surender a pivotal position in a location that was built on your own inspiration; but you cannot replace the spirit that made it all possible.
By now you will have read many personla accounts of the feeling of loss associated with Michel's passing. You probably know now how committed he was to his art and his building. You know how many people owe him their careers (or blame him for the lack of one in lieu of living the impoverished dream of acting or directing). You will have heard and read about what a tragic loss this is. Now it is Michel's ideals and the furthering of them that requires your thought and energy. The "warehouse district" that is growing so rapidly of late, namely the area between 3rd and 6th and from San Antonio to Brazos, owes more than it collectively knows or is willing to recognize to Michel and his theater. He'd been there since '82, making a reason for peple to go to that part of town at night. People who go to the theater often enjoy dinner before or after a play, maynbe coffee or a drink as well, even a show later on. You figure it out. The arts in all their forms solid foundation upon which other businesses can establish themselves and grow. And when that foundation gave rise to the development that everyone wanted to see for that area, Michel was shoved off it. Plays and events then could not rival the financial potential the space now held. And now Michel is gone and his theater looks for a new home and a chance of surviving into spring of '97.
This is the problem. In it lies the solution. Any business requires support. Any bar or restaurant needs its regulars as well as its occasional visitors. The same goes for all businesses. According to Producing Director Richard Brown, Capitol City Playhouse will maintain the space at 214 W. 4th Street until December 8th. The Glass Menagerie will run the course of its schedule (through December 7th). On December 8th, the Gilbert and Sullivan Group's one night show will still go off as planned with the dancing of Pepe Greco. But that's it -- they'll move to a temporary space on the West side of town as they look for a new space for the spring season.
Babies lift their heads up
to see what the world has to offer,
not all in one day,
but in weeks following after.
They smile and grin
wile struggling to straighten their necks.
their hope is everlasting
that they'll hold their head erect.
It's a wonder they would shout it,
"One day I'll lift my head."
They wake up crying,
but they never stop trying
to complete this natural task.
And with time, hope, and strength, they lift up their heads at last.
Always remember when times get low,
it was hope that lifted your head up as a baby long ago.
Words flow onto paper
I remain tight-lipped
my pen will tell you everything
you might want to know
Do you read?
I hope so.
The whole mystique of Austin's East Side continues to fill the minds and hearts of scores (thousands?) of regular folks here in River City. Urbane sophisticates, transplanted rural rednecks, downtown business folk, and upwardly mobile blacks, browns, and whites still have this idea that traveling east of I-35 puts them right dab in the middle of some whole 'nother city. It is true that the East Side IS a separate reality from the West Side. But that is perpetuated as much by neglect, ignorance and fear as anything. It is true that there is poverty and crime in East Austin. It is also true that the clock is ticking away, slowly but surely, as midtown East Austin becomes the next gentrification project for deep pocket development interests. (Is that a new hotel there adjacent to the University of Texas at Swedehill?)
It is to the advantage of those deep pocket folks for you to fear -- for just a little while longer -- venturing into one of Austin's most historically rich urban neighborhoods. They want you to wait until they buy up the rest of the real estate (and in some cases "they" just might be your trusted elected officials, hometown universities, and their brothers-in-exploitation), they want you to wait until these are their businesses "over here" for you to visit. They want you to wait until these are their investments in this community that your city services, police protection, and city fathers will bless, ordain, and assure you that it is now safe to come East to spend your time and money. The deep pockets are coming to East Austin. When they get here, the street lights will be brighter, the winos invisible, the quiet little neighborhoods too expensive for those who now call Blackland home.
For those of us already here in this nice little district, we really don't see any good reason for you to wait to participate in the revitalization of central city East Austin. Just like any neighborhood, there are some problems here. But just think about it for a minute: our city fathers, the chamber, and the downtown boosters spend tons of money telling the world to go hang-out on Sixth Street and spend money. Could the street crime rate of the blocks of 11th Street, I-35 to Waller, be any more scary than those on Sixth, between I-35 and Congress? I think not. Just think about it, some of the very same folks who claim to be afraid of East Austin, love to go to New York, don't miss an opportunity to party in New Orleans, and grew up in Houston. Could 11th and Waller possibly be any more intense than the corner of Bourbon and Queen Ann? Could a brisk midnight walk through SoHo be any less dangerous than at 4 a.m. smoking a cig outside the Victory Grill?
Johnny Holmes first opened the doors of the Victory Grill over 50 years ago. During the course of its years as the East Side's most famed music room, the Victory was the Austin home to some of the most significant (local and touring) performing artists in jazz, blues, and R&B history. The Victory developed as a music room because of the quality of the acts that played there. But it too came to hold its special place in Austin's music history because of racial segregation and the East/West division of the city. Blues legend Bobby Bland's extended residency at the Victory, for instance, could have only happened on the East Side. During the 1950-60s, there were no West Side Clubs that welcomed touring African American blues, jazz, and R&B artists. Stories of the old days at the Victory -- which include dropping the names of folks like Bland, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, Albert Collins, etc -- are not exaggerations. Segregation, for years, sustained the Victory Grill as an important performance venue for Black acts. Unlike most of its West Austin counterparts of the day, the Victory Grill always welcomed patrons of every social and ethnic stripe.
After being closed for several years, with a few false starts at re-opening, the Victory Grill/Kovac Theater is once again ready to make its presence known to Austinites, once again the vision of Mr. Holmes will have an opportunity to find reality. The Victory Grill of 1996 is no longer the victim of legal segregation. Unfortunately, even today, some Austinites hesitate to cross over to the "other side of the tracks" because they have been groomed to fear the East Side.
DiverseArts is committed to working with a wide variety of artists, the Victory Grill and other East Austin businesses to enhance the cultural and economic life of one of Austin's most significant historic districts.The East Side Circuit is our initiative to bring diverse artistic communities and audiences together to celebrate the life of this valuable cultural institution. In celebrating the Victory Grill's history, we hope to ensure that it once again finds a place as one of Austin's most loved, most comfortable, most visited performance venues. As Eva Lindsey (with R.V. Adams, the driving force behind the Victory's rebirth) says, "This is a revival of music, life, and a rich history; a preservation of a culture and people. And that includes the preservation of the physical venue where it all began -- the Victory Grill."
We invite all who support the preservation of Austin's cultural past and have dreams of a more enlightened future to join us for a new celebration of the lively arts on Austin's East Side. Let's not perpetuate the myth. The Victory Grill is too important, too fine a room for listening to live performance to allow a fear of East Austin to keep you away.
DiverseArts Production Group, in association with the Victory Grill and Nokoa-The Observer, is proud to announce the inauguration of the East Side Circuit Series. November marks the opening month of this performance series at Austin's legendary Victory Grill/Kovac Theater. The series features a diverse line-up of Austin's best jazz, blues, world music, spoken word, and dramatic artists. Performers confirmed to perform during the course of November include Latin music duo Correo Aereo, jazz drummer J.J. Johnson & Trio, country blues songbird Toni Price, blues master Matthew Robinson and the Mack Attacks, '60s soul from Hot Wax, neo-bop from the J.W. Davis Group, world-reggae band Raggamassive, spoken word from the Catfish Poets and Tammy Gomez con la Palabra, traditional and avant jazz jams hosted by Harold McMillan, "Sista Docta," original drama from Dr. Joni Jones, and more.
The first touring act scheduled for the series on November 14, is Gregory Boyd, New Orleans-based master percussionist and steel panist. Boyd's first Austin appearance was four years ago at the Clarksville Jazz Festival. He appeared on steel pans as part of Charles Neville's Diversity, the New Orleans jazz ensemble headed by Neville Brother saxophonist, Charles. In addition to his touring duties with Diversity, Boyd has enjoyed stints as drummer for jazz chanteuse Charmaine Neville, for Sun Ra sideman Michael Ray and the Kosmic Krewe, and a wide variety of New Orleans-based jazz, funk, Cajun and Caribbean bands. Currently working on his first solo CD, Boyd (the steel panist) fronts New Orleans super-group, VOS, performing his original brand of Caribbean flavored jazz funk. A special show for Austin music lovers, not to be missed.
I am a Jewish/Catholic, Hungarian/Russian, Colombian/Irish American woman. How's that for PC terminology? I wasn't raised with any of these cultural influences -- save for some extraordinary meals and great music. Only a deep seated curiosity about where the hell I came from and why I didn't relate much to the extended family members that I knew of -- until two weeks ago when I went to Colombia and met the "other" side of the family. Not too surprisingly, what had been kept from me for my own good provided me with many answers to life's questions and a sense of connectedness to my roots. It all came down to family and the realization that where we come from really matters in understanding who we are.
My family history wasn't exactly a forbidden topic of discussion. Rather, it was simply considered unimportant information. All of my questions received thin answers and an accompanying shrug that said, "Oh Susanne, why do you need to know this stuff, why is it important?" At times my mother's actions crossed the line and showed some sort of denial. I remember coming home from grade school with the usual endless amount of beginning - of - the - school - year forms and asking my mother which ethnicity box to check. She said, "Susanne, you are Caucasian. You are always Caucasian."
When I was eight, I literally discovered that I had family other than the my father's side in New Jersey. My parents had decided to bring my maternal grandmother and my mother's sister and her son to the states because of the "situation in Colombia." I assume it was about politics, but who knows. From out of nowhere, lengthy long distance phone calls were made from the other room, and I heard Spanish being spoken in my house for the first time as they went about making travel arrangements. I can recall the day they arrived, down to the minute detail that they smelled like wool, coffee and spices. Much different from the sea salt breeze of the ocean that I had only known. I loved them on sight, but the point is that up until that time, I had no idea they even existed. But this is how it is in my family. No secrets in the formal sense, just total mystery about how life evolved to the point at which my sister and I were born. All I knew was that my parents met and were married and we traveled around the world and settled in Key Biscayne, Florida when I was four. I never understood why my father's side of the family showed love for my mom, but definitely harbored deep seated resentment of her, or why my mother literally despised her mother. One summer my Grandma opened up and painted the picture of a non-practicing, yet still very Jewish, family coming to terms with the fact that their second son had announced his engagement to a Polish Catholic woman. In the midst of this discussion a telegram arrived from my father in South America. A telegram stating that their eldest son has already married a 17-year-old Catholic Colombian woman whom no one has ever met. Passive chaos and stagnant fury evolved into resigned acceptance over the years for the sake of the family as a whole. Although, when I pulled this story out of my Grandma, she told me that my father had introduced my mother as "a beautiful woman who came from a prestigious Colombian family." She paused and added, "Yeah, that and a dime will get you on the subway."
My mother's shame and bitterness about her own bizarre upbringing prevented her from sharing any of it with me. She felt cheated from the inheritance she was entitled to because her mother had decided to use it. Moreover, she felt that knowing would make me feel insecure and think less of myself. Ironically, not knowing my family story did exactly that. I love the fact that my mother's mother had been an eccentric and wealthy woman who was married and widowed three or four times, that she bathed in milk so her skin would shine, speaks five languages, spent a lot of her time either spending money or figuring out ways to get more (all of which she partied away until there was nothing left). I think its amazing that my mom is incredibly well educated despite the fact that she was provided with only two years of formal schooling. I love that my mom escaped an arranged marriage and that my parents got married two weeks after they met. There are more stories but I don't share my mother's shame about them. To me, these stories give character and flavor to life and are what make families unique. They also provided me with a sense of self, a connection to my blood roots. Knowing made me understand so much more about myself.
When I met the family that had been quasi-kept from me, I felt like how I imagine a person would feel when they meet their twin for the first time. The fabled missing link to the hows and whys of my life. The pieces fell together when I looked into the faces of my Colombian family and saw myself. I finally met people who resembled my mother, who shared my passion and excitement for life, and who had similar expressions and mannerisms. The first time I danced to a cumbia, I just knew the steps. I jumped on a horse at my uncle's farm and I just knew how to ride. Spanish flowed out of my mouth almost effortlessly and I picked up local mannerisms without even noticing. In and of themselves, these are pretty regular experiences. However, growing up, I had instinctively known that I could do these things, but I had no reasoning for this knowledge. The connection was made, and I finally knew where I came from and where my roots lie. I have never before experienced such a catharsis of enlightenment, understanding and, finally, peace. I had come home.
"Judicial approval of a lesbian and gay adoption is important because it says that this family has been under the microscope and passed the test...this is a family ready to raise a child."
-- Attorney and mediator Suzanne Bryant
Every day, people make important decisions based on little, if any, information, while they aimlessly stumble through the world of politics and politicians, trying to make sense of it all. Somewhere along the way they teach their children the skills they need not only to survive, but to understand the world around them. Why, then, do the parents and policy makers of the world deny access to all sides of every story? Why does our society allow children to grow up unaware? The stories are there; they are simply waiting to be told. Independent filmmaker Jessica Bega has taken on that responsibility. She has chosen not to ignore the world around her. She has recently finished Worthy Mothers, an hour-long documentary on two lesbian couples and their experiences in adopting and raising children. Mothers chronicles the adoption processes of Joy, Margo, Sheila and Jo Anna, two couples who, like many of us, are braving a challenge as old as time: motherhood. However, unlike many of us, they face the constant scrutiny of society. They are gay and, by virtue of their sexuality, are doomed to the backhanded remarks and polite impoliteness of a society that refuses to believe that they can do it.
Bega used the volatile immediacy inherent in the medium of film to present these women, their families, their attorneys, and children as the actual people who suffer at the hands of so many moral accusations. By interviewing these people, Bega manages to educate her viewer, something that has driven her to push this project from the very beginning.
The film is divided into the two separate yet similar stories of four women. Worthy Mothers opens with the story of Joy and Margo, a bi-racial lesbian couple who have adopted Felicia. Their hesitations about parenthood are no different than those of any couple: Will they have enough time to spend together. Are they ready to make the leap? The segment is interspersed between home videos, still photos, and interviews. Bega puts her camera into the homes and lives of Joy and Margo, leaving little untouched, yet never does the viewer feel like an intruder in their lives. These are mothers, trying to nurture and raise a child-nothing more, nothing less.
The second segment is slightly different than the first. Although Shelia and Jo Anna also adopt children, the boys to whom they eventually attain full parental rights are actually Shelia's nephews. Sheila's brother, James, who we learn was in jail when his wife Aurora first entrusted the boys (Cody and Jeffrey) to the couple's care, threatens to fight for custody of the children.
Throughout the film, Shelia and Jo Anna express their concern over his return. Not only do they battle the hardships of their unique situation, but also the potential for conflict with the boy's father. Bega beautifully captures this frustration, without exploiting the couple's situation. The film is both touching and informative, a balance too rarely found in modern film.
Bega's insight into the emotional and technical science of filmaking has come through direct experience. After working as a researcher at the CBS Sports Archives and for Galan Productions, the production company founded by Hector Galan, who produced Chicano! for PBS, Bega decided to invest her time and devotion into her first totally independent project. "I had always known that I wanted to do documentary work, but never knew exactly what I want to work on," Bega says. "The concept of lesbian mothers hit me spontaneously. Fortunately I had access to the tools necessary for making the piece. This was what I had been waiting for."
By depicting the lives of the four women in such a straightforward and suprisingly unmelodramitic light, Bega succeeds in providing the viewer with a real feel for her subjects. She puts faces on the issues and, by doing so, allows even hesitant viewers a window into the lives and obstacles of lesbian parents. "Actually I had known the four women for a while, so finding subjects for the piece was quite easy. When I approached them, they all thought that it was interesting-none of us really knew what would become of it." Proof that the issue of same-gender parenting is finally coming to the foreground, Worthy Mothers has been picked up and is well-received on the festival circuit, the dream zone of many independent filmmakers in search of recognition and future funding. "The film premiered in June at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and has taken off from there," Bega says. "It has hit Los Angeles, Vancouver, Milwaukee, and most recently Washington DC. This really has been an independent project from beginning to end. Luckily, Women Make Movies, a distribution company out of New York, picked it up for distribution. Without distribution, filtering it out into the educational market is very difficult. A film that looks at different types of families is definitely something that needs to be seen."
Respectfully, Bega, at the request of the four women featured in Worthy Mothers, has chosen not to show the film in Austin for the time being. Although the women are openly gay, certain circumstances are such that showing the film will not be possible until later.
Worthy Mothers succeeds in conveying its fundamental message: a child raised in a loving household, whether their parents are gay or not, is lucky. The facts are there: "children of gay and lesbian parents are no more likely to be confused in sexual gender roles or social relationships, and will not likely be homosexual or bisexual." The courage to fight the myths lies in the hands of mothers like Joy, Margo, Sheila, and Jo Anna. They have chosen not only to take pride in their sexuality, but in their rights as mothers. There is no doubt that, when the time comes, they will be able to provide their children with the skills, the knowledge, and the understanding to endure. They have passed the test: they are families.